Native Americans have been struggling for a voice in the decision-making process since the United States government started making treaties with the tribes. Their voice has been falling on deaf ears for centuries.
Concerns over derogatory Native American imagery and athletic team logos and the defiant disregard of Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to change his team name has been the norm for centuries.
But one American sports franchise has not only heard the voice of Native Americans in the Inland Empire, but welcomed their perspective.
The Spokane Indians baseball team, a Class A Northwest League team that’s affiliated with the Texas Rangers, collaborated with the Spokane Tribe of Indians in a partnership built on respect.
In 2006, the baseball team’s front office and the tribe collaborated to come up with a team logo not only saying Spokane Indians in English, but developed a team logo printed in the Salish language, which was depicted on the sleeve of its uniforms.
The Spokane Indians baseball team will take that collaboration one step further, making the logo in the Salish language the main logo on the front of its home uniforms for the 2014 season.
“The Spokane Indians baseball organization has been very respectful and very kind,” Spokane tribal chairman Rudy Peone said. “The Spokane Indians are not the Spokane Savages, not the Spokane insert-derogatory-word here. It was named specifically after us. In our last meeting, last Spring, they talked about changing their uniforms and using the Salish spelling for their team. That was received very well from us. They don’t have any imagery that would be not very flattering and we appreciate that.”
It is a true partnership of two proud heritages. The real Spokane Indians are a tribe of just under 3,000 people. They were fishermen and once fished the waters at Spokane Falls in the current City of Spokane. Their tribal lands once stretched from the Washington-Idaho border, North to the Canadian border and South to Ritzville, Washington.
The Indians are owned and operated by Brett Sports and Entertainment. The company also owns the Spokane Chiefs hockey team.
Legendary baseball players like Sandy Alomar Jr., (six-time All-star), Carlos Beltran (five-time All-Star) and Steve Garvey (10-time All-Star) all came through Spokane en route to stellar major league careers. Nez Perce tribal member Levi McCormack was a star with the short-season A team in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
“We thought the best way to show respect to the local tribes was to avoid any Native American imagery used with the team setting,” said Brett Sports and Entertainment co-owner Andy Billig, who was elected to the Washington State Senate representing the 3rd Legislative District in 2012.
“We have a very positive relationship with the local tribes. We would talk with them from time-to-time to check in and say, ‘How are we doing?’ Even if we weren’t using any imagery, the name of the team was still the Spokane Indians and we knew that could potentially be sensitive,” Billig said. “We believe that we are still the only professional sports team to collaborate with local tribes in this way.”
The baseball team’s mission statement, Billig says, was to never use Native American imagery in the operation of the team. It does not have Native American mascots, chants, or any of the other derogatory imagery.
With that groundwork in place, the new uniforms were met with a great deal of pride by Spokane Tribe of Indians members.
“Having the new logo on the uniforms is a sense of pride. It’s about respect,” said Spokane elder Vi Frizzell, sitting in the tribal office in Wellpinit, Washington, about 50 miles northwest of Spokane. “Our ancestors lived where the City of Spokane is. My great, great grandmother lived there. [Maddie Silas] died when she was 96 and she didn’t speak any English.”
Carol Evans, vice chair of the Spokane tribe, has lived on the reservation all her life. Her mother Pauline Stearns was the first woman elected to the Spokane Tribal Business Council. It’s not a perfect arrangement with the baseball team, but it is one built on respect and that’s a start.
“If they are going to use the name Spokane Indians they have to be upfront with us and respectful. We need to work together,” she said. “I think that’s what we’ve been able to accomplish.
“By rights, they should have come to us in the beginning and asked permission to use the name. We’re a respectful group and we’re going to want to welcome you.”
*This story has been updated