Aboriginal Athletes in the World of Professional Sports

Aboriginal Athletes in the World of Professional Sports

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Aboriginal Athletes in the World of Professional Sports

Terrence and Jordin Tootoo grew up in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, in Canada’s arctic region. They were like other Inuit children in Rankin Inlet in many respects: They were brought up to respect the customs of their people and they enjoyed the resources the land around them provided- they learned to hunt and fish for food like the others. However, the brothers were also different from their peers in one main respect- they were blessed with a love for the game of hockey, and also with extraordinary amounts of talent which would enable them to leave their native community to pursue the dream of professional hockey. While the brothers were growing up they were inseparable; however, after leaving Rankin Inlet to pursue the professional game their respective careers took strikingly different paths. Jordin’s journey took him to the top- he was drafted into the National Hockey League and signed a lucrative contract with the Nashville Predators. However, Terrence’s road to the professional ranks was filled with hardship and tragedy, ultimately resulting in his suicide in August of 2002. The contrasting paths taken by the brothers is an illustration of how professional sporting careers can have varying impacts on the lives of Native American and Canadian athletes and their communities. In the following few paragraphs I will outline the history of Native Americans and Canadians in sports. I will examine how successful Native athletes are able to help their communities, both financially and by serving as role models for younger Natives. Also, I will argue that their still exist barriers and challenges to Native athletes that do not confront other athletes. For example, Native athletes are often placed under increased scrutiny because of their positions as role models. I will conclude by commenting on how Native athletes fit into pro sports today, and speculate on what can be done to increase the amount of success enjoyed by Natives.

Participation in sports and games has long been a part of Native culture. The most significant example of a sport invented and played by Natives is lacrosse. Lacrosse is still designated as the official sport of Canada despite the overwhelming popularity of hockey (http://canada.gc.ca). Lacrosse was one of many varieties of indigenous stickball games being played by Native Americans and Canadians at the time of European contact. Almost exclusively a male team sport, it is distinguished from other stick and ball games, such as field hockey or shinny, by the use of a netted racquet with which to pick the ball off the ground, throw, catch and vault it into or past a goal to score a point.

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The cardinal rule in all varieties of lacrosse was that the ball, with few exceptions, must not be touched with the hands. Lacrosse was given its name by early French settlers, using the generic term for any game played with a curved stick and a ball (Fisher, 2002:17). Games were played by as few as 100 and as many as 1,000 men and lasted two or three days, with play beginning at sunup and ending at sundown each day. Goals, consisting of rocks or trees, were generally 500 yards to a half-mile apart, but could be several miles apart. There were no sidelines, and players raced far and wide over the countryside. Lacrosse games were originally used to toughen braves for actual combat (Fisher, 2002:22). There were even times when games were played between two tribes to settle their differences or disputes. There is no evidence of non-Natives taking up the game until the mid-nineteenth century, when English-speaking Montrealers adopted the game and attempted to "civilize" the sport with a new set of rules and organize it into amateur clubs (www.lxhistory.com). Once the game quickly grew in popularity in Canada, it began to be exported throughout the Commonwealth, as non-native teams began participating in exhibition matches against Iroquois players. Most recently, the Iroquois Nation has been competing in the world championships as a distinct nation.

Sport has also been used as a means of preventing depression and alcoholism in Native youth. In 1999 the Canadian government offered Native Canadians an official apology for racially motivated abuse inflicted during the era of government-run Native boarding schools. The Canadian government offered $350 million towards counseling for healing the abuse that was started at these schools. It was soon discovered that counseling, supplemented by organized sports programs, was the most effective way to turn around the high suicide and depression-related health and alcohol challenges among Native youth (www.aboriginalsportcircle.com). The Canadian government continues to fund the First Nations Sports Programs. The United States Bureau of Indian Affairs quietly offered a similar apology in 2000, but has yet to offer any financial compensation. More recently sport has played a significant role in helping young Native Americans gain access to college via scholarship. In December of 2003 the National Congress of American Indians announced that the 2nd annual Native American Basketball Invitational tournament will be held in July 2004 at America West Arena, home of the Phoenix Suns. The tournament features teams of Native American high school student-athletes, male and female, allowing them an exclusive stage before college scouts. NABI 2003, which was played last July, created opportunities for four Native American students to receive college athletic scholarships (www.nays.com). In addition, the event gave Tribal leaders the opportunity to expand contact with local and national business leaders.

Natives did not start to participate in “non-Native” sports and games until the 20th century. Arguably the greatest all-around individual athlete of all time, and certainly the most famous Native American athlete of all time, was Jim Thorpe. He was born in 1888 near Prague, Oklahoma into the Sac and Fox tribe (Wheeler, 1979:37). The Sac originated from an area around Saginaw Bay in Eastern Michigan, but in the early 17th century they were driven from this area. They fled into Wisconsin and settled as farmers but spent much time hunting and raiding. The French waged a war of extermination against the Sac and Fox, which reduced the number of Fox to a few hundreds. The Sac eventually settled on reservations in Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma. In 1990 there were about 4,775 Sac and Fox in the United States (Freeman, 1992).

