A producer for Calgary radio station CJAY was fined earlier this year by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council for comments he made during a sports report last September. Dave Wicks told listeners to Forbes and Friends, his morning-zoo-type program, that “Steve Spurrier’s Redskins got bent over and fisted” by the Philadelphia Eagles. One listener complained, and after an investigation, the council ruled that Wicks’ descriptive phrasing violated its code of ethics regarding use of “unduly coarse and offensive” language.
Suzan Shown Harjo gets a chuckle out of that decision. Harjo knows a whole lot of people, herself included, who would also be bothered by the shock jock’s banter. But the word that most offends Harjo, unlike the Canadian regulators, isn’t “fisted.”
“That sounds horrible,” she says of the act described. “But I wonder if it’s more horrible than being skinned.”
The skinning of human beings, Harjo contends, is one of the roots of “redskin.” If she had her way, nobody would have to hear that word on the radio, either. Or see it on T-shirts, mugs, and seat cushions.
Harjo, a member of the Cheyenne and Muskogee nations, has long been a leading voice in the campaign to get the Washington Redskins to change their name. She’s also a lead plaintiff in the litigation brought in September 1992 by a group of seven Native Americans seeking to strip the NFL franchise of trademark protections.
The underdogs in what originally looked like a David-vs.-Goliath matchup won a huge battle in April 1999, when the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), a division of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, ruled that “Redskins” is a disparaging moniker. As such, it violates federal trademark law, specifically the portions of the Lanham Act that ban trademarks for “matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” The board, by unanimous vote, canceled six Redskins trademarks that included the bad word in their registrations. If that ruling holds, the Redskins logos and names will be in the public domain.
But the war is hardly over. The Redskins appealed the TTAB’s ruling, and Harjo was in U.S. District Court last week for the latest hearing in a suit that’s about to enter its 12th year.
“When I filed this case, I didn’t expect the level of rudeness and ugliness that I’ve encountered, or to be trivialized or treated with such dismissiveness, and I’m talking about Redskins owners and their attorneys,” she says. “Being that this whole thing is about ugliness and hate and vileness over time, that this comes out of a really sorry and despicable past of America, I should have expected that.”
The newest portion of Harjo’s anger with the opposition stems from contentions made during Wednesday’s hearing by Redskins attorneys, led by Robert Raskopf. The New York-based lawyer asked Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to restore the trademarks because, among other reasons, the plaintiffs were representing only themselves when they told TTAB that the team’s name is offensive, and shouldn’t be allowed to speak for the 2-million-plus members of the Native American population.
“Here we have the white-glove racism of the people who were representing the in-your-face racists,” Harjo says. “We have an enormous responsibility to our ancestors and to our coming generations. So one of the most piercing things that can be said is that we don’t represent anyone. We live our lives representing other people. But they dismiss us as a handful of ‘activists’ who represent nobody, and keep repeating that other [Native Americans] think ‘Redskins’ is about honor and honoring. But they produce no Native Americans to support that claim, and there’s nothing in the record to support that claim. It’s about vileness and hatred, not honor.”
Harjo did draw some comedic pleasure from the conduct of the Redskins attorneys, however. That came when they objected to a characterization in the trial record of former owner George Preston Marshall, who named the team in 1933, as a “bigot.” (There are very few degrees of separation between the case and Marshall’s bigotry: Dr. Manley Begay, one of Harjo’s six co-plaintiffs in the trademark suit, directs the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona’s Udall Center, which is named for the Udall family, including Stewart Udall, who as secretary of the interior forced the reluctant Marshall to integrate the Redskins, the last NFL team to allow black players.)
The bigot reference was not removed. But Harjo’s attorneys say the motion to have it stricken fits in with the contest-and-delay strategy the Redskins and the team’s lawyers have been employing since Daniel Snyder bought the team.
Snyder, the third owner since the litigation began, refused to give a deposition until the court ordered him to do so. Then Snyder fought over where the deposition would take place. When Harjo’s lawyers consented to take his deposition in Tysons Corner, Snyder finally sat down, in June 2002. But Snyder’s five lawyersan inordinately high number for a deposition of this sortrepeatedly told him not to provide answers to opposing counsel, whether the questions regarded meat-and-potatoes matters about the value of the trademarks or merely mundane facts.
“The lawyers even instructed [Snyder] not to answer a question about his home address,” Michael Lindsay, a lawyer for Harjo, told me after that deposition. “I went there to ask questions and get answers; I ended up just asking questions.”
Raskopf did not return phone calls seeking comment for this column.
So Harjo’s attorneys went back to court to get another order to compel Snyder to be more forthcoming. U.S. Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola, writing that he was perturbed that “virtually no question was answered” during the deposition, called the first deposition “an abundant waste of everybody’s time” and ordered the Redskins owner to make himself available for a new one.
Facciola, to avoid a repeat performance by the witness and his attorneys, further moved that the second deposition would not be taken in Tysons Corner.
“This time, Snyder’s deposition will be conducted in my chambers or a courtroom on a day that my calendar is open so that I may personally preside over the questioning,” Facciola wrote in his ruling.
Snyder’s second deposition wasn’t taken until this past May, at the federal courthouse in downtown D.C. Lindsay says the owner was slightly more responsive to his questions this time around. Because of a confidentiality order in the litigation, Lindsay says, he can’t discuss specifics of what was divulged during the deposition.
“He held everything up for a year,” says Harjo of the Redskins owner. “A whole year was wasted in non-responsiveness.”
Judge Kollar-Kotelly is expected to rule on motions for summary judgment filed by both sides before the end of summer. Harjo says the fight’s probably nowhere near done. But she’s nowhere near done fighting, either.
“I knew this case could be very, long, and I understood it in terms of years,” she says. “I didn’t understand it fully in terms of how long each day and year would be, and how wearing it would be. As a child I was told, ‘The nation shall be strong so long as the hearts of the women are not on the ground.’ That’s an instruction given to the Cheyenne nation. So I will remain optimistic. That’s my job as a Cheyenne woman. But it’s not easy.” Dave McKenna