Rob Curley: Spokane Indians and tribe form unique Cooperstown combination

The regular season jerseys for 2017 for the Spokane Indians baseball team. The away jersey, on the right, now carries the Salish script which has been used more and more often on the home jersey for several years. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A Spokane Indians jersey is now in Cooperstown. And not just temporarily there. It’s a permanent part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s storied collection of artifacts celebrating the National Pastime.

You’re probably saying to yourself that this doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t. Which is part of why it’s so perfect.

I tell people all of the time that Spokane doesn’t make sense. And I typically say it in front of large groups of people. From Spokane.

It’s meant as a loving compliment.

But when people first hear it, their eyes squint, either in confusion or even anger. Their body language shifts directly to something north of uncomfortable. Sometimes a few people laugh, typically to break the tension of a possibly very awkward moment.

Then I explain that this community’s ability to do incredible things that consistently just don’t make sense is the very thing I adore most about Spokane. It’s the thing that makes us “us.”

It makes no sense for the highest-rated hotel in Washington to be in Spokane. It makes no sense that our community takes such amazing care of its parks, and even invests in making them even better. It makes no sense that the largest three-on-three basketball tournament in the world, which is about to become an Olympic sport, is held here. Or that the nation’s largest, timed road race has runners racing through our streets.

It makes no sense for a community of our size to have a world-class symphony. Or that it performs in a world-class building. It makes no sense that one of the nation’s most elite college basketball teams is at a tiny private university in our town. Or that most people outside of Eastern Washington still pronounce its name incorrectly.

And no telling of our community’s history is complete without an explanation of how Spokane became the smallest city on the planet to host a world’s fair.

Not making sense is core to our community’s DNA.

That’s why knowing that baseball’s ultimate shrine wanted a jersey from our hometown team fits so perfectly with our unique ability to do things that make other communities collectively shake their heads in disbelief.

Local baseball fans already know of the players in Cooperstown who once played for our longtime minor-league team. Anyone who has been to a game at Avista Stadium has likely seen the monuments outside the front gates telling the stories of the on-field feats of those legendary ballplayers with Spokane ties.

But having something specifically from Spokane enshrined in baseball’s hall – something even more impressive than a player who spent a few months here early in his career wearing our team’s jersey – is beyond unique.

Especially since it’s actually a jersey. And what makes the jersey so special is part of what makes the story so darn good.

If you’ve been to an Indians game over the last few years, you’ve likely seen the team wearing a jersey that almost always causes doubletakes.

Sp’q’n’i.

The first response is typically something akin to: “Did they actually misspell Spokane?”

Nope. The answer is that the team might be the first to actually spell it correctly.

The Spokane Indians have been playing baseball here since the early 1900s. The team was named after the Spokane Indian tribe. But there hasn’t always been a real relationship between the tribe and the team.

Over the last couple of decades, that has changed. And as the relationship grew, so did the trust.

Though the team has used Native American imagery throughout its history, it wasn’t always done with much – or even any – input from the tribe.

That began to change in the late 1980s. The team and the tribe began meeting more and more. By 2006, the partnership became more strategic.

During one of those meetings just a few years ago, the tribe explained to the team how it was working to put its native language to paper, but that it was extremely difficult because only a dozen or so people on the reservation still spoke the language. At the same time, the team was working on a new logo and uniforms. That’s where it clicked.

The team would spell Spokane on its jerseys, but in Salish.

It took awhile to get there, which explains why the team’s mascot is a cartoonish dinosaur and not something tied to Native American imagery.

“We were very cautious early on, which is why we didn’t use any native imagery for so many years,” said Otto Klein, the team’s senior vice president. “I think we’ve grown more comfortable in our own skin as the relationship with the tribe has progressed and realized that this is who we are and these are the people we represent.”

In 2014, the Indians were allowed by Major League Baseball to wear the Salish uniforms for only a select number of home games. MLB controls uniforms and images used by its affiliated minor-league teams.

To help explain this to fans watching games at Avista Stadium, the ushers carry cards that explain the Salish spelling, along with a little bit of information about the tribe. Even some of the signage in the stadium is done in Salish, such as having the Salish words for men and women at the restrooms.

In 2015, the Spokane Indians were allowed to wear the Salish jerseys for every home game. When Spokane hosted the All-Star Game for the Pioneer and Northwest leagues that year, the jerseys were done in Salish.

This season, the Indians will even wear the Salish jerseys on the road.

In case you’re wondering, all of this is pretty unusual. That’s why Klein is asked to speak throughout the region, and even to teams and organizations nationwide, about the team’s unique relationship with the tribe.

“Our team is named in honor of a group of people, as opposed to just having a nickname,” Klein explained. “It sounds like subtle distinction, but it really is an important difference for us. We’re not the Storm or the Tigers or even the Indians in a way that other teams might be. We are named in honor of the Spokane Tribe.

“On the other hand, we never pass judgment on other teams and their names, or even comment on them. But we know what it means to us. For us, that means we work together.”

Spokane Tribal Council Chairwoman Carol Evans said that has been the key to why this relationship has been successful. She said the team always asks how they can work better together, never “telling us” how the two should partner.

“They always ask permission and have a good dialogue with us,” she said. “They not only listen with their ears, but with their hearts, which is a lesson taught from our elders.

“They’ve really taken the time to understand who we are and to help us with educating people on who the original people of this land were and are. They understand the issues that are important to our tribe, and helping with the revitalization of our language has been important to us.

“Doing this in a way that was respectful of our tribe and of our people is a big reason why we all believe the team’s jersey is now in the baseball hall of fame,” she said.

The Hall of Fame has said as much.

No, it doesn’t make sense that a minor-league jersey from Spokane is now enshrined at Cooperstown. But of all of the things in our community that don’t make sense that we should be proud of, this should be one of our community’s proudest accomplishments.

Sports teams rarely get to lead efforts to help a community discover itself, leading a deeper teaching moment.

There’s a lot that can be learned from how a minor-league baseball team worked with a local tribe to do something that benefits all.