Native Americans go on the warpath and tackle the Redskins

Washington football team faces Supreme Court battle to retain "offensive" name

Opposition to President Obama isn't the only subject that has Washington mulling over thorny issues of race and bigotry. As the new American Football season hits its stride, the city's beloved team, The Redskins, is being taken to the Supreme Court over its allegedly-offensive name.

A group of Native Americans have filed a legal challenge against a trademark the club owns over "Redskins." They claim to find the term offensive and disparaging – and say it should not, therefore, be entitled to any form of commercial protection under US law. For a name to come before the nation's highest court may sound comically petty. Yet the case is quite the reverse. It pits the future of a billion-dollar sports franchise against the grievances of a people whose historic mistreatment represents a stain on the national conscience.

At its heart is an issue of semantics. Coined in an era before political correctness, many Native Americans find "redskin" insulting. Most dictionaries describe it as "offensive". In some quarters, the term is considered to be as unacceptable as the "N-word" for African-Americans. "It is the worst thing in the English language you can be called if you are a native person," Suzan Shown Harjo, a Native American writer who is lead plaintiff in the case, told reporters this week. "It is basically characterising a person by their skin. How wrong is that?"

Nonsense, asserts the football club, which is among the most storied in the sport's history. It claims the name, which was adopted in 1933 and registered as a trademark in 1967, is taken from an affectionate term once used to describe the red paint Indian warriors used on their skin. The legal dispute between the two groups has been rumbling since 1992, and saw an initial victory for the Native American lobby in 1997, overturned on appeal. Harjo and her supporters are petitioning the Supreme Court to make a final ruling and the request is due to be considered by Christmas. If they win, the Redskins would be forced to change their name.

The Redskins aren't the only professional sports franchise whose nickname puts them on thin ice. Atlanta's team is called the Braves. Cleveland's baseball team, The Indians, have a mascot which has been likened to a golliwog. Yet "Redskin" is a peculiarly troublesome term. Some linguists claim it was coined by white settlers obsessed by scalping, a practice carried out by some – but by no means all – tribes. It implies, so the argument goes, that every Native American is a barbaric savage.

Concerns over racial stereotypes related to team nicknames has been a hot potato in US sport for decades. In the 1980s, the Kansas City football team, The Chiefs, ditched its Native American mascot in full regalia who would ride on-field at half time with a cuddly wolf mascot.

A decade ago, the NCAA, the governing body for semi-professional college sport, banned universities from using Indian nicknames, mascots or logos deemed "offensive or hostile". The move saw the end of, among other institutions, the University of Illinois's mascot Chief Illiniwek. However,, not every sporting name associated with Native Americans is considered controversial. Florida State's team is still called the Seminoles because the Seminole tribe considers the side taking their name to be an honour.

What's in a name? Redskins

*Used since the 18th century and generally regarded as a description of Native Americans' skin colour.

*Possibly derived from the blood on the scalps of natives, traded as mementoes after battle.

*The US Commission on Civil Rights wants an end to such names for non-Native teams.

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