The 19th century conflicts between Settler Americans and Native peoples, that in popular culture are termed Cowboys and Indians, did not end. Hollywood paints a picture of an imagined past of heroic Americans in the frontier of the west seeking their fortunes in a lawless land. Gun battles and skirmishes between American cowboys and Indians are the way that many people imagine the past. But the reality was that there were many American people and very minority of them being anything like a Cowboy striking out to take land and make their family fortunes. For over 50 years, 5 decades, conflicts with the tribes raged as American settlers, miners and ranchers sought their piece of the American dream of free land and opportunity. During this period came a lot of evils into the west, gold miners would wipe out whole villages of Native people to have a mining claim, and then gain a depredation claim back to the territorial government for their expenses in murdering native people. A Trader class grew up in the region trading in alcohol to tribes and to mining camps. And even when the tribes were removed to reservations, miners tried to engage in mining operation on the reservation. No land was sacred for the tribes as Americans felt they had every right to take all the land, all the resources, as their manifest destiny.
This territorial conflict did not suddenly end at 1900. People kept coming west and filling in the cities and towns looking for opportunity. Settler pressure on the supposedly “permanent” Indian reservations to be opened for settlement continued, and by 1875 in Oregon, tens of thousands of acres of reservation lands in western Oregon were freed up for new settlement on the Oregon coast. One of the last settlement areas in Oregon, the Klamath Basin, settlement forced Klamath and Modoc peoples onto the same reservation. Not enjoying the reservation, in 1872 the Modoc left and were forced to defend themselves in the lava lands, a natural fortress, from the US Military, into 1873. They were tricked into parlaying and their leaders captured and hung. The tribe was sent to Oklahoma. Then elsewhere in Oregon, during the Nez Perce War, the tribes from the Wallows, had a permanent reservation guaranteed by treaty, yet were invaded by settlers, and were forced to flee for over a thousand miles pursued by the US Cavalry and nearly escaped into Canada, 1877. In consequence they lost their reservation and were placed in Fort Leavenworth, where many died of malaria. Finally released, they were sent to the Colville Reservation (WA) but never allowed to return to their homeland. After the Dawes Act (1887), more land was freed for sale on reservations at Grand Ronde and Siletz, freeing up the majority of the Coast Range and making possible the logging boom of the 1920s. A system of systematic dispossession of land from Native control caused cultural and political decline of the tribes.
Tribal peoples, by 1900 had begun integrating with American society, either by choice, by familial relations, or by forced federal education. Many tribal peoples saw education as the opportunity for their people and a safe haven for their children. Declination and poor management of the reservations by Federal authorities caused poverty, poor health care, malnutrition, alcohol abuse, a lack of access to services and society for tribes. Native peoples were Indians to much of American society, competitors for land, savage barbarians to many, and perpetual scientific subjects of interest to social scientists. Their societies were to be studied, their cultural evolution to be questioned, even the size of their brains to be queried.
Scientifically there were many questions at this time related to evolutionary theory. Social Darwinian was being applied in society (even if wrongly) and many people wondered if the Americans as a race of civilized people were better, more evolved than Indians. Clearly the results of the wars for territory had been won by the Americans, but in many ways Americans began questioning if what had occurred really was because they were a better people or some other reason. Many of the last American Indian leaders, such as Geronimo, Sitting Bull and Chief Joseph had exhibited a noble philosophy that made Americans question the morality of their actions. Had the destruction of native peoples been a horrible mistake for America, a country supposedly founded on principals of freedom for all?
Through all of this we find enduring stories of perseverance for the tribes. Klamath timber lands held rich timber, Osage land held wealthy oil reserves, and native people were still fighting for their place in the world, their place in America. Then there is the somewhat invisible history of Native American athletes in the early 20th century.
In the arena of athletics, we view conflicts play out in battles for athletic domination. Athletic events are intended to amuse the public, inspire them, motivate them, like the gladiatorial battles in the Roman Colosseum. Many of the battles are about territory. American football is about taking territory from the other team, a form of counting coup, and if you take enough territory, you get to score, the coup. Then in basketball, the same, taking territory from the other team in a fast paced game. Similarly baseball, where the runner gains territory, and perhaps home base and a score from the opposing team. But the games themselves are strategic battles against an opposing enemy highly structured so that there is violence, but no too much, and conflict but only within the realm of the field. And then the game is played over and over again, and seasonally the teams may try to take the same territory a hundred times or more. Is it possible that sports competition became a past-time that partly took the place of war? At the same time the wars against the Indian tribes were receding, sports began getting popular. This may be easily considered a chance phenomenon, until we compare the early history of the growth of sporting events.
In the late 19th century, organized sporting events were just beginning to gain popularity. In the early years (1895-1930) of baseball, football and basketball, there were a lot of Native athletes involved in the sports. The Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools like Haskell and Chemawa had athletic programs and they were constantly playing events with the town teams in the area. The seasons were a series of pick up games as there were no leagues to speak of, and high schools, colleges, and town teams and preparatory academies regularly played one another. Then, during the years 1895 and 1920, the University of Oregon, Berkeley and Stanford were big players in the game. Sherman Institute in southern California played against all of the college teams and won many of the events. Local to western Oregon, Chemawa Indian School was a force to be reckoned with. Chemawa would regularly play and beat town teams (organized by YMCAs, Athletic Clubs and supported by city and town communities) and universities even though the boys at Chemawa were much younger, smaller and lighter. But the Chemawa team benefited by being able to temporarily draft native graduates and adults for games. Chemawa did well in football, baseball, basketball and track. and were major participants in all sporting events in the region, and even helped develop the traditions we have today.
