Long-time effort results in Whist-alks Way
By Catherine Ferguson SNJM
On Dec. 14, 2020, the seven Spokane City Council members voted unanimously to change the name of Fort George Wright Drive to Whist-alks Way.
The name change initiated by a grass roots group and Council members Karen Stratton and Betsy Wilkerson, was strongly supported by the Spokane Tribal Council, who were asked to propose the new name for the mile-and-a-half road.
The Tribal Council reached out to Tribal Elders to recommend a name, followed with support of the name from tribal leaders from Colville, Coeur d'Alene and Yakama Tribes.
"We reached out to these tribes because their ancestors fought alongside ancestors of the Spokane Tribe. This is the proper tribal protocol according to tribal customs," said Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribal Business Council.
After more than 120 years of honoring a man whose cruelty brought the killing and starvation of many Indians of the various tribes who made their livelihoods along the rivers of Eastern Washington, this new name will correct the historical record.
The new name will honor the peoples who first inhabited the Spokane region by honoring the woman warrior, Whist-alks, who was the wife of Qualchan, one of the warriors who was hanged by Colonel George Wright in May 1858 along Hangman Creek.
In achieving the name change, the grass roots group and City Council members accomplished what others before them had been unable to do.
Why now? Attempts were made in the 1980s and again in 1993.
According to Rusty Nelson, former director of the Peace and Justice League of Spokane (PJALS) and one of those involved in previous efforts, a part of the process required agreement of those who lived along the street: Spokane Falls Community College (SFCC), the Unitarian Universalist Church, the Dominican Sisters and the Holy Names Sisters.
In 1993, SFCC did not support the change and so the process ended before it really began, he said. One of the reasons given for the lack of support was that it would cost too much to change SFCC's letterhead.
This time, SFCC backed the change. It will cost them, but they are willing to do it because it's right to do, said Tami Palmquist of the Spokane Planning Commission.
The Unitarian Universalist Church (UUC) of Spokane, at 4340 W. Fort George Wright Dr., had also previously called for changing the name of the street.
In August, 200 people rallied in the UUC parking lot to challenge honoring someone who organizers said had committed genocide and terrorized the first peoples of this land, slaughtered 800 horses on the shores of the Spokane River in September 1858, burned down the tribes' barns with wheat and food, and lured tribal leaders for peace talks beside Hangman Creek where 17 were hanged.
Indigenous speakers shared stories, thoughts and insights on renaming the street, walking, driving or riding to an intersection with prominent signs and shared more stories of the atrocities that had happened.
Todd Eklof, pastor, said the church had tried several times to change the name to remove the constant reminder of the pain Col. Wright had caused, and as a step to right historical wrongs and recognize how racism has been part of the community.
The time was right because of the events that have propelled a national movement to address racial injustice and rethink the kinds of historical figures who are honored in monuments, street names and public spaces.
Betsy acknowledged, "It's just the whole tone of the country right now so people know enough about it" to seek the change.
In the process, because the City of Spokane is named for the Spokane Tribe, who were some of the original inhabitants of this land, the Spokane Tribal Council led the effort to determine the new name.
Carol, who grew up in Wellpinit, said they followed Indian protocol in determining the name and proposing that the street be renamed Whist-alks Way.
"The Spokane Tribal Council reached out to the elders for input, to other tribes who were affected by the actions of Wright," she said. "The council itself liked the idea of supporting women warriors."
Carol, who will be completing eight years as council's chairwoman this June, counts this name change as one of the major achievements supporting indigenous peoples since she began her service.
She also credits the hard work of Spokane Tribal member Margo Hill as key in bringing it about. Margo is an attorney and associate professor in urban planning at Eastern Washington University.
Carol points to other actions to carry out the council's vision "to achieve true sovereignty by attaining self-sufficiency."
"We will preserve and enhance our traditional values by living and teaching the inherent principles of respect, honor and integrity as embodied in our language and life-ways," she said.
"Our efforts on the Coulee Dam legislation were finally successful," she said.
This legislation assured the Spokane Tribe will receive compensation for the harm they experienced when their land was inundated by Coulee Dam. Other tribes had received such compensation in earlier legislation.
"In addition, our 2019 application for Indian gaming was approved by the Department of the Interior," she said.
As a result, the Spokane Tribe operates casinos on the West Plains near Spokane and in Chewelah.
Carol is particularly proud of the work they have done on language preservation.
"We worked hard on language preservation. Our fluent speakers were down to just a handful, and it is important to bring our language back," said Carol, highlighting the healing power of learning one's own language.
According to the Spokane Tribe Language and Culture website, "reclaiming of the language and culture has caused a new sense of pride and dignity in the people. Many of the social problems of the past have been erased and our people are healthy in all aspects of their lives."
Besides these achievements, the Spokane Tribal Council continues to work on improving health care, expanding work force and housing opportunities, addressing drug addiction and other social issues.
The unanimous acceptance of the name change by the Spokane City Council not only affirms the desire to honor the ancestors who lived on this land but also acknowledges the work of their descendants to honor their Indian tradition and culture.
As they voted on the name change, Spokane City Council members expressed their satisfaction at being able to support the name change.
Betsy affirmed "I am so happy to be here to make this happen."
Council President Breean Beggs also expressed his affirmation: "I am thrilled we are where we are today."
At the same time, many present acknowledged that this is only one step, and there is much work to do.
In particular, representatives of the Native American Alliance of Policy and Action, who represent the about 16,000 Native Americans from various tribes who live in Spokane and who gave their support to the name change, encouraged the council to form a working group that includes them to give more voice to the urban Indians in policy decisions.
Tami said that first the Spokane Planning Commission studied the name-change proposal before referring it to Spokane City Council. With the vote, the next step is to make new street signs and put them up at post-COVID time when they can have a ceremony.
For information, call 458-6500 or visit spokanetribe.com.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, January, 2021