Many sports teams using names and mascots invoking Native Americans do so over the longstanding and strenuous objections of people who say it is racist. Some teams, after years of stubborn refusal, have recently relented, like the Washington Football Team of the N.F.L., which abandoned its nickname earlier this month.
Then there are the Spokane Indians.
The minor league team in Washington State has been collaborating with the Spokane Tribe of Indians in what it hopes is a respectful manner of honoring the local Indigenous population.
Can that be done? Some say it is not possible, but the Spokane Indians may be as close to an understanding as any team has come.
“They came and listened to the elders, and that is what really developed the relationship over time,” said Carol Evans, the chairwoman of the Spokane Tribal Council, “and it has grown like a family partnership unit, where we have a lot of respect for one another.”
But Suzan Shown Harjo, an advocate for Native American rights who has led the fight against Indigenous team names and mascots in sports for decades, said no matter the good intent, the name should still be changed.
“There is no such thing as respectable treatment of any mascot or team name that has a native theme in sports,” she said. “There is just no such thing, no matter how you package it.”
The Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball said they were having discussions about the “best path forward” regarding their name.
The Spokane Indians have had such talks, too, even volunteering to abandon the name 14 years ago but eventually deciding to keep it with the support of tribal leadership.
The Spokane Indians were founded in 1903 and are now a Class A affiliate of the Texas Rangers (an awkward and painful historical connection because the original Texas Rangers, a law enforcement division, were known to hunt down Native Americans). Decades ago, the Spokane team logo featured a grotesque caricature of a Native person. But there are no longer any such depictions associated with the team.
Since 2006, the team has actively engaged with the Spokane Tribe, many of whom live on a reservation about 40 miles from the city of Spokane. Meetings are held with government leaders at least once a year and the team has made several changes and innovations to their uniform design, stadium exhibits and cultural outreach programs, based on recommendations from the Spokane leaders.
The current uniform has Sp’q’n’i’ emblazoned on the front. It is the spelling in Salish, the local Native American language, for Spokane, which is pronounced Spo-ka-NEE, according to Evans. One of the jerseys hangs at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and is said to be the first example of Native American language on a professional baseball uniform.
The team adopted a mascot dressed as a trout, a traditional food source of the Spokane people, in part to raise awareness for redband trout conservation in the area. The logo includes a feather inspired by the art of a member of the Spokane community and one version has Salish words on it. Some signs in the stadium, like for the team store, the concession stand and the restrooms, are in both English and Salish.
All of it was done in consultation with the Spokane people, said Evans and Otto Klein, a senior vice president and part owner of the team.
“In the early conversations, we had everything on the table, including a name change,” Klein said. “The partnership you see today is where it ended up, and we are very proud of it from our side.”
Klein said the team has joined in an effort to restock the local rivers with salmon, the Spokane Tribe’s historical food source until the construction of dams in the 20th century cut off the supply.
With the Spokane team, the straightforward narratives that often apply to teams with Native nicknames are upended by seeming paradoxes and nuance. While the team has endeavored to erase all Native American imagery, one image still exists on a scoreboard, but it is an advertisement for the Spokane Tribe of Indians, and it depicts a traditional member of the Spokane nation in headdress.
On the reservation, the nickname of the public Wellpinit High School is Redskins, arguably the most offensive nickname used by sports teams. (Evans hopes the younger generations will one day change the name, which has often gotten a shrug from members of the community.)
John Schleppi, a sports history professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, has researched the team’s unique relationship with the Spokane people. He said he may never have discovered the rich history and traditions of the Spokane people if it were not for a visit to the stadium in 2006.
Near the entrance of the stadium, a series of exhibits showcased the culture and history of the Spokane nation, the people who had been pushed off the very land on which the stadium sits, more than a century ago.
“I learned about the various ceremonies and what certain practices meant,” he said from his home in Dayton. “I remember there was a display on lifestyles and fishing methods and one on language and culture.”
Klein said the team, which is not playing this year after the minor league season was canceled because of the pandemic, also helps finance charitable efforts on the reservation, including a fund for children, and they are helping to rebuild the local baseball field.
But Harjo said donations from teams to local Native groups could be used to induce the endorsement of local groups. She pointed to contributions made by Florida State University to the Seminole people (Florida State’s teams are known as the Seminoles).
“It always makes me sad to hear that Native people, especially tribal leaders, have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to stereotypes,” she said. “There really is no such thing as a good stereotype.”
Stephanie Fryberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, is a member of the Tulalip Nation in Eastern Washington State, a group that is part of the Coastal Salish people. Her research has shown that an overwhelming majority of Native Americans who are engaged in cultural practices are offended by Native sports teams names and logos.
She said that as a scientist, she would need more data to fully evaluate the Spokane situation — including surveys of people’s feelings and opinions — but on the surface, she said there appears to be a respectful approach by the team.
“This seems to be a different story,” Fryberg said, contrasting the Spokane situation with many other more contentious team names and mascots. “I would still like to change the name, but I think there is a place for specific Native names. The goal isn’t to get rid of them completely, but to use them appropriately. You can’t use a mascot appropriately.”
Even if the team and its fans demonstrate proper respect, she said, fans of opposing teams might feel emboldened to hurl racist language and gestures against them.
But to add to the collegial relationship between the team and the Spokane people, she called on the team to apologize for earlier use of the racist logos, even though they were abandoned decades before the current group owned the team. Evans, the chairwoman of the Spokane council, agreed that would be a helpful gesture.
Evans also used to favor a name change, but her nation’s leadership persuaded her otherwise.
“We want them to keep the name because of how they approached us,” she said. “They listened to the elders, and that is what really developed the relationship over time and it has grown into like a family partnership unit where we have a lot of respect for one another.”