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Chief Seattle and the Great Sports Logo Debate

The US Patent Office has invalidated certain trademarks owned by the NFL's Washington Redskins.

Chief Seattle
Chief Seattle

Our people are ebbing away like a rapidly receding tide that will never return.

--- Chief Seattle

In a move that in no way affects the University of Washington, but could have significant ramifications in the ongoing debate about appropriate use of Native American imagery and trademarks throughout the world of sports, the U.S. Patent Office has canceled trademark protection for the term "Redskins" used by the NFL club in Washington D.C. owned by Daniel Snyder.  According to ESPN, the committee that voted on the matter determined that the term "Redskins" was disparaging of Native Americans and, therefore, could not enjoy trademark protection under U.S. law.  The decision, which can be appealed, is the latest development in an matter that has been debated for the better part of two decades but has evolved quickly in the last year.

While this news does not directly impact the University of Washington, it cannot be denied that the citizens of the Pacific Northwest are invested in this debate.  Along with Alaska, the desert southwest and the Dakotas, our little corner of the country enjoys the presence of the highest concentration of citizens who identify themselves as Native American.  Additionally, the use of Native American tribe names and cultural imagery is woven all throughout our grade schools, junior highs and high schools.  Washingtonians have a stake in this issue, even if the debate is raging the hardest on the other side of the country.

To many of you, this matter seems trite and insignificant.  I've heard the argument posed that the instigators of these issues, and the politicians who have picked up on it, are simply glorified PC police who should be focused on matters that are of more importance to their communities and to their constituents.  This is not an unreasonable position to take, especially in light of the other social ills that continue to affect our nation.  Certainly, healthcare, international policy, and jobs creation all rate as issues that warrant prioritization on the national agenda, even to Native Americans themselves.

The irony here is that the fact that this is a relatively low priority is precisely why it warrants attention.  Our American identity is founded on the somewhat romanticized concepts of "the melting pot" and "opportunity for all".  Our ability to integrate the various cultures that comprise the fabric of our nation has often been defined by the ability of our citizens and politicians to advocate for the under-represented amongst us.  Whether we are talking about slavery, women's suffrage, civil rights, equal pay, or gay marriage, it is the great capacity that we have as a society to drive change on these types of issues that separates our nation from so many others.   To be able to drive this kind of change even as we battle the relentless and never-ending challenges of war, economics and health is the embodiment of what is the best of us.

So now we turn our attention to what has been, perhaps, the most under-represented segment of our society - our Native Americans.  Small in numbers and often scattered to the most remote geographical locations, the Native Americans have never enjoyed the same type of grassroots advocacy that so many other minority groups have leveraged in driving the priorities on their agendas.  In short, nobody with the power to make change has ever had a reason to seek it on their behalf.  Given how hard it can be to even define what it means to be identified as a Native American, this is not surprising.

However, the tides have changed as the Obama administration has become more focused on the matter and as various politicians have become in tune with the concerns of the minority as it relates to the use of the term "Redskins" for a sports franchise that sits right in their own back yard.  Pressure has been mounting on the NFL and on Snyder to reconsider his marketing strategy in light of the concerns of a minority of citizens and to adjust accordingly.  Snyder has failed to make a decision for change and, as so often happens, it appears as if the decision will now be made for him.

Politicians are emboldened in this matter based on the fact that so many professional and college franchises have voluntarily taken action before them.  The Golden State Warriors eliminated Native American imagery from their logos.  Miami University changed its name to the RedHawks.  Florida State University reached out to and struck an agreement with the Seminole tribes related to the management of its branding strategy.  Even the Pac 12's own Stanford University changed its mascot from "Indians" to "Cardinal" way back in the early seventies.  There is precedent for the politicos to lean on, and it is difficult to find an example where financial harm has accompanied such a change.

I suspect that Snyder and the NFL will have no choice but to make a change.  In fact, it might actually work out pretty well for them if they employ a strategy that engages the fans in helping to define the new mascot.  But this issue, truthfully, was never about money or marketing or branding.  It wasn't even about tradition, history or nostalgia.  Heck, I don't even know if this issue is about what is right or wrong.  I'm not Native American.  I have no sense of whether or not the term "Redskin" is actually offensive (although, I can't imagine the use of "black", "yellow" or "white" in front of the word "skins" in a team logo or brand).

It isn't about any of that.  In my view, this is about the ability of a segment of our society - a very small segment, indeed - to have a voice and to be heard.  It is about them having conviction on an issue and having their case for change articulated civilly and transparently.  It is about our public accommodating their unique needs to the fullest extent we can while not harming or degenerating any other segment of our society in the process.  This is what we do.  This is the so-called American Way.

The "fall of the Redskins", whenever it happens, will have repercussions.  Communities in the Northwest, and all over the nation, will have to reexamine their use of Native American terminology, graphics and cultural themes in their various sports and club ventures.  They may not be forced to by law, but they'll do it out of a sense of obligation and peer pressure.  Many will make decisions to change, some will not and all of that is fine.  It's the steps forward - even if they are baby steps - that make us all a little more tightly knit as a community.  That's what matters.

I opened this editorial with a quote from Chief Seattle, whose real name was Si'ahl.  As many of you know, Si'ahl was the very influential leader of both the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes.  He was a trader and his outpost became known to other traders as "the Seattle Exchange" (which is where the name of our city came from).  Si'ahl, who was generally at peace with settlers and at one point was baptized in the Catholic church, was most famous for the speech he gave in 1854 when confronted with the prospect of resettlement for his people.  In it, he delivered a powerful and grim message rooted in the differences in cultures and the future of humanity.

It matters little where  we pass the remnant of our days.  They will not be many.  The Indian's  night promises to be dark.  Not a single star of hope hovers above his  horizon.  Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance.  Grim fate seems to be  on the Red Man's trail, and wherever he will hear the approaching  footsteps of his fell destroyer and prepare stolidly to meet his doom,  as does the wounded doe that hears the approaching footsteps of the  hunter. 

Si'ahl saw a day in the future when the traditions of his people would become extinct.  He knew that the White Man would trample on the legacy of his defeated people to the point where their fragmented and poorly documented history would become altogether forgotten. It was a macabre and disquieting prophecy.

Against this backdrop, it doesn't seem like getting a football team to stop using a single derogatory term is enough to stop this from happening.  But, maybe it's a start.