The Sporting News headline: “The Vikings unfortunately won't be playing as Duluth Eskimos in 2019.” Unfortunately?
The Sporting News reports that the NFL issued a statement that the trademark filing was only a promotion. "As part of the league's 100th season, the team will look to celebrate and salute early football in the state of Minnesota. There are some plans for promotional and content opportunities,” the NFL said. “The league had the trademark in the mid-'90s following the 75th season and was asked by the club to file again."
Unfortunately is not the word we would use. The idea of trademarking a mascot is itself controversial. Nearly three decades ago, Suzan Harjo, Vine Deloria, Norbert Hill, Manley Begay, Raymond D. Apodaca, William A. Means, Jr., Mateo Romero, and others had come together in a landmark suit against the Washington NFL franchise over the use of its trademark.
Then in 1992, a three-judge panel of the PTO Trademark Trial & Appeal Board agreed saying “that the trademarks should not have been granted in the first place, they ruled unanimously in a 145-page decision to cancel the trademarks.”
“Ours was a pocketbook-incentive case that would not force anyone to do anything,” Harjo said in 2017 press conference for Rising Hearts. Harjo’s talk was published by Indianz.com. “We were counting on the owners’ avarice to abandon the name if their federal trademarks were cancelled, after all appeals, and if they no longer could make money exclusively with federal protection against others. The franchise owners insisted that they didn’t need federal trademarks because they had state registrations.”
Years later after most victories the case had become the Blackhorse case. Then another case made its way to the Supreme Court that considered the free speech rights for a band, the Slants.
“The Supreme Court didn’t draw a distinction between free speech from self-expression and name-calling from the outside, and struck down the part of the trademark law that was the cause of action for our cases,” Harjo wrote. “After the Supreme Court ruled in the Slants case, the Justice Department told the appellate court that the high court had rendered the Blackhorse case moot.”
A similar controversy is taking place in Edmonton, Alberta. The CFL franchise uses the name Eskimos. The team says it's in "conversations" about the name. The game's commissioner told the Canadian Press that "times change and so we have the conversation and we see where it takes us.”
It's interesting that the NFL says its trademark application was a celebration about the early history of the NFL. The original name of the team was the Kelley Duluths in 1922, named after their namesake sponsor, the Kelley-Duluth Hardware Store.
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports