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Spin Control: Native American mascot bill points to something Spokane did well

Spokane Indians pitcher Patrick Donovan models the new Spokane Indians uniform at a news conference at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture on Nov. 29, 2006, in Spokane. The new logo, shown in both English and Salish, was designed with help from the Spokane Tribe.  (JED CONKLIN)

Although I’ve never been a big believer in the Cascade Curtain, more than a decade in Olympia has taught me that there is a certain West Side bias that results in somewhat rare recognition, let alone praise, for things Eastern Washington does right.

So it was a pleasant surprise last week, when debate over a bill to restrict the use of Native American names and images for high school sports teams had a thumbs-up to Spokane for how it dealt with a thorny national issue.

“A good example of what has been done in Washington has been done in Spokane,” said Rep. Debra Lekanoff, a Democrat from Bow and the only Native American currently serving in the House. The Spokane Tribe, the community and the Spokane Indians baseball team worked together on a way for the team to honor the tribe, with whom it shares a name, she said.

The Spokane team, with their Salish logo, is the only one in the country with uniforms that carry a Native American language, said Lekanoff, the prime sponsor of the bill.

So unique is that uniform that one hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, said Sen. Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat who was president of the team when those discussions took place in 2006.

“In my professional career, it’s one of the most meaningful things I’ve been a part of,” he said recently.

How cool is that logo? As a new senator, Billig followed the tradition of giving gifts to his colleagues when he passed his first bill. Included in the gift bag were Spokane Indians baseball hats, some with the logo in English and some with the logo in the tribe’s Salish language.

The Salish logos were so popular that some senators asked if they could swap out their English ones.

It’s not clear whether the team was named for the tribe or, like hundreds of teams around the country, selected the name as a nod to its Western location or even drew it out of a hat. But unlike most of those teams, when you put the name of the city in front of the name of the team, you’ve got the name of the tribe.

“We default to the fact that it belongs to the tribe, intentional or not,” Billig said.

Even before the discussions in 2006, the team did not engage in certain things that some Native Americans find offensive elsewhere. There was no caricature of a Native American in the team logo, no mascot in a war bonnet riding around the field before the game or coaxing cheers from spectators in the stands.

The team holds Native American culture nights at some games. The stadium has Native American art. Its mascot is a purple dinosaur, to which only paleontologists might take offense.

When the team sat down with tribal elders, the owners were willing to change the name if that’s what the tribe wanted, Billig said.

Remember this was some 15 years ago, when the owners of the Washington NFL team were telling people objecting to the name of their team, which was actually an ethnic slur, to just get over it. The Cleveland Indians were sticking with the cartoonish figure of Chief Wahoo as their main mascot.

After a series of meetings in Wellpinit where an agreement was reached, the team also talked to other Native American tribes in the area – the Kalispels, Colvilles and Coeur d’Alenes – about what it had planned, Billig said. And team officials continue to work with the Spokanes.

“We have an ongoing dialogue, a full partnership,” he said.

The bill, which passed the House 92-5, generally prohibits Washington public schools from using Native American names, symbols or images for their teams. But it has an exception that could generate more of the kind of dialogue that the team and the tribe engaged in.

If a public school has a district boundary that includes tribal lands, or in a county adjacent to one with tribal lands, it can seek permission from the tribe to keep the name, symbol or image. If, after consultation and discussions, the tribe gives its approval, the school can keep the team name.

“If you’re going to use the name, it has to be the tribal nation’s choice. It’s not up to the school or the team,” Billig said. “I told (Lekanoff) that’s one of the things I liked about the bill, that it incorporates a potential for partnerships.”

Considering Billig is the Senate majority leader, it seems likely the bill could move fairly easily through that chamber as well.

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