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Anti-mascot movement made headway in 2006

Indian Country Today: The decades-old effort to abolish the use of sports logos considered racist, offensive and damaging by American Indians advanced significantly in 2006.
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The decades-old effort to abolish the use of sports logos considered racist, offensive and damaging by American Indians advanced significantly in 2006, despite opposition and a well-funded attempt by pro-mascot lobbyists to pass a law that would protect universities from banning their ''Indian'' trademarks.

On the legal front, six young American Indians filed a petition in August with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office seeking cancellation of six trademarks owned by the Washington Redskins that use the word ''Redskins'' or ''Redskinettes.''

Blackhorse et al. v. Pro-Football Inc., the Redskins' owner, reiterates a petition filed in 1992 by a group of prominent American Indian leaders led by Suzan Shown Harjo, president of The Morning Star Institute, a nonprofit American Indian advocacy group. Both petitions asked for the cancellation of the ''redskin'' trademark because it is disparaging to American Indians.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled in favor of the Harjo petition in 1999. That ruling was overturned on appeal by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2003. The U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the lower court decision last year and sent the case back to the district court where it remains pending. The new action by the six young people will add weight to the earlier petition.

A flurry of both protest and compliance followed the NCAA's benchmark announcement in August 2005 of its new policy prohibiting member colleges and universities from displaying ''hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery at any of the 88 NCAA championships.'' The NCAA listed 18 schools in violation of the policy.

The NCAA did not ban ''Indian'' trademarks, but stipulated that any NCAA member violating the policy will be sanctioned by not being allowed to host any post-season championship events. The policy also encourages members to refrain from scheduling regular-season games with schools identified on the list.

The U.S. House of Representatives jumped into the fray in May with the Protection of University Governance Act of 2006, which despite its benign-sounding name was intended to allow colleges and universities to retroactively sue the NCAA before its August 2005 policy adoption and collect attorney fees and damages.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Ill., and supported by 13 congressmen, who collectively received almost $300,000 to support the legislation; however, it never got out of committee and died with the end of the 109th Congress.

Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., announced in November that its ''Redmen'' mascot will be replaced by the ''RiverHawks.''

NSU was not one of the NCAA's listed violators, but decided voluntarily to drop the Redmen by August 2007.

NSU President Larry Williams formed a 40-member task force last May to select and implement the new team name. The group included NSU alumni, faculty, staff, students and supporters, as well as representatives from the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.

Southeastern State University in Durant, Okla., decided last January to change its ''Savages'' nickname to ''Savage Storm,'' and the transition was made easily by last spring.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which lost its appeal to the NCAA to be taken off the list, is the latest school to volunteer a name change. On Dec. 15, IUP President Tony Atwater announced the school had chosen the ''Crimson Hawks'' to replace ''Indians.''

With IUP now in compliance, only the University of North Dakota and the University of Illinois remain on the list.

The UND has refused to abandon its ''Fighting Sioux'' nickname and has sued the NCAA in state district court in Grand Forks alleging breach of contract and unlawful restraint on trade. The judge issued a preliminary injunction in November allowing UND to keep its nickname without penalty until April, when a trial is scheduled, but has urged both sides to settle out of court.

As of November, the board of trustees for the University of Illinois had taken no action to retire the school's controversial ''Chief Illiniwek'' mascot. UI also lost an NCAA appeal to retain its mascot.

''Chief Illiniwek'' is a student dressed in buckskins and face paint who dances around during halftime at regular-season home football and basketball games.

The College of William and Mary said in October it would phase out the use of two Indian feathers in its athletic logo. The college had lost its appeal to NCAA in August to keep the feathers, but decided against a lawsuit.

Several colleges and universities were allowed to keep their logos with the permission of the tribe represented. The Catawba College in North Carolina can use the nickname ''Catawba Indians'' with the tribe's approval. The Central Michigan ''Chippewas,'' Florida State ''Seminoles,'' Mississippi College ''Choctaws,'' and University of Utah ''Utes'' won appeals after local tribes approved the use of their names.

''Although the NCAA executive committee continues to believe the stereotypes of Native Americans is wrong, it recognizes that a Native American tribe is a distinct political community,'' said NCAA Senior Vice President Bernard Franklin. ''Therefore, it respects the authority of the tribe to permit university and colleges to use its name and imagery.''