For the Chemawa team to be doing so well in 1895 and turning out football and baseball stars by 1900 was an amazing feat for a people who had suffered so much at the hands of the Americans barely a generation before. In Oregon Reuben Sanders was a local star in football by 1899 and hired out to play for other teams regularly. The newspapers followed him and newspaper sporting editors knew him well. They came to respect the team and the athletes very much. This was an American success story, the survivors of genocide, removal and dispossession, and reservation life, were now heroes playing American games with the best in the game. Elsewhere Jim Thorpe, in this same period, was a national football star and even went to the Olympics and won in Track events. Even though his medals were stripped for his taking money to play football, the impression had been made, American Indians were as good as, if not better athletes than Americans. But still, the story of the Indian wars was still fresh in the psyches of the Americans.
For track and field sports, Native peoples were some of the best competitors. For four years 1907-1910, The Chemawa cross country relay team beat the Multnomah YMCA in a 52 miles road race from Salem to Portland. In this same period in Northern California, road races from San Francisco to Crescent City featured native long distance runners in highly publicized races. The aforementioned Reuben Sanders and Jim Thorpe were renowned for their running ability and won innumerable trophies in Track and Field events. Thorpe won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics.
What occurred in athletics was not what Americans predicted based on the 19th century of Indian wars. Native peoples turned out to be amazing athletes in many athletic events, The Tribes won sporting battles many times, proving that Americans were clearly not superior. Men like Reuben Sanders and Jim Thorpe and later Billy Mills caused Americans to both celebrate Native peoples and question American superiority.
I submit that these sporting events were set up in a series of matches that pitted the Americans against the Indians in a semblance of the conflicts of the American west, we know as Cowboys and Indians. Many of the media advertisements suggested the Cowboys vs Indians conflicts in the way in which the game was advertised and reported. Is it possible that these 20th century athletic events were seen as a replay of the Indian wars of the previous century?
This phenomenon is entirely plausible as in other sporting events with other peoples, like boxing, Black boxers were seen as representing all of their people, and in some way representing a test of the theories of racial superiority, as many white Americans assumed that Black Boxers could not beat white boxers, and then Joe Louis happened.
For Americans and perhaps some of the Indian people of the early 20th and late 19th centuries, the athletic battles were very much about which people as a race were stronger. The history of the Indian Wars and of the few decades of American settler and Indian skirmishes in the 19th century was not over for many people, and the athletics of the 20th century was a continuation of the nearly psychological battle for superiority. In a very interesting way, it is because of the conflictual dynamic between Americans and native peoples that American Sports is what it is today.
I now think that Indian Mascots may have evolved from these early athletic histories. Americans saw strength and power in the American Indian spirit (as described) and wanted to emulate that spirit. The strength and spirit of surviving through the Indian wars and coming out the other end with an Indian identity, and then to persevere in athletics is inspiring, as inspiring a story as any in Hollywood. Then the spirit in which Indian athletes played, they were always respected for their athletics and energy, even though they were usually smaller, lighter and many times had irregular coaching. I think in the early part of the 20th century this was the reasoning behind adopting Indian mascots for sporting teams. But I also think that Americans forgot their history, they forgot the origin story and why they originally want the mascot names. Things changed, generations happened, descendants forgot, and they appropriated Indian mascots and used them in disrespectful ways as American culture forgot the conflicts of the 19th century. The mascots came to represent an appropriation of Native identity that is extremely negative and disrespectful to Native peoples.
This essay is not to justify mascots, but is intended to place a historic context behind sporting traditions that so many people think they already know so much about. How many really know how much Native people helped to develop sports like football, baseball, basketball and track? Today, we perhaps are aware of some of the sporting legends, individual athletes, and today’s sporting heroes, but not much about the early days of smash mouth football, with no pads, and players playing both offense and defense, and when the game looked more like rugby than what we know today. And despite this early history, there are very few native athletes in professional or even college sports today? The Shimmel sisters (basketball) are about it for Oregon, while Hawaiian and Polynesian athletes are becoming the rage in football. Where are all of the Native athletes? Speaking with elders int eh community, I hear stories of how the reservations had their own basketball teams and they would travel around doing pick up games and playing each other. Indian Basketball is still a big deal for many regions, and these are separate from high school, or college, or any other leagues. Indian Basketball has been around since the 1940’s at least, and continues today. Some reservations had participated in Town Team league play in Baseball and Basketball and have a significant record in the 20th century. A few of these athletes even made it to the minor leagues.
The comparison of sporting traditions from the early 20th century today is really astonishing how native people are written out of the history of sports and are not significant players today. A friend asked why this situation exists. I can only image that the suppression of Native peoples through assimilation and continuous political pressures on reservations over the past century have been exhausting for native peoples. Termination of some tribes had to have had a huge effect on motivation and power. Then the fact that sports moved into the high schools and colleges and out of the private community sector has an effect as well. The era of the town teams collapsed in about 1950 and since then, unless a people has full access to society, they will not be a part of the sporting traditions. Native Americans are the least likely to finish high school, and many native attend in very rural towns, which do not get the attention of the larger cities. There are many factors which deserve a better treatment that I can give here in this short essay.
Related story: The Native American Team That Revolutionized 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.