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Native American acculturation in American sport

This is an excerpt from Sports in American History 3rd Edition With HKPropel Access by Gerald R. Gems,Linda J. Borish & Gertrud Pfister.

As with urban ethnic-minority groups, reformers used sport and education in attempts to foster assimilation of Native American tribes. The process of formal acculturation began in 1879, with the opening of the Carlisle Indian School at an abandoned Army barracks in Pennsylvania. Carlisle was the first of many schools across the country designed to convert Native Americans to white notions of civilization. It housed American Indians from 70 different tribes and imposed on them the English language, vocational skills, and WASP values. Forced to cut their hair, don clothing typically worn by whites, and assume WASP standards of decorum, American Indian youth struggled to maintain their own cultural identities.

Although Native Americans adapted well to baseball, the Carlisle football team constituted the most visible success in the forced assimilation process. The team began play in 1890 and within five years embarked on a national schedule. In 1898, its quarterback, Frank Hudson, became the first of many Native American players to win recognition as an All-American.

With no home field, the Carlisle football team traveled across the country—and in 1912 even played in Canada, where it defeated Toronto University 49-1 in a combined game of rugby and football. Carlisle matched its wit and brawn against the best of the collegiate teams, nearly defeating Harvard and Yale in 1896 and beating Penn in 1899. It ranked among the best teams in the country from 1900 to 1914. The 1912 team featured members of 10 tribal groups, including the famed Jim Thorpe. They led the nation in scoring with 504 points, and Jim Thorpe accounted for 25 of the team’s 66 touchdowns (Gems, For Pride 119).

The Carlisle team became a major attraction in the commercialized world of intercollegiate football, drawing huge crowds in urban stadiums. The University of Michigan provided a $2,000 guarantee for a 1901 game in Detroit, and the University of Chicago paid $1,700 for a 1907 contest. Their success might have provided a rehabilitated image of Native Americans, but they were often portrayed as “noble savages,” and their coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner, got most of the credit for their trick plays and innovative formations (e.g., Carlisle nearly beat Harvard by hiding the ball under a player’s jersey in 1903). The attribution of this success to Warner’s genius only reinforced the Social Darwinist belief in the need for white leadership, and Warner reinforced stereotypes by refusing to number the players’ jerseys in the belief that since all American Indians looked alike the identical jerseys would deceive opponents. Of the deceptive plays, he asserted that “[t]he public expects the Indians to employ trickery and we try to oblige” (Beale 147).

White sportswriters characterized the Carlisle team as tricksters who won by deceit or by “massacres” if they scored a lot of points. Such media descriptions were meant to reinforce a perception of whites as morally superior, yet American Indians often displayed better sporting behavior than their white opponents. For them, football offered an opportunity to exhibit racial pride and exact a measure of revenge. Their ancestors had suffered at the hands of the American military in its quest for Indian lands, and they took particular joy in defeating the West Point team. The team’s historian stated that in confronting Army, the “Redskins play football as if they were possessed” (Steckbeck 95). In the 1912 game, when Jim Thorpe’s touchdown run was called back for an alleged infraction, he responded by scoring another on the very next play in a 27-6 victory. For the tribes, such games represented a continuation of the frontier wars.

Football also allowed Native Americans to challenge the Social Darwinists’ racial stereotypes by outsmarting their supposedly superior opponents. The 1906 rule changes allowed for forward passes, stipulating only that the ball had to be caught within the boundaries of the playing field. In a 1907 win against the elite University of Chicago team, the Carlisle receiver ran around the opponents’ bench and returned to the field to catch a touchdown pass. In 1911, Carlisle defeated mighty Harvard 18-15 when Thorpe scored four field goals and a touchdown. After the game, his teammates mimicked the Bostonians’ accents in a parody of their elitist attitudes. After beating Penn, a Carlisle player determined that the white men might be better with cannons and guns, but the Native Americans displayed equal intelligence on the football field (Warner 46).

Football served a number of functions for Native Americans as they both adopted and adapted the game to suit their own needs. Victories over white teams provided a measure of racial pride. The best American Indian players, such as Thorpe and Joe Guyon, were valued performers on professional teams. Thorpe served as the nominal head of the new professional American Football League (soon renamed the NFL) in 1920. In 1922 and 1923, Thorpe and Guyon both played on the Oorang Indians team that featured 12 different tribes on the roster. Although they did not win many games, they enjoyed spending the money of the white owner, who sponsored the team as a marketing tool for his dog breeding business (Gems, “The Construction” 131–150).

At least one adaptation exhibited cross-cultural flow between Native Americans and people of Anglo descent: Both Canadians and Americans adopted the traditional American Indian game of lacrosse by the nineteenth century. By the Progressive Era, American Indians were mixing traditional loincloths and moccasins with Anglo team jerseys and athletic shoes. The game became more regulated when a national lacrosse league adopted Canadian rules and held a championship at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1879. An intercollegiate lacrosse association was formed in 1882, and teams from New York and Boston engaged Canadian rivals. All-star teams began making barnstorming trips to England and Ireland by 1888. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) assumed governance of the sport in 1890 and promoted regional tournaments, but the game retained its greatest popularity among whites in New England and the Atlantic Coast areas thereafter. Native Americans who remained on reservations resisted the sportification process imposed on those who lived at boarding schools, retaining their traditional game of lacrosse with its inherent symbols, rituals, and meanings. By the 1890s, whites deemed them to be professionals and excluded them from mixed competition. White clergy also protested lacrosse play among American Indians because they often chose the game over church attendance (Vennum 277).

People and Places

Jim Thorpe

Selected for the 1912 United States Olympic team, Jim Thorpe captured the gold medal in both the pentathlon and the decathlon. A year later, he ran afoul of the AAU’s definition of amateurism when it was discovered that he had played minor league baseball in the summer of 1909 for pay. Forced to return his medals and stripped of his Olympic victory, Thorpe turned to the professional ranks to make a living. He played major league baseball but had a bigger influence as the premier attraction on the nascent pro football circuit, where physical prowess counted more than race or social status. By 1915, town teams paid him as much as $250 per game for his services. In 1920, the fledgling pro league named him its first president to capitalize on his national celebrity; in 1922 and 1923, as player-manager, he guided the Oorang Indians team, composed entirely of Native Americans from 12 different tribes, in the National Football League.

More Excerpts From Sports in American History 3rd Edition With HKPropel Access