Football season has kicked off another round of scrutiny over how professional sports teams use Native American mascots. But in eastern Washington, a minor league baseball team has earned the approval of its native namesake.
Avista Stadium in Spokane is full of the familiar sights, sounds and smells of baseball. And then, there are things that might make you do a double take.
Re-branding in two languages
At the restrooms, “men” and “women” are written in English and in another language. It's Salish, a family of languages that was spoken for centuries throughout the Northwest. In the team store, you can buy a ball cap with the Spokane Indians logo in Salish.
“Things have changed. There used to be teepees for our ticket offices,” said Otto Klein, senior vice president of the Spokane Indians Baseball Club, a farm team of the Texas Rangers.
In 2006, the team asked the tribe to be part of its re-branding efforts. Gone are the days when the team's logo featured a grinning “Chief Wahoo.” Now the team has incorporated feathers and the Salish language into an official logo.
And this year, the team introduced the most visible nod to the tribe's culture yet: a home game uniform in Salish.
The idea came up in one of their regular meetings with the tribe.
Helping to save the native tongue
“They came to us and they said, 'One of the problems we're having right now is that our native tongue is dying,’ Klein explained. “And so that's when we decided to put on the front of our uniform – it has traditionally said 'Spokane' and what we decided to do this year is we changed it to, what we like to call 'Spokani,' but it is definitely pronounced differently.”
The word is written out with three apostrophes and a curling character not found in English. The written version of Salish was developed in the last century, in part to preserve the language. The Spokane tribe says only 11 people are fluent in their dialect. They try to keep it going with stories for kids.
Rudy Peone, chairman of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, said he has gotten some criticism for the tribe's relationship with the baseball team.
“We have a couple of individual tribal members also that have had the opinion that they don't like any mascots, whatsoever,” he said. “Non-tribal people have had the same opinion. To be truthful, to me it's easy for me to pick which are negative connotations and what the meanings are.”
Peone added the collaboration has been worth it. Because their culture is still recovering from generations of children being sent to boarding schools and forbidden from speaking their native languages.
Now the tribe is trying to increase the ranks of Salish speakers. And Peone said the team uniforms help – by creating a kind of “cool” factor.
“What I like to relate it to would be when Michael Jordan and the Nike swoosh took off. Everybody wanted a pair of Jordans,” Peone said. “Well, I've got all kinds of kids and even adults too, 'Where can I get one of those jerseys?!’ So, I think it helps.”
The baseball team plans to put up more signage in the native language around the stadium -- though, sometimes the translators have to get creative.
Ortencia Ford, a Salish teacher on the Spokane Tribe of Indians' Reservation, about 50 miles from Avista Stadium, laughed after reading the translation for “baseball” in the team's logo.
It means, “Someone who hits something with something.”
At a recent game, longtime Indians fans John Bishop and Bob Reed sat in the upper reaches of the stadium, cheering on their team against the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. Bishop and Reed have rarely missed a home game going back “20 or 25 years in the same spot.”
This year the team tested out the new uniforms. Under league rules players wear them less than half the time this season. And these devoted fans -- what do they think?
“I think it's a good deal,” Bishop said. “I wish they'd maybe wear it more, but maybe they will next year. It's good for everybody.”
Turns out, the players think it's good for them too. The team started off the season winning a lot of games when they wore the “Spokani” uniforms.
And in the fine baseball tradition of getting superstitious, they kept wearing them.