SELAH, Wash. — A proposal to designate Selah Volunteer Park as “Chief Owhi’s Park” is facing a pushback from a lawyer and member of the Yakama Nation, who claims the city has appropriated the name without contacting the tribe.
“They’re negotiating something about us and we’re not involved,” said Jack Fiander, attorney and great-great-great-great-grandson of Owhi. “It creates resentment because there is a whole history in this nation of people appropriating tribal property without really asking for it and claiming it as their own.”
Fiander filed an objection and motion to intervene over the weekend in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington on behalf of himself and other descendants, saying the parties involved have no legal right to appropriate the name of Owhi.
“I know they were trying to honor the Yakama people by doing this, but often among the tribal people, the people who cause the most trouble are the ones who come and say, ‘We want to help you,'” he said. Fiander.
The City of Selah agreed to add the secondary name as part of a settlement agreement reached in a 2020 lawsuit filed by the Selah Alliance for Equality over alleged selective enforcement by the city of its municipal code to get rid of signs supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. .
READ: City of Selah settles free speech lawsuit alleging targeted removal of signs supporting BLM and racial equality
KAPP-KVEW has contacted a SAFE legal representative for comment, but has not received a response.
Fiander said he believed the city and SAFE had good intentions, but by failing to consult with the tribe or report on tribal customs, they ended up ignoring the people they wanted to honor.
Owhi was one of the signers of the 1855 Treaty of Yakama and is still remembered by his descendants, who Fiander says are concerned about the appropriation of his name.
“Names in tribal culture have such significance,” Fiander said. “For example, if a deceased has a tribal name and dies, their name is not even spoken until a year or more later when a memorial is held.”
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Fiander said tribal names are considered property and there are strict rules in Yakama culture regarding ownership of names: who can bear them, who can use them, and how they are bestowed. He said these important cultural issues were not considered in the settlement agreement.
“Owhi would never have described himself as a chief. Our tribal names are not public property that people can just take without permission and give to someone else. It’s like theft, or what in law of tort would be called conversion – where someone takes property belonging to another and exercises control over it or converts it to their use,” Fiander said in court papers.
Fiander said there are also ceremonial processes that are necessary when someone seeks to use a tribal name that they do not have the inherent right to use.
“The way names are transferred is you make that request and it’s done ceremonially,” Fiander said. “You have a meal together, gifts are exchanged and it helps cement the relationship.”
Fiander is asking the court to stop the city and SAFE from proceeding with the proposal to designate Volunteer Park as “Chief Owhi Park” until they can work together to find a solution.
“There are a lot of ways to fix this…I mean, you can take a Sharpie and just strike that term out of the rules,” Fiander said. “Or maybe they could consult with the leaders of the Toppenish Tribal Council and they’ll suggest the use of another available tribal name.”
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