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Local historians find proof of Chief Garry’s original tribal name

Local historian Barry Moses holds his picture of Chief Spokane Garry. Moses helped uncover Garry’s original tribal name, pictured at top. (Dan Pelle)
Local historian Barry Moses holds his picture of Chief Spokane Garry. Moses helped uncover Garry’s original tribal name, pictured at top. (Dan Pelle)

Chief Spokane Garry (ca. 1811-1892), the famed leader of the Spokane Indians, is one of the most extensively researched figures in Spokane’s history. Yet history has long been silent about his original tribal name.

Until now.

Two local, amateur historians have found definitive, written proof that Chief Spokane Garry’s Salish language name was Slough-Keetcha.

“It’s exciting, because it’s a piece of our heart, and our identity, that has come back,” said one of those historians, Barry Moses, a Spokane Tribe member whose Salish name is Sulustu.

“It’s like using a metal detector and finding treasure,” said Brian Huseland, a Spokane fourth-grade teacher who helped uncover the name. “This is a treasure.”

All of the scholars who have written about Chief Spokane Garry – and there have been many over almost two centuries – have recounted the story of how he acquired his English name. It happened in 1825, when Spokane Garry was about 14.

Gov. George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company traveled to the Spokane House trading post that year and told the chiefs of the assembled tribes that he wanted to take some Indian boys back to the Red River Settlement, near Winnipeg, to be educated at the Anglican missionary school.

Spokane Chief Illum Spokanee offered to send his own son. A Kootenai chief offered his son as well.

Just before the two boys set off east with the fur brigade, they were baptized and given new names: Spokane Garry and Kootenai Pelly. They named the Spokane boy after Nicholas Garry, a Hudson’s Bay Company deputy governor, and the Kootenai boy after John Henry Pelly, a Hudson’s Bay Company governor.

Yet none of the historians knew what Garry’s name was changed from.

One biographer recounted the names of several of Garry’s brothers – but not Garry’s. Other biographers pass silently over the issue. In 2008, a historian noted that Garry’s tribal name has been “lost to time.”

And that’s where matters stood until Huseland started studying the fur trade era and Spokane Garry as part of a desire to bring local history to life for his Northwest Christian School students.

In the course of his research, Huseland heard about a scholar named Douglas McMurry, who was researching the Red River mission and Spokane Garry for a book he was writing about the evangelical history of the West. Huseland corresponded with McMurry, and McMurry mentioned that he had found an 1828 letter, deep in a Church Missionary Society archive, apparently written by Spokane Garry and signed, “Slough-Keetcha.”

During the 2011 dedication of an extensive new memorial to Spokane Garry at Chief Garry Park in Spokane, Huseland started chatting with Moses. Huseland mentioned that he “might have a lead” on Spokane Garry’s original name. Moses was immediately intrigued. Moses is a GED instructor at Spokane Community College, but his abiding interest is “in revitalizing the Spokane language.”

“I’m interested in bringing back any old names of places and people,” said Moses, 42, who sometimes conducts informal Spokane Salish classes at his home in Spokane.

Moses calls himself an “emerging learner” of Salish, and his goal is to be fluent someday. There are only about five or six fluent Spokane Salish speakers left in the world, all of them elderly, and some his relatives.

Huseland subsequently showed Moses the letter that McMurry had uncovered in the archive. The letter was quoted in a Missionary Register, in an excerpt by the Rev. David T. Jones, who was a teacher of Spokane Garry and Kootenai Pelly at the Red River mission.

Jones wrote that “one of” the Indian youths had written a letter home “of his own accord,” to be delivered by Gov. Simpson on a return trip to the Spokane House. Then Jones transcribed that letter into the register.

It read, in part, “My Dear Father and Mother, I am very glad that I can write to you, and that I can tell you that I am well. … Give my love to my uncle Chongulloosoon and to all my Aunts; and I would thank you to send me a deer-skin. The great Illemechum whom you saw before, takes this Letter. Be good to the White People, for they are good to us. This from your son, Slough-Keetcha.”

Maddeningly, the Missionary Register did not specify which one of the Indian youths wrote the letter, but Spokane Garry and Kootenai Pelly were the only two Indian boys there in 1828.

“We had a 50-50 chance,” said Moses.

Moses detected one significant clue.

“The fact that he calls him (Gov. Simpson) ‘the great Illemechum’ jumped right out at me,” said Moses.

That word was recognizably close to the word for “chief” in Spokane Salish – but not in the unrelated Kootenai language.

Still, this clue was not definitive. So, early in 2013, Huseland decided to do more sleuthing. He requested a microfilm copy, through an interlibrary loan, of the archive’s documents, which contained the Rev. Jones’ actual journals. Huseland wanted to find the letter in Jones’ journals, not just the transcription in the Missionary Register.

Huseland said that looking through that microfilm was an emotional experience.

“I knew it had to be 1828,” said Huseland. “I found the journal and I was almost in tears. I was ecstatic, because I knew that it represented, not just for myself, but for Barry and every other member of the Spokane Tribe, a piece of their history that had been lost.”

The version of the letter in the journal was dated June 6, 1828 and was introduced as follows: “Our two Indian boys sent letters to their friends by Governor Simpson, one of them Spokain Garry, wrote as follows of his own accord.” And then the same letter by Slough-Keetcha follows.

This was the confirmation that they had been waiting for. He called in Barry Moses to look at the letter on microfilm.

“Spokane Garry and Slough-Keetcha were one and the same!” wrote Moses in a subsequent blog post.

Now, Moses is hoping to discover what Slough-Keetcha means in Salish – and how it was pronounced. The spelling was an attempt by either Jones or Slough-Keetcha himself to render the sounds in the English alphabet.

“It’s hard to know specifically what sounds he was referring to,” said Moses. “We don’t have a ‘g’ sound (in Salish). Did he mean it to sound like ‘slow’ (as in cow?) … It would be pure speculation what the correct pronunciation should be.”

He said he hopes that when word spreads about Spokane Garry’s original name, some of Garry’s descendants might be able to provide some clues. He said that anybody with any insight into the name can contact him at

Word is already getting out. McMurry published a historical fictional book titled “The Forgotten Awakening: How the Second Great Awakening Spread West of the Rockies,” in 2011, in which he gives the young Spokane Garry the name Slough-Keetcha. Local historians have already begun to add the name to their accounts of Garry’s life.

“His native name deserves to be learned and remembered,” said Huseland.

For Moses, the name represents something larger.

“Perhaps through the restoration of his name,” wrote Moses in a blog post, “Slough-Keetcha returns to his people once again Indian.”

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