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Spokane Indians baseball team, Spokane Tribe featured in national discussion of Native American imagery in sports

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 3, 2020

Otto Klein, senior vice president of the Spokane Indians, left, discusses with artist Chris Anderson  (DAN PELLE/The Spokesman-Review)
Otto Klein, senior vice president of the Spokane Indians, left, discusses with artist Chris Anderson (DAN PELLE/The Spokesman-Review)

In the days and weeks following the killing of George Floyd and subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the campaign to rid society of racist language and images, the use of Native American terms and imagery in sports has once again become a national headline.

In the most prominent circumstance, the Washington, D.C., NFL team recently rebranded from the dictionary-defined racial slur it went by for decades to “Washington Football Team” for the upcoming season, and the Cleveland MLB franchise has said it will conduct a thorough review of its nickname and imagery.

With that as a background, a local minor league team has been drawn into the national spotlight.

The Spokane Indians baseball team and the Spokane Tribe of Indians were interviewed recently by the New York Times for an article which was posted online Monday with the headline, “Why One Team Named the Indians Won’t Be Changing Its Name.”

Otto Klein, executive vice president of the minor league team, said a reporter for the Times reached out to him about being part of the national conversation about the issue.

“It was nice to see that they wanted to be part of the conversation, for sure,” Klein said Monday. He and Spokane Tribe of Indians chairwoman Carol Evans participated on a call with the reporter.

“We’re pleased that the story is being told,” Klein said. “We’ve obviously been having this conversation locally and regionally for years, so we’re happy to be a part of a national conversation as well.”

It’s not often that the New York Times reaches out to a minor league baseball team in Spokane.

“It certainly is a broader discussion than we’ve ever had in the country,” Klein admitted. “And we should be having the conversation. We continue to have nothing but positive comments with the tribal leadership and we look forward to continue to partnering with the tribe in a respectful way.

“I think that the tribe shares our viewpoint about our name. We have more to accomplish. Do we have all the answers? No. But we do work together and when we work together we can address any issues that come up together.

“We have a lot more of a story to tell.”

The team is proud of its partnership with the tribe and Klein maintains that everything they do with the tribe “is built out of honor and respect.”

The team went through its own rebranding consideration several years ago and sought guidance throughout the process from the tribe. The team does not use Native American imagery on its uniforms or in advertising or promotional material, except for the Salish language on its special jerseys and throughout the park.

“It’s been developed, all of the signage and use of the Salish language in the ballpark and imagery has been in conjunction with the tribe, in partnership with the tribe,” Klein said. “All that has been developed together.”

The relationship between the team and the tribe may be unique in all of sports.

“I can’t speak to the other teams and what conversations they’ve had,” Klein said. “But I know that ours have been nothing but superb. And we have an open dialog.”

Klein said the team is sensitive to Native American leaders that think it’s inappropriate regardless of relationships to use Native American terms and imagery for sports teams.

“I think that chairwoman Carol Evans said it best, when she said that she hopes that all tribal nations open their heart to having these discussions like we have done locally.”

Klein recounted a conversation he had recently with members of the tribe.

“I had someone tell me this the other day: ‘We are Spokane. We do things the right way. We cheer for our sports teams – our different cultures – and we celebrate together in the region.’ That’s what’s important. There’s a lot of things we do well in our community and this is just another example of that.”

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