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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The time has come at last for a name change on Fort George Wright Drive

Margo Hill has been attending the Life Center Church with her family for years.

To get there, Hill – a member of the Spokane Tribe and former tribal attorney – drives on a road named for the man who carried out a brutal, scorched-earth campaign against the tribes of the Columbia Plateau.

“We would come out of church with a prayerful servant attitude – and then we’d see that name on Fort George Wright Drive,” said Hill, who grew up in Wellpinit and is now an associate professor of urban planning at Eastern Washington University.

The many Native students who have attended Spokane Falls Community College over the years have had a similar experience, traveling back and forth on the road named in honor of the man who threatened to “hang them all, men, women and children”

“As tribal people, we live here and feel these assaults, even when we’re just trying to go to school or to church,” Hill said. “Now is the time for the city to make this change.”

That experience may soon become a thing of the past for Hill, Native students, and everyone else who uses that road on the western edge of the city. After years of efforts that never panned out, Hill and others are optimistic that this time the call for a name change will stick.

Tribal members from all around the region, along with scores of other local organizations and individuals, are demanding the removal of Wright’s name from the road, and the wheels of bureaucracy at City Hall are beginning to turn.

An application for a name change has been filed with the Plan Commission, a hearing is scheduled, Councilwomen Karen Stratton and Betsy Wilkerson are pushing the measure forward, and a plan to allow the Spokane Tribe to select and propose a new name is coming together.

Barring unforeseen obstacles, Wright’s name will come off that road sometime next year, to be replaced by a name that does not honor a man who conducted a genocidal campaign against the people who lived here first.

“It’s happening,” Hill said, excited about the long-overdue change. “It’s happening.”

‘Lasting peace’

Wright’s campaign against the Spokanes and other tribes across the region was marked by an incredible brutality – one that is hard in retrospect to square, as so many of these historical choices are, with the decisions to continue to elevate his name with plaques, road-naming and other honorifics.

The 2016 book “Hang Them All: George Wright and the Plateau Indian War,” by Spokane writer Don Cutler, delves into the history of the battles between tribes and the U.S. military around the Inland Northwest.

Among other things, Cutler tracks the evolution of Wright’s reputation from that of a heroic figure who “brought peace” to the region during the the 1850s, and whom even his critics sometimes credited for being less brutal than other Army figures of the era, toward a fuller understanding of the remarkable level of violence he directed toward the tribes.

Wright’s men won key battles against tribal warriors in the region, but also carried out a sustained campaign against tribal villages in the autumn of 1858 – including children, women and elders – that including the coordinated destruction of food supplies, a series of particularly tortuous hangings for supposed war crimes that were notorious for their empty, show-trial trappings and betrayals of promises to tribal leaders, and other brutality.

“Wright’s troops killed so many people and animals on his trip that in many historical accounts, the destruction of food stores pales in comparison, receiving only a sentence or two,” Cutler writes. “However, if not for the Jesuits helping the tribes (and in particular the Coeur d’Alenes) and the departure of the Army in September, there is no doubt that starvation would have added more victims to Wright’s tally.”

Among his most notorious acts was the slaughter of some 800 horses seized from the tribes, which his men carried out over several days along the Spokane River, while tribal members watched from above – and listened to what one witness described as the “hideous” calls and cries of the horses.

In the popular press of the time, and the white histories of the region that dominated for many years afterward, Wright was treated as a honorable figure who had carried out the difficult work of putting down an Indian “uprising.” His name was attached to the fort and other local landmarks, and he was honored with plaques and other honorifics.

In 1935, for example, the county historical society erected a monument at the site of the Battle of Four Lakes with this description: “On this historic ground, Sept. 1, 1858, 700 soldiers under Col. Geo. Wright, U.S.A., routed 5,000 allied Indians. Four days later, the rallied hostiles were decisively defeated in a running battle. They sued for mercy, and have since maintained lasting peace.”

