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Spokane Indians

Baseball and Culture: A discussion about Native American imagery in sports

The issue of Native American mascots and imagery in sports was thrust into the headlines again over the summer when the Washington, D.C., NFL team decided to change the name of its team from a dictionary-defined slang term and removed all Native American terms and imagery from its branding.

With that as a background, the New York Times reached out to another Washington team – across the country in Washington state – and produced a feature on the Spokane Indians and the Spokane Tribe of Indians, to discuss their unique relationship and how the distinctly separate entities worked together when the baseball team wanted to update its branding in 2006.

On Wednesday, Otto Klein, senior vice president of the baseball team and Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, participated in a forum about that relationship, the team’s branding and logos, and the team’s initiatives within the Spokane community.

“It was a big story, and something that we were happy to participate in,” Klein said about the New York Times article. “It’s obviously a hot topic in sports right now, really in our country, and with racial equity and everything else happening – and for all the right reasons.

“I felt like it was really important that Carol and I spoke to (the reporter) together … so we had a nice conversation and really went through the process of everything else that happened.”

Evans didn’t expect that type of attention on their partnership.

“I was actually really surprised,” Evans said. “It just seems like we’re in our own little corner of the world.

“But I think because of the way we work together with the Spokane Indians, and the highlighting of all of the mascot issues across the land, and we being one of the few that actually work together to try to make it a good relationship, that’s probably what highlighted us to bring us to this point.”

The minor league baseball team in Spokane has been named the Indians since 1903. Klein spoke about the team’s responsibility in carrying that nickname.

“We take that very seriously,” he said.

“In 2006, the baseball team was at a point where we wanted to come up with a new branding for our team. We approached the tribe, and council and the elders, and we set up a meeting. We reached out and asked. We were able to come together and had a great discussion.

“The first thing we asked was, ‘Are you comfortable with us being named the Spokane Indians?’ ”

Evans wasn’t on elected leadership at the time, but she said the meeting was viewed favorably by the tribal council.

“It was good that the team reached out,” she said. “And it was good the elected leaders at the time knew that they had to involve their elders.”

One of the biggest developments from those meetings was the agreement the team would commit to using the tribe’s native Salish language as part of its logo and imagery throughout Avista Stadium.

“The language – that’s what we’re about,” Evans said.

She pointed out in 1970 the tribe had roughly 200 fluent Salish-speaking members. That number has dwindled to three today.

“If you lose your language, you lose your people. You lose your identity. Language is critical for the survival of any group of people,” she said.

“It is a priority for us to bring our language back.”

“When we heard that, our immediate response was, ‘How can we help?’ ” Klein said. “We had an opportunity to share with the community the importance of this.”

The Salish-language jersey is so unique in sports that the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, requested one to display at its museum.

The partnership thrives today, with the team’s initiatives in protecting the wild redband trout with their “Redband Rally Campaign” and commitment to its “Zero Waste” project in the stadium.

Two seasons ago, the team introduced “Ribby,” a speckled redband trout mascot.

“If you make it a fun, interactive thing during the game, people will care,” Klein said.

“We understand that as a baseball team, people listen, and they’ll follow our direction.

“We know it’s important to the tribe, so it’s important to us. And if it’s important to us, our fans will respond.”