Monday, May 25, 2015

Was an Indian Boy Lynched in the 19th-Century Spokane?

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.


TEC said...

I agree, the story has significance, whether every detail is literally true or not. I came across a place-story about a man-made land feature that provided an opportunity for proponents of Indian culture to take a swing at the military, and found that while much of the story correct, the interpretation overlayed concerning whether a wall had been built as an Army fortification was likely embellishment to make, a nevertheless, valid point.

Nobody should be lynched. What does it say about western law enforcement that rarely were those who took such measures arrested, charged and given the opportunity for trial. Sheriffs and Prosecutors are (and were) elected based on the sentiment of the community. -- TEC

Candess M. Campbell PhD said...

This is one of my favorite songs. When I was married to Peter A. Campbell, Coeur d'Alene/Colville, I became aware not only of the incredible cultural texture of the American Indian people, but also of the woundedness as a result of their being stripped of their language for seven generations. The vision of the "Black Robes" coming and the friendship the Natives expected which turned out to be the Priests taking over their land would be another great ballad.

Maybe we could change the name of Ft George Wright Drive to the Blue Ribbon Way!

Barry Moses (Sulustu) said...

As a side-note, I recently came across a short story that was reported to have come from Calvin Garry; however, unlike your report, this other story had some major supernatural elements. According to what I read, the main 'character' of the other story was also a developmentally disabled boy, but in this case, the boy apparently made a deal with the devil in an attempt to become 'normal.' An offering was made at a specific location that has some historical significance to the tribe. Sometime later, the devil came to 'claim' the boy, but the boy's father chased him away by shouting at him in Salish.

I don't know what this means, if anything. It was only curious to me because I never knew anything about Calvin Garry, but I found these two stories within a short time of each other.

Larry Cebula said...

Calvin seems an interesting guy.