Thorpe’s original Sac name was Bright Path. In 1907 he entered the Carlisle Indian School at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. There he joined the Carlisle football team, which at the time was coached by the legendary Glenn “Pop” Warner. In 1911 Jim Thorpe led Carlisle to startling upsets over such highly rated teams as Harvard, Army, and the University of Pennsylvania as a left-halfback (Newcombe, 1975:43). In 1912, he took part in the Olympic Games held at Stockholm, Sweden, and performed brilliantly. He won the long jump, the 200 meter and 1,500 meter runs of the pentathlon; he aslo won the shot put, the 1,500-meter run, and the hurdle race of the decathlon. He was the runner-up in each of the other events of the pentathlon and decathlon, therefore clinching victory in each of these prestigious competitions. However, in 1913 Thorpe was subjected to heavy criticism- which was in part racially motivated- and forced to surrender his awards at the request of the Amateur Athletic Union because it had been discovered that he had previously played semiprofessional baseball (Freeman, 1992). He was getting paid a nominal sum for each game, and never dreaming his job would disqualify him from Olympic competition. "He was unaware of that, and it caused him a great deal of heartache," said Meredith Prough, curator of the Jim Thorpe Museum in Yale, Oklahoma. “It was not something he denied. But when they asked him to return the medals, he said, ‘They can't take away the fact that I won them.’” (www.cmgww.com)

After much struggle by his family the medals would be restored posthumously in 1982 (US Congress, 1979). In 1919, Thorpe played briefly with the New York Giants baseball team. Afterwards he played professional football with the Canton Bulldogs and other teams, and later became supervisor of recreation for the Chicago parks. Thorpe’s reputation was devastated beyond repair, however, and he eventually turned to alcoholism and was forced to perform odd jobs like ditch digging to survive. He passed away in 1953 and was buried in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, a town that was named in his honor. In 1950, the nation's press selected Jim Thorpe as the most outstanding athlete of the first half of the 20th Century and in 2001, he was awarded ABC's Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Century (www.espn.com).

Thorpe was the first Native American athlete of note. He was also the first Native America to see his success as an athlete lead to controversy. Throughout his athletic career Thorpe dealt with overt displays of racism, as most minority athletes did in the first half of the 20th century. However, controversy surrounding Thorpe continued well after his death. In the months leading up to the Olympics in 1996, the Atlanta Olympic Committee sought to honor Thorpe by planning that the Olympic Torch Relay pass through his birthplace (Kindred, 1995). Olympic officials said initially that the flame would pass through Yale, a town of 1,400 about 45 miles west of Tulsa, where Thorpe lived as a young father and professional football and baseball player from 1917 to 1923. Over the years, Yale had honored Thorpe's memory with obvious enthusiasm. The village boasts a Jim Thorpe Park, a Jim Thorpe road, a Jim Thorpe community building, and the Jim Thorpe Museum. Residents and state map-makers commonly refer to the town as “The Home of Jim Thorpe.” (Pressley, 1996) But residents of Prague, population 2,300, took offense. They lived in the true home town of Thorpe, they argued, his birthplace near the small Sac and Fox Indian reservation. Led by Grace Thorpe, an activist who also secured the restoration of Thorpe’s Olympic medals in 1983, the townspeople mounted a successful campaign to be included in the torch run and made sure everyone else knew Jim Thorpe's birthplace. (Pressley, 1996) Residents of Prague viewed their original slight as yet another Olympic snub of Thorpe. The way they saw it, Olympic officials could not even get the home town right for one of their greatest and most legendary heroes. Although the International Olympic Committee did give the Thorpe family copies of the medals in 1983, he is still listed only as a co-winner of the events, and in an age where Olympic athletes are sometimes already multimillionaires because of endorsements and professional contracts, many family members and Oklahomans feel that Thorpe’s reputation had suffered far too much for his offense.

The way Thorpe’s remains were handled by his family has also generated controversy. The Pennsylvania town named after Thorpe came to exist when, in a search for big money, Patricia Thorpe took his body around and sold him out to the highest bidder. She focused on Pennsylvania because Thorpe had played football there. Thorpe's three surviving sons from his second marriage always regarded his burial in a foreign town as unseemly and sacrilegious. They appealed to the people of Jim Thorpe for the town to voluntarily surrender their father's remains so he can have a proper Native American burial in his native Oklahoma while his children are alive to see it. “My dad's bones won't make or break their town,” said Jack Thorpe, the youngest of Thorpe's five living children. “They can keep the name, but the people there could gain attention and respect by voluntarily releasing the remains.” Jack Thorpe's brothers, Bill and Dick, also hold that their father's remains belong in ancestral ground (Newcombe, 1975:112). Thorpe’s daughters from his first marriage are more than willing to let the body stay where it is. Unlike her brothers, Thorpe’s daughterGrace occasionally visits Jim Thorpe, Pa., and her father's granite mausoleum. Jack Thorpe hopes that his father's remains will be returned voluntarily by the townspeople. He said he did not want to bring a lawsuit over the corpse because it would drag Jim Thorpe’s name into a public courtroom brawl. “Of all the things that happened to Dad over the years, the way he was treated, the stripping of his honors, it's a shame that he still has a controversy around him,” Jack Thorpe said. “He's been dead almost 50 years, and he still can't be at peace. Let us bring him home and set him away properly.” (Simonich, 2001)

While Jim Thorpe was the first Native athlete of prominence, he participated in an era long ago, before the rise of salaries to the levels that they are today. For a more accurate examination of how Natives interact with the professional sports world we must examine the lives of current day athletes.

