By Alan Hanson and Alan Torgerson
At its meeting on March 23, the Spokane City Council unanimously passed Resolution 2021-0019: “Acknowledging and recognizing the tribes and tribal people in the Spokane area and the surrounding region.” While the city is taking action to build a strong relationship with the Spokane Tribe, the Spokane Public Schools Board of Directors soon will vote on a resolution that would completely sever a 30-year relationship between the Spokane Tribe and North Central High School. The school campus sits on tribal ancestral land less than a mile from City Hall, where a Spokane Tribe liaison office is planned.
For the school board, the optics of appearing to back away from the Spokane Tribe while the city embraces it are not good. A few Native American students at North Central, offended by what they call the school’s Indians “mascot,” are asking the school board to abolish NC’s Indians symbol. This isn’t the first time some NC Native American students have gone public with their frustrations about the school’s symbol. It last occurred in 1999. At that time, all of the stakeholders were brought to the table, and, with guidance from the Spokane Tribe, steps were taken to resolve the issues. The interested parties in the present dispute are the same ones involved in 1999. They include the Native American students who voice their grievances, the NC student body, the school’s alumni, and, most critically, the Spokane Tribe of Indians.
When the issue arose in 1999, the Spokane Tribe was consulted immediately. At a meeting on the reservation, tribal leaders told NC assistant principal Ed Fisher that they were firmly against North Central using an Indian “mascot,” which they described as a non-Native student dressing up like an Indian and dancing and yelling trying to excite a crowd at athletic events. The tribe indicated, however, it would approve of North Central having “Indians” as a school symbol, as long as it was portrayed in a respectful manner. After many meetings and much discussion, in December 1999, by a 75% vote of the student body, North Central made the transition from an “Indians mascot” to an “Indians symbol.”
The central exhibit of the school’s new “Indians symbol” were two sets of traditional Spokane Tribal apparel and regalia, one for a woman and the other for a man, placed in a museum-quality climate-controlled display case in the school’s entrance hallway. The drawings of Spokane tribal member George Flett, a nationally recognized Native American artist, helped guide the tribal elders who stitched and beaded the deer hide garments in the traditional way. In February 2004, the display was unveiled and dedicated at NC in a ceremony, which included a blessing by tribal members.
Since then, the relationship between the high school and the Spokane Tribe has grown even closer. At times, tribal members came to the school to perform traditional ceremonies, including one at the dedication of NC’s new Institute of Science and Technology. In 2014, the Spokane Tribe held a powwow in NC’s gym in recognition of the school district’s Medicine Wheel program to connect Native students with their culture and community. Two members of the tribe were brought into the school to teach classes in the native language of Salish and American History from the Indians’ perspective. A Native American Literature class was an offspring of the Salish language class. In a meeting that Principal Steve Fisk had with tribal leaders in October 2019, they acknowledged that at no time had the tribe felt dishonored in any way by how NC used its Indians symbol. The tribe even offered to send representatives to the school to meet with the current Native Americans students who were troubled by NC’s Indians symbol.
Unfortunately, during the current dispute, several invested parties have been allowed limited involvement in the process. An alumni representative was permitted a single fact-finding meeting with two students last spring.
Unlike in 1999, this time the North Central student body was not allowed to vote on whether they wanted to keep the school’s Indians symbol. Even the Spokane Tribe received minimal consideration in the process.
At the single meeting with the tribe in October 2019, Principal Fisk shared the unsettled feelings some students had about NC’s symbol, but none of the students attended that meeting.
By no means should the heartfelt feelings of these Native American students be dismissed. Their issues are real and should be heard and addressed, but the equally sincere concerns of other interested parties should also be considered. If the board does what it’s being asked to do in this case, the long-standing relationship between the school and the Spokane Tribe will be completely severed.
Fundamentally, the status of North Central’s “Indians” symbol should be determined by the Spokane Tribe of Indians’ inherent authority of tribal sovereignty. This sovereignty gives Native Americans the right to govern themselves regarding affairs that impact and represent them. Symbols are primary representations. The final decision on the word “Indians” representing North Central High School should rest with the Spokane Tribe.
After the Spokane City Council passed the March 22 resolution recognizing the Spokane Tribe of Indians as the ancestral stewards of the Spokane Falls and surrounding land, Councilwoman Karen Stratton, a granddaughter of a Spokane Tribal member, called it a “first step in a publicly committed relationship to the tribes.” She added, “This is a very heartfelt proclamation to publicly honor and respect not only the Spokane Tribe, but all tribal people.”
For 30 years, the Spokane Tribe has been a partner and counselor for North Central on issues concerning the use of the school’s “Indians” symbol.
Let’s hope the Spokane School Board will have the vision to see that many cultural and educational opportunities will be lost to current and future students if the Spokane Tribe of Indians is expelled from North Central High School.
Alan Hanson is a 1967 graduate of North Central High School, a retired teacher of the school, and the current president of the North Central High School Alumni Association. Alan Torgerson is a former student body president at North Central High School and a 1952 NC graduate.
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