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Demise of Indian mascots owes much to Minnesota

The announcement the Cleveland Indians will discontinue its age-old logo of a cartoonish Native American character was particularly relevant and resonant here in Minnesota.

Marshall H. Tanick

The announcement last week that the Cleveland Indians Major League Baseball team will discontinue its age-old logo of a cartoonish Native American character was particularly relevant and resonant here in Minnesota, which has for decades been at or near the epicenter of the controversy over uses of Native Indian appellations and visuals for athletic teams.

The decision to banish the mascot, known as Chief Wahoo, at the end of the current season came at an unusual time. It was promulgated without much fanfare, although it garnered lots of attention, during the week preceding the Super Bowl in Minneapolis, perhaps timed to distract attention from the sea change it reflects. It also occurred barely a few months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the portion of the federal trademark law that prohibited use of offensive nicknames and related derogatory terminology.

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The controversy, which has ebbed and flowed for years, was highlighted in 1991, when the Minnesota Twins played the Atlanta Braves in a memorable World Series, which the Twins won 1-0 in extra innings behind the 1-0 shutout pitching of St. Paul native Jack Morris in the seventh and deciding game. During the four games played here at the venerable Metrodome, all won by the Twin to capture the Series (their second title in five years), Native Americans and some supporters vigorously protested Atlanta’s nickname as well as the hatchet-like “chop” gesticulation portrayed by the club’s fans, including owner Ted Turner and his then-wife, actress and noted liberal activist Jane Fonda. 

The uproar, led by the American Indian Movement (AIM), centered in the Twin Cities, also was manifested in displeasure with the Washington Redskins professional football team, a name that many in the movement found equally offensive. Whenever the Washington team played here, it, too, was greeted with AIM-led protests.

Legal action

In addition to the court of public opinion, the ’Skins faced more ominous resistance:  legal action against the team in an attempt to ban the usage of the nickname and related Indian warrior logo. The case was brought before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in the nation’s capital, claiming that the phrase violated the clause in the Lanham Act, the basic federal trademark law that prohibits terminology that may “disparage” individuals or organizations. The protesters were represented by a Minneapolis-based law firm, along with counsel in the District of Columbia, who managed to succeed in administrative proceedings and in the D.C. federal court system.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, leaving intact the lower court ruling, which portended that the days of the Redskins name and logo might be numbered despite the unremitting opposition to change by the club’s owner.

But all that changed last year when the Supreme Court, in one of its last rulings before adjourning for the summer, addressed a similar issue in a case entitled Matal v. Tam, which consisted of a challenge by an Asian-American band to a decision by the same trademark officials refusing to allow it to register and protect its name, “The Slants,” under the disparagement clause of the Lanham Act. The justices unanimously upheld the group’s right to use the self-derogatory name, reasoning that under the freedom of speech provision of the First Amendment, “government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

Challenge left in tatters

The court’s unanimous decision left the Redskins challenge in tatters, and the proponents of a name change then withdrew their challenge in light of the ruling in “the Slants” case, which seemed to give license to teams to use such logos without legal recourse. But the legal endorsement evokes the words of Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, the jurist who once famously explained that while a definition of “obscenity” eludes him, “I know it when I see it.” In another context, he pointed out the “difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”

That observation might finally have caught on with the Cleveland baseball team in deciding, after years of refusal, to ban the logo anyway, which drew the approval of Major League Baseball authorities, who praised the decision. Others, however, were less impressed. A Native American activist who was a claimant in the Redskins legal brouhaha, Suzan Shown Harjo, weighed-in that the club should have gone further and changed the team name while others questioned the delay in the milder alternative of eliminating the logo until after the upcoming season.

Her opposition, and that of her adherents, is not shared throughout the Native American community in Minnesota and elsewhere. Some public opinion polls have reflected that the overwhelming number of Native Americans do not object, one as high as 95 percent supportive of the Redskins moniker, viewing the terminology and mascot to be indicative of esteem rather than denigration of their heritage or ethnicity.

But Minnesota authorities have not been so insouciant.

Role of the High School League

Thirty years ago, the Minnesota State High School League became a vanguard in the anti-Indian mascot movement. In May 1988, after the Minneapolis Board of Education approved the change of nickname for Southwest High School teams from Indians to Lakers, the overseers of state high athletics and other extracurricular activities deemed the use of such mascots and logos “unacceptable.” While stopping short of banning them, the league expressed its strong “desire” that schools remove and replace them and adopted a resolution that “encourages” them to do so.

The inducement worked as dozens of schools changed their Indian-related names and mascot and other news ones refrained from adopting similar ones. Only a handful of those sobriquets remain at the high school level in this state, including Sleepy Eye (Indians), Benson (Braves), and Warroad (Warriors).

Although the AIM-inspired legal action ultimately petered out, it was not unsuccessful. The challengers managed to secure some interim victories and, more important, the initiation and pursuit of the legal proceedings raised public awareness and placed supporters of the Indian nomenclature and other paraphernalia on the defensive.

So, the Cleveland baseball team will be garbed in their uniforms with the Wahoo chieftain logo when it comes to Target Field to play the Twins this year, starting with a weekend series in the beginning of June. But beginning next season, the logos will be gone, perhaps a forerunner for other changes in the use — and abuse — of Native American terminology and visuals by sports squads. If that occurs, Minnesota can take credit — or shoulder blame — as a key contributor to that evolution.

The writer is a Twin Cities constitutional law attorney and historian.


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