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Original Issue


There may never have been and may never again be a culture in which sports so obsessed individuals and communities, produced so many sports nuts, both participants and spectators, as that of the American Indian, a fact that, among others, scandalized early white explorers.

When the Baptist minister David Jones arrived in the Shawnee lands in 1772, he was ill and weak from hunger. He admitted grudgingly that he ate well among the Indians, but he was otherwise generally outraged by the Shawnee culture. Among other signs of their savagery he noted that they had no jails, no proper laws nor government. But what seemed to aggravate the Reverend Jones most was the uncivilized frivolity of these people. "It appears as if some kind of drollery was their chief study," he wrote indignantly. "The cares of this life, which are such an enemy to us, seem not to have yet entered their mind." These merry people were forever singing, dancing and playing games.

Time and again early white observers would make the same essential point: It was the infernal, incessant playfulness of these people that made them so weird. Whites looked at North America as a howling wilderness that had to be quickly and drastically improved if its potential wealth was to be developed. Indians saw it as wealth in place, a providentially created storehouse. Food, shelter and clothing did not, of course, fall on the Indians from the sky. They had to work in their fashion to get what they wanted, but generally they did not have to labor in the imperative, unremitting way the whites did. In consequence they had a lot more disposable time on their hands.

A few more advanced white thinkers (Benjamin Franklin for one) found there were certain admirable aspects to the Indian ways. For example, it was occasionally noted that most Indians lived as only the richest and most powerful whites did, which is to say, in pursuit of their pleasures. However, the mainstream view was that the native Americans were lazy louts whose idleness was an affront to the laws of man and God.

Indians seem to have held equally low opinions about the whites. They found them to be a grim, joyless, heaving and grunting lot with not much more style or gaiety about them than mud turtles. The bottom line was that white societies were organized to produce work and wealth, and Indian ones to provide leisure and freedom—that is, to allow individuals to do whatever they damn well pleased most of the time.

Along with singing, dancing, theatrics and cracking jokes, red people also enjoyed group storytelling sessions and playing the equivalents of cards and craps. But perhaps more than anything else they liked competitive athletics.

Virtually all the surviving first-hand accounts of early Indian athletics were produced by male Europeans. In consequence there is a strong suspicion that sports reporting from this period, while fairly voluminous, was of very low quality. The whites did not understand what they were seeing well enough to give play-by-play accounts of great games or 10 describe the feats of superstar performers. It is as if 200 years from now, the only information extant about the Boston Celtics or Walter Payton was to be found in letters written home by a Pakistani field-hockey player who had toured the U.S. for a few months.

Also, the Europeans came from a culture that had long been fallow as far as sports went. This down period lasted from approximately the end of the medieval jousting and falconry crazes to the multisport mania of the 20th century. I here was not much in the way of popular sports because: 1) the common man was working so hard; and 2) the authorities thought playfulness was a sign of weak character. Thus whites in pre-Revolutionary America who watched Indians at play did not, on principle, like what they saw. Writers tended to decry these exercises as wasteful and childish.

However, when all the moralizing is deleted, there remains enough substance in some of these accounts to suggest that the red world of sport was a wonderful one. There was an assortment of grassroots games, the rough equivalents of neighborhood bowling or playground basketball. These were essentially pastimes, and while competition might have been hot, they did not require the skill and were not so significant as the high sports, of which more shortly.

All the Indian nations had some sort of throwing games of the duck-on-the-rock, darts or quoits type. In the frost belt, snow snakes—sliding spears over drifts of ice for distance and accuracy—was popular. The Iroquois of northern New York and Pennsylvania developed a complicated version of this in which trenches were dug down hillsides and then iced with water. Miniature 15-inch canoes carved of hardwood were sent down these runs to see how far they would slide into the flats below. Preparing, playing, watching and gambling on snow-boat contests apparently whiled away many cold dark hours for the Iroquois.

It should be noted that all over the continent Indians were inveterate gamblers, betting on all sporting events, even the most casual ones. Having no legal tender, they wagered tools, weapons, crops, food and, particularly, their clothing. There is a considerable body of literature consisting of shocked reports by whites about Indian losers walking away naked from gambling frolics.

Europeans, particularly upper-class ones, were no strangers to gambling, but even among those who could afford it there was a pervasive sense that this was a bad habit. What bothered white observers (an inordinate number of whom were divines) about Indian betting was that everybody did it shamelessly. They apparently thought of gambling as a principal and natural human pleasure.

