The drums reverberated through Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on Saturday like thunder as images of the dancers from the Coeur d’Alene nation’s Julymash Powwow appeared on the big screen.
For Native Americans in the audience, the flag song heard in the strong voices of the Iron Spirit Singers drum group of the Spokane Tribe of Indians from Wellpinit, Washington, was their national anthem. For others, it was merely a compelling introduction to the proud heritage of the First Nation.
In a moment, the ceremonial drop of the puck would begin the hockey match between the Spokane Chiefs and Tri-Cities Americans, one of the most heated rivalries in the Western Hockey League. But first, a special ceremony was held.
The audience of more than 7,000 hockey fans shared the night with Native Americans who were being honored by the Chiefs organization as part of Native American Heritage Month.
“A lot of the Plateau Tribes from Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Canada are all represented here tonight,” said Coeur d’Alene tribal member Mark Ramos, who helped organize the ceremony before the game in conjunction with Chiefs account representative Luke Apple.
“The neat thing about this is that it really shows off our culture. The Chiefs organization doesn’t have to do something like this. This is about promoting Indian culture and showing non-Indians the beauty of our culture. I want to inspire Indian kids to play hockey or recognize how beautiful our culture is. Hopefully the flag song, the dancers and the ceremony will do that.”
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Misty Spencer from the Spokane Tribe of Indians had the honor of bringing in the Eagle Staff. Spencer, who is pursuing a nursing degree at Eastern Washington University, took her place at center ice, proudly wearing her Lady Eagles hockey uniform.
“Being asked to carry the Eagle Staff is really exciting,” said Spencer, who is one of two Native Americans on the EWU women’s club hockey team. “It’s a really big honor. I used to watch the Chiefs when I was nine back in the old barn (Spokane Coliseum).”
“Being Native American and a hockey player, this is so exciting to be able to skate on the ice where they play.”
Eastern Washington teammate and club president Alexia Diablo of the Xasli’p band of St’at’imc First Nation in Lillooet, British Columbia, joined Spencer on the ice as well.
“It means so much to be asked to participate in this ceremony,” Diablo said. “I’ve never experienced something like this, so it’s a whole different world I’m entering into.
“This is definitely the most people I’ve ever skated in front of. I hope the little kids see this as something they might what to do some day. If I can help inspire them to get interested in hockey, it would be awesome.”
Last year during the inaugural ceremony, some skaters participated in full regalia. On Saturday, all the male skaters wore ceremonial head dresses, as well as their respective hockey uniforms.
Five-year-old Ernesto Si John-Ramirez Jr., of the Coeur d’ Alene Tribe in Idaho came on wearing his Spokane Junior Mites River Rat uniform and a ceremonial roach.
“He was the least nervous of all the skaters,” Ramos said of the young boy.
Orion Pound of the Aleut Tribe of Alaska, who is endorsed by Tribal CEO of Spokane, took his place at center ice wearing an ermine cap head dress. Brody Dewey of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa from North Dakota plays for the Warhorse hockey team in the Inland Empire Hockey Association in Spokane. He wore the feather cap of his nation.
The night was not over with the dropping of the puck–Miss Coeur d’Alene Mariah Clark and Li’l Miss Dahyiit’ihi White both took a turn at dropping one. During the first intermission, the Salish School of Spokane was featured in a three-minute video presentation put together by the school’s executive director LaRae Wiley. The Iron Spirit singers returned for another song during the second intermission.
Spokane Tribe of Indians elder Mike Spencer stood in the entry way in the corridor not far from seven tribal flags on display. National flags from the Spokane Tribe of Indians, Coeur d’Alene, Colville Confederated Tribes, Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla Confederated Tribes, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, Nez Perce, and the Kalispel Tribe were something new this year.
Spencer, a former council member, men’s traditional dancer and singer, was pleased with the ceremony.
“I’ve drummed and sung with Iron Spirit before, so to know they were going to be here tonight was a real honor for our tribe,” he said. “I was looking around as it was going on and people were watching the dancers on the big screen and were very respectful.”
The ceremony was another step in a long affiliation with the Native American tribes of the Inland Empire for Brett Sports and Entertainment, which owns and operates both the Chiefs and the Spokane Indians minor league baseball team.
The Kalispel and Coeur d’Alene (Schitsu'umsh) are sponsors of both franchises. The tribes have developed a business relationship over the years which, has proved to be a positive one for all involved. Saturday night was Coeur d’Alene Casino bingo night, which was run separately from the ceremony on the ice.
“We are extremely proud of our partnership with the local Native American Tribes,” said Andy Billig, who is a co-owner of Brett Sports and Entertainment along with Bobby Brett.
“One of our commitments was never to use Native American imagery in the operation of our team. We do not have Native American mascots, or chants, or any of the other derogatory imagery that you sometimes see with other Indian-named sports teams.”
As for the hockey on Saturday night, the Chiefs’s Jason Fram scored with 26 seconds remaining in overtime to give them a 4-3 victory over the Americans in a key U.S. Division match-up.
As the excited hockey fans made their way to the exits, Coeur d’Alene tribal member Ernesto Si John-Ramirez Sr., had his hands full keeping an eye on his 5-year-old son, who was weaving through the crowd heading toward the exits. Ernesto Jr., had changed back onto his jeans and t-shirt, but he made it clear which part of the night he was most excited about.
“I was the one on the ice,” he said proudly.