Efforts to change this narrative, and particularly with regard to public monuments and honorifics, have been raised in the past by tribal members and professors at SFCC, but never gained ground. In 1994, a group of SFCC students proposed a name change that fell short; Cutler writes of one letter to the editor of The Spokesman-Review that referred to the proposal as “hysterical political correctness.”

Many others have continued calling for a change, however. Three years ago, Stratton and then-City Council President Ben Stuckart pushed forth a proposal to rename the road, but ran into a backlog of projects at the Plan Commission, Stratton said.

The idea has taken on greater urgency over the past year thanks to the national movement to address racial injustice, and to rethink what kind of historical figures we choose to honor in the public square.

That helped put the issue back on the front burner for Stratton and Wilkerson.

“It’s just the whole tone of the country right now,” said Wilkerson. “I think there’s been enough chatter over the years and enough fits and starts that people know enough about it” to seek the change.

Stratton has a personal connection to the issue. Her mother, Lois Stratton, was a member of the Spokane Tribe and the first enrolled tribal member to serve in the state House of Representatives. Karen was aware from an early age that her ancestors had a fraught relationship with the city that bore their name – and that had overtaken their tribal home.

“My grandmother never felt comfortable coming to Spokane,” she said. “She never felt she belonged here.”

‘A lot of allies’

In the past couple of months, the call for change has intensified. In late August, a national protest organization and other activists united to shine the message “No Honor in Genocide” on the Spokane County Courthouse.

A couple days later, more than 200 people – many of them tribal members from around the region – marched in support of changing the name. Jeff Ferguson, a member of the Spokane Tribe, said he’s been pleased to see so much backing from all quarters of the community.

“It’s very heartening to see all the support for all the people who have pulled together,” Ferguson said. “We have a lot of non-native allies who have stepped up.”

A letter to the City Council this week urged council members “to ensure that the City of Spokane Plan Commission prioritizes the long-overdue renaming of Ft. George Wright Drive.”

The letter continued, “Col. George Wright should have been reprimanded and convicted of his actions; instead, he was commended for his tactics and promoted. In modern-day, he should be memorialized as a perpetrator of genocide; instead, he continues to be commemorated as if a local hero with a street named Ft. George Wright Drive.”

The letter was signed by 42 organizations, ranging from institutions along the drive such as SFCC and the Unitarian Universalist Church, Native organizations, labor and social justice organizations, higher ed departments, and others.

SFCC has the most property fronting the drive, and it’s supporting the proposal.

“CCS is supporting the name change as a way of honoring our Native communities: their pain, their history and their contributions,” Christine Johnson, chancellor of the Community Colleges of Spokane, said in a statement. “The name change will serve to acknowledge the importance and contributions of indigenous communities today —right here in Spokane and across our country.”

A new name

Stratton and Wilkerson put forward the application, and an online public hearing on the change is set for Oct. 28 before the Plan Commission. The commission will make a recommendation to the City Council, which will vote on whether to make the change.

The idea has support from property owners along the drive, Stratton and Wilkerson said. One issue for them going forward will be the cost and effort of changing addresses on stationary and other materials – an especially big job for the college. The city may find ways to help offset the costs of that effort, Stratton said.

What remains an open question is what name will replace the current one. The plan is to allow the Spokane Tribe to select a name; tribal chairwoman Carol Evans said this week that meetings to discuss possible names will begin soon.

She said they would likely consider names of tribal leaders from Wright’s time, as well as others who have been important figures in tribal history since then.

It would be an appropriate change to the infrastructure of a city that is built upon the home of a people the government strove to eliminate – a history that we have allowed to remain in place as a reminder to those for whom this history remains intensely personal.

“Our people were hurt, our ancestors were hurt, by this man,” Evans said. “His intent was to eliminate us – to do away with us. It would just be a good effort to – not erase history – but not recognize and honor such a person.”

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