Like all sporting peoples, the native North Americans crafted balls—of leather, woven fiber and wood—and found many interesting things to do with them. When Englishmen arrived in Virginia they found the natives playing soccer. Elsewhere there were various forms of competitive dodgeball. The Zunis and other Southwestern nations had a netless tennis or badminton game in which feathered balls were kept aloft as long as possible with wooden rackets. Nearly everywhere there was a kind of field hockey. In the Great Plains, after the arrival of the horse, this, evolved into a wild form of polo. Among the Crow, players could dismount and pursue the ball on foot. While most Indian sports were sexually segregated, Crow polo was coed, and it was thought that lighter, more agile women were often the superior players. This was certainly the case in one game for which something like a play-by-play report survives. One woman leaped off her horse and began to stickhandle the ball. She got away from two defenders who grabbed her by the belt by simply unbuckling it. As she drove toward the goal, she stopped and raised her hands at the goal mouth and let out a menacing growl, mimicking a grizzly bear. This shattered the goalie's concentration, and the woman then scored the goal.

Some nations took such diversions more seriously than others, but all of them had a few they regarded as high sport—socially and theologically as well as athletically. Among North Americans it was widely assumed that many beings of the pantheistic spirit world were keen sports fans. Victory, many strategists thought, depended on getting support from benign immortals. Important sporting events tested not only physical skills but the piety of participants. While in our times an occasional chaplain may appear in a locker room, most coaches and managers then were also priests and shamans.

Foot racing was treated as a very high sport by Indians. Since their success as hunters and warriors so depended on their fleetness and endurance, they inevitably devised ways to exhibit these qualities in a formal way. Before major races, important runners and their entourages would withdraw from the community to prepare—sometimes for many weeks. Apparently metaphysical rather than physical conditioning was emphasized. Runners in training variously prayed, fasted and dieted. In regard to diet, some felt that bad qualities could be transferred by the wrong food, while the good properties of certain animals were passed on to those who ate them in the right way and at the right time. Thus deer and eagle were sometimes served at training tables, while turtle was taboo. Peyote was occasionally prescribed as a means of giving competitive advantage.

Spiritual advisers massaged their athletes and oiled and bathed them with secret preparations. Sometimes these handlers also attempted to sabotage the well-being of an opposing runner. Among the Tarahumara of the Southwest a favorite trick of sporting shamans was to roll a large cigar of tobacco, dehydrated turtle and bat blood. According to Dr. Carl Lumholtz, a 19th-century anthropologist/explorer, if the shaman was successful in blowing smoke from this doped stogie into an opponent's face the man's running would be slowed.

How good Indian runners were compared with modern ones is now impossible to determine, because their societies had neither the technology nor inclination to keep our kinds of records. However, there are some thought-provoking, if imprecise, reports that suggest that there were some formidable fliers. A Quaker missionary, James Emlen, reported that in 1794 an Iroquois courier named Sharp Shins did 90 miles across the rough hills of western New York in the hours between sunrise and sunset. During a war between Indians and settlers, white officers swore they knew a Mohave who had run nearly 200 miles through terrible heat in less than 24 hours. Also, a Pawnee ran 120 miles in 24 hours and a day later returned the same distance in 20 hours, according to American officers at Fort Sill, Okla.

As far as formal racing goes, there are at least two instances when Europeans with timepieces saw what they considered to be phenomenal performances. Anthropologist Lumholtz spent considerable time with the Tarahumara, a nation of still-famous runners who habitually ran down deer for the feast. In 1892 Lumholtz calculated the winning time in a race he watched as 2:00:21 over a 21-mile course. This might not be a record for a contemporary marathoner, but the Tarahumara were required to kick a ball, soccer style, as they ran.

In 1877 Luther North, the white commander of a troop of Pawnee scouts employed in the wars against the Sioux and Cheyenne, took the best runner in his unit, a 23-year-old named Big Hawk Chief, to a measured half-mile track at Fort Sidney, Neb. There, timed by a stopwatch, the Pawnee turned in a 3:58 mile with splits of 2:00 and 1:58. Modern track buffs tend to be irritated by this report on the ground that everyone knows Roger Bannister was the first human to break the four-minute-mile barrier. What we actually know, of course, is that Bannister was the first to be so certified according to our present record-keeping system. Simple logic and evolutionary biology suggest that there are no imperative reasons why Big Hawk Chief could not have run as fast as North said he did.

Besides running, another popular high sport was variously called the wheel or hoop game. The basic equipment for this contest consisted of a throwing spear and a disk of stone, wood or stiffened leather. The disk was set with spokes and had holes carved in it or sections marked off like those of a dart board. It was rolled down a field, and the contestants threw spears at it. Scoring was complex: Points were awarded for hitting or passing through certain areas of the rolling target as well as for near misses. There is now no sport with which it can be compared, and unfortunately, the Europeans who saw it played were not able to describe the subtleties of the wheel game.

