The use of Native American names and imagery within the world of professional sports has long been a controversial topic. Teams such as the Cleveland Indians and, in particular, the Washington Redskins, are under increasing pressure to abandon names, mascots and logos that are perceived by many as culturally insensitive.
But controversy need not be the norm when it comes to this ongoing societal debate, as the Spokane Indians have amply proven. This enduring Northwest League franchise -- currently the Class A Short Season affiliate of the Texas Rangers -- are named after the Spokane Indian tribe, and the use of this name in a professional baseball context dates back to 1903. Indians co-owner/senior advisor Andy Billig and senior vice president Otto Klein have both been with the team for more than two decades, and throughout the entirety of that time they've maintained an open dialogue with members of the local Spokane tribe. Their goal in doing so, simply stated, is to make sure they celebrate, rather than denigrate, the people their franchise purports to represent.
A significant step in this ongoing process occurred prior to the 2007 season. After two decades in which the team had refrained from using Native American imagery of any kind, the Indians unveiled a set of logos that were created in conjunction with the Spokane tribe. The primary logo featured two Eagle feathers (a sacred symbol within Spokane tribal culture), and an alternate logo included the words "Spokane Indians Baseball Club" written in the tribal language of Salish.
"In the past, we had received compliments from the tribe for being respectful and not using offensive images," Billig told me in November 2006, when the logos were first unveiled. "But now, as opposed to respect through exclusion, we can convey an even greater respect by honoring the Spokane tribe's heritage directly."
In a conversation earlier this week, Billig elaborated on this relationship.
"Since I arrived in 1992, there has been an ongoing dialogue with all of the local tribes. This is a potentially sensitive issue, so we frequently check in and ask how we are doing," said Billig, now a Washington state senator who works with the Indians in a part-time capacity. "Positive dialogue and respect is at the foundation of our relationship, and this is what has allowed our partnership to flourish."
* * *
The 2014 season will mark a new chapter in this partnership. Earlier this month, the Indians unveiled a new jersey featuring "Spokane" spelled out in Salish script: Sp'q'n'i (the "i" is followed by a circular symbol that is not part of the English language). While the jersey was not completed in time to be approved as the Indians' primary uniform, it will be sported during weekend home games as well as June 13's season-opening contest.
"Every year since we did the logo we've discussed projects and ideas [with the Spokane tribe]," said Klein. "Featuring more items in Salish is something that, from their perspective, they'd like to see us do more of."
Klein is a Montana native, and in that state Salish script is included on signage located within the Flathead Indian reservation. Using this as a reference point, the Indians incorporated Salish into their signage as part of a .5 million stadium renovation project that took place prior to the 2013 season. This includes the men's and women's restrooms as well as the concession stands.
"There are challenges in doing this, as not everything can be translated. We're not talking about French to English. There are a lot of words that don't transfer over," said Klein. "We have tunnels that go in and out of the ballpark and something like 'first base tunnel,' they don't have a translation for that. … We do what we can when it's applicable, and something like the jerseys? That's a no-brainer.
"We're also different, because most teams in Minor League Baseball have the team name written on the front, but ours is the city name," he continued. "For us to do 'Spokane' in Salish is really important."
Rudy Peone, chairman of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, could not be reached for comment before deadline, but he recently expressed a similar sentiment to The Spokesman-Review newspaper, however.
"The team, the name, it's not named for a vague group," said Peone. "… This is the Spokane Indians, named specifically for our tribe. We've accepted that and have a very close working relationship, in a respectful way."
* * *
The Indians' use of the Salish language on the jerseys and stadium signage comes at a crucial time, as the Spokane tribe's Salish dialect is in danger of disappearing. Fluent speakers are few, and the team's efforts should help spread awareness of similar attempts to raise the language's profile in the city of Spokane. The Salish School of Spokane is leading efforts in this regard, now offering a variety of classes as well as a full-immersion school program for local youth.
Of course, there are those who will view the Indians' efforts with no small degree of cynicism. Creative marketing is crucial to the success of a Minor League Baseball team, and in recent years teams have adopted all manner of eye-catching (and often blatantly ridiculous) names, logos, and theme jerseys. Klein concedes that the new jerseys could be good for business, but says that the bottom line is not the motivating factor.
"A lot of the time when teams change their name or do certain things on promotional nights, they do it because they want national attention. But we're not doing this for marketing purposes. … We think we can really help to raise awareness and help preserve the language."
Furthermore, a portion of the apparel sales proceeds will be donated to Spokane youth programs, as well as the money raised from an end-of-season auction featuring the Salish script game-worn jerseys.
"If jersey sales take off, then we'll be excited because we can help the kids of the tribe," said Klein. "The more it takes off, then the more we can help kids."
Such initiatives have helped to solidify the relationship between the Indians ballclub and the Spokane tribe, in the process providing a potential solution for a long-simmering sports world controversy. But whether it influences the national debate on the use of Native American imagery in professional sports remains to be determined.
"We can only control what we can control," said Klein. "If we're part of the national conversation, then we're only bringing positive awareness to the fact that it can be done well."
"One of the things we've always said is that what we did here with the Spokane tribe was the right thing for our team and our community," said Billig. "It's harder for me to say that the Cleveland Indians need to do the same, because I don't live there. … This is what we're experts on -- our community."