As I re-discover the early history of athletics in Oregon, and find out that these early years were full of native people participating in the early rules and policies of numerous intramural sports, and contributing to the early successes of college athletics. I also found that native athletes were very prominent in sports. Men like Reuben Sanders, Jim Thorpe, and other early athletes, local heroes and native. Many of the teams they were part of were named after tribal words, Indians, Braves, Chiefs, etc. There was a lot of pride by Americans with Native athletes like Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox) who represented the American nation in the Olympics (1912). He was a “true American” and for some reason this was very important at the time. I wonder if the mascot team names today are not based on that early history, and that this fact has been forgotten in the veils of time.
Reuben Sanders career (1895-1944) was forgotten in Oregon, yet he was widely celebrated, people knew him, knew his reputation and followed his career. In his time, he and a few of his fellow native athletes were part of a cadre of athletes in the Willamette Valley that contributed to the development of sports. They would be hired to play for numerous sporting organizations because they played with such spirit. They represented a spirit that inspired Americans to want the same as part of their school teams. Names like Braves, Indians, Chiefs, and Warriors may have been adopted because of the inspirational stories of the Indian athletes who persevered despite their personal histories of colonization, loos, poverty, and living on reservations.
Sanders’ mother walked up the coast to the Siletz Reservation, and he survived an abusive childhood and left home early to enroll in Chemawa Indian school, and despite his poor upbringing, he became the greatest athlete in Oregon history. That is an inspiring story.
But what is that pride? Is It the same pride that alumni feel when they say they have pride of their mascot and that the mascots honor the natives in some way? Maybe the pride they feel has been carried forward, through their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, from those who experienced the Indian wars and witnessing native people dying from starvation and neglect. Maybe their ancestors took part in the colonization of this land and took it from the tribes. Its very possible that those stories are passed down with feelings that something was very wrong with colonization, that the actions of taking land was not completely ethical or moral, that it is a shame that this all occurred the way it did, that Indian people ended up with nothing. They also used their Christianity to justify their actions and when assimilating the tribes they further justified their actions with the bible.
Then later the greed went further, and Americans took more land under the Dawes Act (1887), which gave individual allotment. But the Dawes Act was a time bomb. In 20 years Indian allotment holders got their land title and had to sell it to pay their bills and buy food. Nothing had been improved on reservations, the tribes remained impoverished, and millions more acres were sold from the reservations, or stole. Colonization continued, and yet it was called by many a shame that it all occurred. In the 1890s, when all the land had been taken and tribes lived to poor repressed reservations and tribal children forced into boarding schools, these settlers and settler descendants saw Indian children becoming great at American sports. This was an indication that the actions of the settlers in assimilating the tribes was the right direction, that it was working and now these “true Americans” were rising up to represent the great nation.
Jim Thorpe representing the United States in the Olympic Games is maybe the pentacle of this feeling that “everything is alright now”. What happened in the earlier century was now all better because of the success of native people in sports in the 20th century. Jim Thorpe had so much success in several sports that he is now named the Best Athlete in the History of the World. That is a point of American pride. But it disguises the genocidal attempts of the past century, it disguises the loss of land, loss of culture, and loss of human rights of so many native people.
That pride makes Americans, mainly white Americans, righteously proud, and Native Americans justifiably proud. So proud were White Americans that in these early days of forming and nurturing American sports, very many team names were of Indian terms, and mascots became caricatures of Indians because White Americans did not really know what Indians were like, they only learned of them from movies, cartoons, and newspapers. The caricatures in such media are highly stereotypical, and now carried forward to today and criticized as highly inappropriate by Native people who are now rising up and finding their voices. Again, that pride is perhaps a misplaced feeling of everything being alright with the tribes in the 20th century, so the colonization of tribal land in the 18th and 19th centuries is then not so bad, and assimilation worked.
The pride in these Indian team names with their mascots of Indian caricatures, is in the model of cultural appropriation. The assumed character of the Indian people was taken and used and abused, while Native people were left behind. In Oregon, in the early 20th century, Chemawa Indian school was not invited into the early Willamette Valley league which included the University of Oregon and city league sporting organizations and a few high schools. While the first two decades of valley sports Chemawa had been directly involved at all levels of intramural play, they would play the University of Oregon and Oregon Agricultural College and Willamette University, in track, football, baseball and basketball. Chemawa took a trip to play UC Berkeley and Stanford in football in 1904. Yet after the early formation of the amateur sporting franchises, the Indians had given of their words, Chiefs, Warriors, Indians, Braves and even Redskins, their spirit and pride and they were no longer needed. By the 1950s we see very few native people in any amateur or professional sports, which coincides with changes in national Indian policy, termination, liquidation of reservations, and further destruction of native economies.
Someone asked me once, why are there not a lot of native athletes in college or professional sports. I never had the answer. But part of the answer may be in the cultural appropriation that occurred in the early 20th century. American society literally stole the “Indian” culture and spirit that they wanted, only the part they wanted, and left the native people behind. (Almost no recruiting on Indian reservation occurs today) It is cultural appropriation at its finest. That pride, that false feeling of honoring native peoples through Indian mascots, is really a disguise for the generational passing of ethical and moral guilt of taking nearly everything from the true Americans of this land.
Related article How American Indians Saved the Sport of Football
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.