What’s In Our Name? We Looked Beyond The Legends For The True Story Of What The Word ‘Spokane’ Means, And We Found A Mystery
Sun., Oct. 29, 1995
Everybody knows what “Spokane” means. Look it up in any encyclopedia, textbook or place-name guide: It’s an Indian word meaning “children of the sun.”
But does it really?
“No, not really,” said Lynn Pankonin, curator of American Indian collections at the Cheney Cowles Museum. “It’s a lot more complicated than that.”
Is it ever. This one simple question opens up all kinds of historical issues, and reminds us once again of the adage “Don’t believe everything you’ve been taught.”
As it turns out, “Spokane” isn’t even the name that the Indians used for themselves, at least not most of the time.
“These fur traders and first Caucasians called us that (Spokane), but we referred to ourselves by the three different clans,” said Pauline Pascal Flett, a Spokane tribal member and teacher of the Salish (Spokane) language at Eastern Washington University. “Each had a name. None of them were ‘Spokane.”’
The upper Spokane clan, between the Spokane Falls and Lake Coeur d’Alene, was named Sn-tutu-ul-i (as close as it can be rendered in the English alphabet). It meant “a little, tiny black fish,” said Flett, who is co-author of the “Spokane Dictionary.”
The middle Spokane clan, from Spokane Falls to the mouth of the Little Spokane River, was named Sn-whem-en-eh after the “salmon trout,” or steelhead, whose name meant, literally, “rosy around the ears.”
The lower Spokane clan’s name was s-kes-tsi-phl-ni, meaning “place where fish were plentiful,” in reference to their rich fishing grounds near Little Falls on the lower Spokane River.
The pronunciation of these names can only be hinted at in above spellings, because the language is full of glottal stops, subtle inflections and sounds that have no equivalent in English. But none of these names can be mistaken for “Spokane.”
Complicating the matter further is the mythical explanation for the name, as related in the book “The Spokane Indians” by Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown. In this legend, there was a hollow tree with a serpent living inside. When an Indian beat upon it, it made a sound like “spukcane,” a phonetic sound without meaning.
“One day, as the chief pondered the sound, vibrations radiated from his head,” writes Ruby and Brown. “Eventually, the word ‘spukcane’ came to have the vague meaning ‘power from the brain.”’
Power from the brain? So does this mean everything we’ve ever heard about “children of the sun” is wrong?
No, not really. It’s more complicated than that.
Flett said the Salish word for sun is, in fact, “s-pok-ah-nee” (again, roughly rendered into the English alphabet). And, yes, the name of the chief at the time of the first white visitors was Ilm-wh S-pok-ah-ne, Ilm-wh meaning “chief.” Thus, “Chief Sun.”
So the clans may have referred to themselves collectively as S-pok-ahnee, since tribes sometimes went by the name of whoever was the chief at the time, said Flett.
Flett can even see how this might all have been interpreted as “children of the sun.”
“The word means ‘the sun,’ and when you are talking about the tribe, you are talking about the people of the tribe, and the chief considers his tribal members his children,” said Flett.
Still, it’s somewhat of a leap to “children of the sun.” It seems to have started with Ross Cox in 1812, one of the first white fur traders to visit the tribe. He noted that the chief’s name was “Illimspokanee,” which he interpreted not-quite-accurately as “Son of the Sun.”
The Rev. Samuel Parker then reported the name as “children of the sun” when he traveled through in 1835. That interpretation was given official sanction in 1881 by Col. Thomas W. Symons, who wrote a report about the Upper Columbia for the Army Corps of Engineers.
“It is fair to infer that the name meant something like ‘children of the sun,”’ wrote Col. Symons.
How did this interpretation become the generally accepted definition?
“My theory, and it’s only a theory, is that they (the traders) heard a term, and they used it generically, and that was perpetuated in writing,” said Pankonin. “… They said, ‘Oh, well, he’s the chief of this group, so that’s what they must all be.’ But we weren’t there, so we don’t know what happened.”
A great deal of lore grew up around the “children of the sun” concept. Symons speculated that the Indians earned the name because all of the tribe’s neighbors to the north and east lived in woods, while the Spokanes lived on “the great sunny plains of the Spokane.”
Another theory speculated that it had something to do with the sun shining through the mist at the big falls, creating rainbows.
Historian Edmond S. Meany remained skeptical in 1923 when he issued his massive “Origin of Washington State Geographic Names.” Meany quotes a pioneer missionary as saying that the Indians called themselves the Sinkomahnahs (a fair rendering of the middle clan’s name) and that Spokane was a name given to them by the fur traders.
Meany also quotes Edward S. Curtis, who wrote a massive history of the Northwest Indians, as speculating that the name was given to them by a different tribe, who used it because the Spokanes lived “towards the sun.”
Meany concludes, almost resignedly, that “out of such discussion, it is probable that a locally used definition, ‘child of the sun,’ will become fixed in speech and literature.”
Even Ruby and Brown, the two historians who related that “power from the brain” legend, subtitled their book “Children of the Sun.” They reasoned that, at some undetermined point in the tribe’s history, “spukcane” (power from the brain) was transformed into “spukanee” (sun people).
As for the Spokane River, the Indians certainly never called it the Spokane. According to Flett, their name for the river was “fast water,” a term they use even today when referring to the big falls and to the city of Spokane itself. Flett renders this term as “s-tl-het-ku.”
Even the first white explorers didn’t call it the Spokane River. When Lewis and Clark passed south of this area in 1805, they referred to both the Indians and the falls as the “Skeetsomish.” Fur trader David Thompson, just a few years later, referred to the Spokane River as the “Skeetshoo.”
Those names probably come from the Salish name for Coeur d’Alene, both the lake and the tribe.
By 1812 or so, the name Spokane had been established, never to be seriously challenged again, although the spelling varied (see accompanying story on the cover).
But if the tribe as a whole wasn’t named “children of the sun,” then what were they named?
“I have no clue,” said Pankonin.
Earlier names for the tribe are probably “lost forever,” said Flett.
One fact seems solid: “Spokane” almost certainly comes from a word meaning “sun.” That’s not a bad name for a tribe, a river, a city and a county, even if this particular “sun” may have been childless.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by A. Heitner
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: How’d we get that ‘e’? You know how out-of-towners often mispronounce the word as “Spo-kayne”? Maybe they’re not so wrong after all. Our city’s name has gone through many pronunciations and spellings since it was first written down. Here’s a chronology: 1810 - Fur traders establish Spokan House trading post, without the “e.” 1812 - Fur trader Ross Cox writes the name of the chief as “Illimspokanee” with two “e’s” but writes the name of the tribe and trading post as Spokan, with no “e’s.” 1836 - The Rev. Samuel Parker says that the Indians corrected him when he said “Spokan” and told him it should be pronounced “Spokein,” which is how he spelled it from then on. 1838 - War Department map spells it Spokane, with the “e.” 1873 - Tiny settlement comes into existence, complete with an “e” and an added “Falls”: Spokane Falls. 1879 - U.S. Post Office keeps the word “Falls” but once again drops the “e”: Spokan Falls. 1879 - Editor of the Spokan Times also decides to abandon the “e,” on the grounds that the word should be spelled as pronounced. 1881 - Editors of the Spokane Chronicle and Spokane Falls Review apparently disagree. 1881 - City incorporated as Spokane Falls. 1891 - City writes new charter, drops the “Falls” and retains the “e.” It has been Spokane ever since.
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