Among almost all of the nations of North America (for reasons of climate, terrain or culture, it never caught on in the Southwest), an extremely swift contact sport was so popular that in most languages it was simply called The Ball Game. It is now easier for us to understand than wheels and spears because—alone among the great endemic Indian contests—it was taken up by whites. A watered-down version of it still survives as lacrosse.

There were many versions of the basic ball game. Some tribes' teams were comprised of 6, 9 or 12 men, and they played on fields of agreed-upon lengths: 200 to 500 yards. The Ottawas, Ojibways and other peoples of the Great Lakes regions favored free-form melees, with as many as 200 men on a side who pursued the ball over hundreds of unbounded acres.

Among the Cherokee the major league ball season commenced after the corn was planted and continued till harvesttime. Spring training usually began as soon as the snow and ice of winter were gone and, in some places, involved physical drills and stickhandling exercises. However, as with running, ceremonial conditioning and careful dieting were more important. Commonly, the rabbit, because of its timidity, and frogs, whose bones are notoriously brittle, were not eaten. Among the Cherokee and other serious ball gamers, players were not permitted to touch a woman carnally, or even casually, for at least seven days before a big contest—in the belief that sexual contact would make them sluggish. Prior to a major event, pep rallies were staged at night by communities or clans. The sites for these affairs were kept secret until the last minute for fear that rival managers might visit and hex them. Female cheerleaders, careful to avoid physical contact with the athletes, sang and danced on these occasions. Some of the fight songs were suggestive—the young women commenting on the celibate state of the men and promising explicit post-game delights, at least for winners.

In the morning everybody in the community trooped off to the field. As final preparation, trainers whipped the athletes with thorny bushes until they bled. This was done for the same reason that modern football players sometimes beat on each other before a game. The idea was to get the adrenaline flowing.

The two teams were brought together by a respected elder called the Ball Witch. He discussed local ground rules—presumably advising the teams to play hard but clean—and then, calling (at least among the Cherokee) "Now for the 12," threw out the ball.

Ball games seem to have been short on team strategy and long on ferocious, hand-to-hand duels. Everybody was a gunner, and organized defense was minimal. Around the ball almost everything was permitted—bashing with sticks, choking, slugging, tripping, clipping.

Among the Cherokee the first team to score 12 goals won. This might be done in an hour or so or take all day. In nations with different scoring systems, ball games would continue for several days. There were substitutions only for injuries, and it was considered unmanly for a player who could still stand to leave the field. Body counts were high, and in most communities there were veterans who had been permanently crippled or disfigured in ball games. They bore their infirmities as badges of honor, comparable with Prussian dueling scars. In one contest between two Creek town teams in 1879, "one player was killed on the playing field, three died later on the sidelines, and fifteen were as long as a month in recovering," according to W.O. Tuggle, who witnessed the game.

The Cherokee spoke of The Ball Game as "the little brother of war." In fact, tribes across the country conducted war as if it were the greatest of all sports. The Ball Game might be the ultimate domestic contest, but when tribes wanted full-tilt international competition they went to war.

Among themselves Indian wars were generally brief affairs, often arranged by advance negotiations and conducted on a seasonal basis, generally in the period between the end of harvest and the beginning of winter hunting. After extensive ceremonial preparations (quite similar to those that preceded important games or races), war parties set off. When they met, the engagements involved sporting rushes and stratagems, often culminating in gaudy mano-a-mano duels. By mutual agreement they were halted when darkness fell. After a few weeks everybody ran out of food or grew tired and went home to spend the winter. They were like so many Hot Stove League buffs. Winners naturally bragged about their great moves and coups, displaying newly acquired scalps to their admiring fans. Living losers comforted themselves by reminding one another that there was always next season.

Quite simply, native North Americans regarded war as a satisfying competitive activity. In time, the whites taught the reds that war was a grim, earnest exercise, not a glorious, sporadic sport. For basic reasons of survival the red warrior-athletes had to adapt to that view. They did so quickly and brilliantly.

During the forest campaigns (circa 1750-1815) the red nations won victory after victory, regularly drubbing first British and then American militiamen and regular troops. The current consensus is that when the numbers were anywhere near equal, the Indians never lost. In the end they were beaten because they were too few and had too few resources. In retrospect, the historical wonder is not that they were beaten, but that it took the whites so long to do it. The most obvious explanation is that for centuries Indians had been so passionately engaged by ferocious games and playful wars that they were better trained and more skillful in the martial arts than were the whites. To paraphrase the familiar aphorism: The battles of the Forest Wars were won on the playing fields of the Cherokee, Iroquois, Shawnee and other Indian nations.



"Game of the Arrow" by George Catlin (1845) depicts the Mandan tribe at play.



Early lacrosse games were violent affairs that often involved hundreds of players.



Indian uniforms consisted of painted bodies and traditional costumes.