BackStory

The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

Listen
Connect
Newsletter

Indians on the Gridiron

By Andrew Parsons

The 1911 Carlisle Indians football team poses with a game ball from the victory against Harvard. Jim Thorpe is seated third from right. (Source: wikicommons)

The 1911 Carlisle Indians football team poses with a game ball from the victory against Harvard. Famed athlete Jim Thorpe is seated third from right. Credit: Wikicommons Media

In 1893, a group of young men at the Carlisle Indian Boarding School in Pennsylvania crowded into the superintendent’s office. They came with one request: to play football.

The superintendent, a man named Richard Henry Pratt, had banned football at the school a few years earlier, after one student had broken his leg in a game.  But now, as the young men stood around him and pled their case, Pratt was beginning to see football in a new light.

“What he saw in it was a very sort of modern sport,” says historian David Adams. He’s the author of a book about Indian Boarding Schools. Adams points out that in the 1890s, football was widely thought of as a complex, strategic and modern sport. This image was helped along by the fact that the most advanced schools — like Harvard, Yale and Brown — all had teams.

“If we contrast it with baseball for example, football is clock-based. It’s a game where there is a lot of organization and strategy.And so [Pratt’s] idea was if Indians could display their equality on a football field. They would in fact display their ability to totally assimilate into the culture. And so Pratt saw this as a way of advertising his model of Indian education.”

Pratt’s model of education had one core objective: to Americanize Indians by removing them from the native cultures of their families. Unlike many white reformers of his time, he believed that although Native Americans were culturally inferior to white Americans, they had the potential to be intellectual – and athletic – equals. Pratt agreed to create a team under the conditions that the boys play fair…and that they whip the best teams in the country.

That part worked. The Carlisle Indian School team took to the gridiron, and consistently beat college football juggernauts for the next 24 years. They were fast, strong and strategic – working within the loose rules of the early game.

“Carlisle was famous for outfoxing the opposition,”  says Adams. “One of the trips, when they were playing Harvard …they actually shoved the football up the back jersey of one of the players and all the players could rush down the gridiron and Harvard didn’t know who had the ball. They scored a touchdown that way.”

But if Pratt’s main objective with all of this was to make the general public view his students as regular Americans – that definitely didn’t happen. The press took the spectacle of an Indian football team playing white teams and ran with it. Major papers, including The New York TimesNew York Herald, and The Boston Globe covered these games. And the images from the sportswriters weren’t pretty. “They begin to see football in a sense as a sort of replaying of frontier conflict,” says Adams.

One 1896 article from The Boston Globe covered Carlisle match-up against Harvard this way:

“All the manifold interests of present and the past, the near and the far, were collected on the instant on soldiers field. Over 500 years of education ‘were represented by the young palefaces in crimson, while centuries of fire and sun worship, medicine men, incantations, ghost dances and mound building were flashed before the inner vision by the appearances of the young men from Carlisle.”

Adams says that cartoons and headlines often invoked scalping.

“There’s one cartoon in fact and it shows and Indian with headdress and scalping knife. And he’s looking at a Michigan player with a helmet on and under the cartoon the Indian is saying, how am I going to get that fellow’s scalp? And that’s of course because of the helmet. So they were fighting things like that.”

We don’t know what Pratt’s private reaction to this sort of coverage was. Publicly, he celebrated the immense popularity of his team. It turned out athletic legends like Jim Thorpe, and toured the nation, with team members marching in parades and staying in the nicest hotels all over the country. “Anytime that games were played on neutral territory – in other words not on the campus of Yale or Harvard – but on neutral territory like New York City and Boston. The white crowd were always cheering for the Indians,” says Adams.

"The American Indian, past and present," Puck Magazine.

“The American Indian, past and present,” Puck Magazine.

The grand irony of all of this is that the team was popular precisely because it fit so neatly onto a storyline that cast Indians as noble savages who had been vanquished in the march of Western civilization. The football field was a safe place for white crowds to cheer for the underdog Indian team. They were now a threat only on the gridiron.

After some of the best seasons that any team of the era tabulated, Carlisle’s successes on the field eventually faded away. But the 19th century image of the native warrior that became so associated with the winning team most certainly did not.

Recently, in fact, it seems to be enjoying something of a second life. You’re probably aware of the controversy swirling around the Washington Redskins. A few months ago, the team’s owner Dan Snyder sat down with ESPN to defend the name saying that it was coined by a Carlisle football alum named Lone Star Dietz.  “Coach Dietz was Native American, he named the team with the then owner,” said Snyder.

It’s not clear that that was the case, and scholars have suggested that Dietz faked a Native identity for himself in order to take advantage of various opportunities for Indians at the time. But Adams says by invoking Lone Star Dietz to defend the name, Dan Snyder is playing on the on the same romanticized notions of Indians that fans and sportswriters held in the heyday of Carlisle football.

“He’s tapping into that sports writers’ desire or tendency to want to replay Indians of another age,” says Adams. And, of course, standing in opposition to everything that the Carlisle team was supposed to stand for.

This story comes from our show on the history of images of Indians. You can read more about the history of the Carlisle Indian School in David Adam’s book, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928.