(James Snook/Courtesy Spokane Indians)
Connor McKay (right) reacts to his game-winning RBI single in the 10th inning.

Spokane Indians Change Jerseys to Salish Language

Rodney Harwood

Both groups were intent on moving forward, but the question remained, “Where to begin?” The common ground that opened the door to a new era in the Inland Empire in Eastern Washington was a simple one – respect.

The partnership between Spokane Tribe of Indians and the Short Season Class A minor league baseball team called the Spokane Indians is coming up on its 10-year anniversary. It’s been a work in progress, but the foundation has been laid for a new era. In 2014, the baseball organization honored the original inhabitants of the land by changing the name across the front of their home uniforms to read Sp’q’n’i, the Salish word for Spokane, and made it its primary jersey, beginning with opening day in 2015.

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Since this is not an all-Native team, like the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, it is a revolutionary idea that has both tribal members and baseball people excited with the response received after its first full season. “I believe we’re the only professional baseball team in the country that has home jerseys in a language other than English,” Andy Billig, co-owner of Brett Sports and Entertainment, told ICTMN. “The partnership with the Spokane Tribe is about honoring the history and culture of not only the Spokane Tribe, but the entire region.”

In the 2006 off-season, the baseball team began a process to redesign its logo and uniforms. In working with tribal leaders, the result of the collaboration was a new look that included two logos, one in English and one in Salish, the traditional language of the tribe. In 2014, the working group took it one step further and made Sp’q’n’i the featured name for all to see. “This isn’t something the baseball team did on their own. They came to us for permission and involved us. We participated in the whole process,” Spokane tribal chairman Carol Evans said. “To see the jerseys in my language means a lot to me personally. In our case, our historical homeland includes the ball field that they play on. So it’s important to us that the public is aware of our history. I think it’s important for the people that live in the city of Spokane to know who the original people are. We were allowed to participate in events and tell the history of the Spokane people and our ties to the land. We’re proud to do that.”

Maybe it is a long time coming that non-Native people know before there was a City of Spokane, Spokane Falls, Spokane Community College or even a Spokane Indians the baseball team, there was Spokane, the people. Today the Spokane are a tribe of just under 3,000 people. Traditionally, they were fishermen and once fished the waters at Spokane Falls in the current City of Spokane. Their tribal lands once stretched from the Washington-Idaho state line, North to the Canadian border and South to Ritzville, Washington. “I think I share the same pride that thousands of tribal members share. Anytime we can share a little piece of our heritage with non-Natives, in a respectful way, it’s an opportunity to share our pride in our tribal heritage,” Spokane elder and former tribal councilman Mike Spencer said. “I think Andy Billig and his group are very definitely genuine in their efforts. There’s a number of times throughout the year when they invite our people out for tribal appreciation night. They had a Native girl sing the national anthem, not just in English, but in Salish, which is our language. I don’t think it’s a day late and a dollar short, they do things like that every year rather than throwing money around to get a bunch of free publicity. What we’ve been doing for the past 10 years comes from the heart and it’s still that way today.”

The new uniforms were a national showcase back in August when Spokane hosted the inaugural Northwest League-Pioneer League all-star game at Avista Stadium. Nearly half (12) of the 27 Northwest all-stars hailed from foreign countries, including eight from the Dominican Republic, so Sp’q’n’i picked up a little international publicity as well. “One of the neat things this year was the Northwest League-Pioneer League All-Star game, which was televised all over the country. Both the jerseys, Northwest League and Pioneer League, were in Salish,” said Billig (D-Spokane), who is the Deputy Leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus in Washington state. “That went beyond the Spokane Indians. We were the host, so we wanted to put a Spokane twist on the game, and that was a neat way to show the whole country the partnership we have with the Spokane people.”

The Salish language jerseys also generate a little revenue for the tribe. They are auctioned off at the end of the year and the money from the auction goes back to the Spokane Nation, as well as portions from jersey sales throughout the season.

In a world where change happens ever day, the partnership between the Spokane people and a baseball team called the Spokane Indians is a step in the right direction. It’s certainly making progress. “I remember a class I had my freshman year at Eastern Washington University,” former Spokane tribal chairman Rudy Peone recalled. “The professor asked each of us to stand up and tell a little bit about ourselves. When my turn came, I said I was a member of the Spokane Indians and this guy in front of me turned around as asked, ‘what position do you play?’ It wasn’t racial, I guess he never thought of Spokane as being a tribe of people. So the new jerseys are a way to educate thousands of baseball fans about the language and culture of the city’s first inhabitants.”

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