A friend drew my attention to this folk song by the local group The Blue Ribbon Tea Company. Discursive in the way that folk songs often are, the main narrative thrust is a story about a mute Indian boy who was lynched for whistling at a white woman, apparently in the 19th century. Give the song a listen, I will wait.
The boy, presumably a Spokane Indian, was what today we would call developmentally disabled. His people, though, looked at him as having a spiritual blessing. He could not speak but he did whistle, and his tribe believed he was communicating with the animals. One day, the story goes, Colonel George Wright's wife was out riding and thought the boy was whistling lasciviously at her. She told her husband and he promptly sent out some men who lynched the boy for offending his wife's honor in such a fashion.
It would be easy--and a mistake--to dismiss this tale out of hand. After all, George Wright never lived in Spokane let alone with his wife. It could not have happened as told. Yet other parts of the story ring true. It is interesting that the native informant begins by pointing out a cave that his ancestors had used for cold storage--a traditional practice in this area. It is also true that native peoples of the region valued the differently-abled as having special spiritual powers.
The story is curious enough that I reached out to the songwriter, Bill Kostelec. I met him and his charming wife Kathy at their house. Kostelec turns out to have quite a backstory, he has a PhD in religion from Emory and has taught courses in Native American Religious Traditions at Gonzaga. He and Kathy are also skilled professional photographers. Bill poured us some coffee and he told me about the song.
The story of the lynching was told to him about 20 years previously by Calvin Garry, a great-grandson of Spokane Garry and a former paratrooper who was wounded on D-Day. Bill met Garry, who he estimates was in his 70s at the time, through one of his students who was also a member of the Spokane Tribe. Bill gave Garry a ride from the reservation to the city and the elder told him some stories, including that of the lynching. Garry pointed out the cave somewhere near Nine Mile. Garry did not place the lynching at Vinegar Flats or give any specific location. "He laid the story out just the way I told it in the song," Bill said to me. There were no additional details that Bill could recall--except that after hearing the story from Garry, his Spokane student asked several elders on the Coeur D'Alene reservation if they knew the story and they did, just as Garry had told it. Garry died in 2001.
We speculated about the facts behind the story. Of course the Wright part could not be true, but maybe his name became added to a story that really occurred. A search through digitized sources does not turn up any references to the incident in print or archival sources. Could there have been an unrecorded lynching of an Indian boy in the late 19th century in this area? It is certainly possible--extrajudicial violence against native people was common in that era, as we have seen with the lynching in Cheney. Such violence often made the newspapers (in some whitewashed fashion) but it is conceivable that the murder of one native boy might not have been recorded anywhere. This is particularly true if it were the very early period, before there were newspapers in Spokane.
The title of this post is the wrong question. Maybe the real question is not whether the story can be proven "true," but rather: Why was the story was told and retold in two local tribes, perhaps for over 100 years? I have come to believe that we historians have focused too much on the wars of the period, and too little on the many acts of small-scale acts of intimidation, injustice, and violence that we just as significant in the piecemeal dispossession of the natives from their land. The story of the mute Indian boy, true or not, is a piece of that larger puzzle.