Notah Begay III was born on September 14th, 1972 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Notah was introduced to the game of golf at the age of six by accompanying his father to a weekly golf league at a nearby municipal course. Determined to learn the game, Notah began to work at the golf course in exchange for practice privileges. A short time thereafter, Notah began competing in local junior golf tournaments and quickly became one of the best junior players in the area. Notah attended Stanford University on a golf scholarship and was a three time All American in addition to earning his Bachelor of Arts in Economics. As captain of the 1994 Men’s Golf Team, Notah led the team to its first National Championship in over fifty years. Notah graduated from Stanford in June of 1995. He has since turned professional and has won several tournaments on the PGA Tour. In addition to his accomplishments on the golf course, Notah complemented his degree in economics with a close study of the history of the Native American culture. A member of the Stanford American Indian Organization, Notah helped the fund-raising efforts of the local chapter and stays in contact with the chapter to this day. During his spare time, Notah immerses himself in the local community. He has traveled all over the state of New Mexico to speak with middle school and high-school students.

Furthermore, Notah acts the national spokesperson for the Boys and Girls Club of America and dedicates time to his scholarship fund that is designed to help Native American Scholar-Athletes get to college: “The goal of this scholarship fund is simple-I want to see more Native American high school students go to college, stay in college, and excel in college. I know how important education is and I want to encourage as many Native American youth as possible to not only go to college but return to their communities and encourage the next generation of youth to go to college.” (www.notahbegay3.com) Notah Begay III is a perfect example of how Native Americans can positively influence their communities through sports.

However, Notah’s ascent to the elite of the PGA Tour has not come without obstacles or incident. In 2000 Notah was charged with Driving While Intoxicated for the second time. He was criticized heavily for this incident, and stereotypical questions were raised linking his Navajo background with his alcohol incidents. To his credit, Begay was quick to accept responsibility for his mistake and attempted to turn his poor decision-making into a lesson. “You're looking at someone who is going to jail,” Begay told a group of kids at a junior clinic before the Pebble Beach AT&T Pro-Am. “Imagine if you were locked in your room for a week with no TV, no videos, no Sega. I would hate to see you go through what I have to. But I made a bad decision and I am taking responsibility for that.” Along spending seven days in jail, Begay paid a $1,000 fine, was required to refrain from drinking alcohol for a year was ordered to do 48 hours of community service (Frei, 2000). Since Notah is a role model to young Navajo children, incidents like these place him under more scrutiny than would be the case for another player who is not Navajo. This is a common challenge to Native athletes- to be successful they must be able to handle increased scrutiny that results from being role models.

The positive and negative aspects of Natives participating in professional sports can best be exemplified by the story of Jordin and Terrence Tootoo. Jordin Tootoo is the first Inuit athlete to make it to world-class professional hockey. On October 9, 2003, he played his first shift for the Nashville Predators of the National Hockey League. Tootoo is Rankin Inlet's biggest sports star ever and a role model for Inuit young people; a mural of him hangs in the local youth centre. The Nunavut territorial government features Tootoo and four local teenagers on an inspirational poster encouraging young people to stay in school and set goals (Allen, 2003).

Jordin Tootoo was not the only family member with professional hockey aspirations: Jordin's older brother Terence played in 2002 for the minor hockey team in Roanoke, Va. Terence was found dead near Brandon, Manitoba, in August 2002. The 22-year-old had committed suicide with a shotgun not long after being charged with impaired driving. He could not live with the fact that he had let down his community as a role model. The major obstacles of geography, culture and physical stature that Jordin Tootoo had overcome to reach the NHL now seemed trivial compared to the loss of his brother, who was his best friend and training partner. Jordin has dedicated the 2003-2004 season to his brother, and will play the year with his late brother's name stencilled on his hockey sticks. The difficulty of leaving home to pursue the dream of professional hockey had overcome Terrence. Family friend Jim Ramsey says that all Native athletes face similar challenges when they leave home to pursue athletic careers: “You are asking them to give up four or five things they value most, including family, culture, the people and the land. You are setting them up for failure.” (Jones, 2002)

Despite the challenges faced by the Tootoo brothers, Jordin’s success has unquestionably been a positive for the Inuit community. His play is bringing pride and recognition to the Inuit people. Drafted 98th overall in the 2001 draft, Tootoo has generated more attention than a first-round draft pick, and not just because of his cultural background. He scored 35 goals last season in junior hockey. When he skates up ice, he's like a lightning flash across an open sky. “He's been the most popular player on every team he plays on,” Nashville GM David Poile says. “Fans were chanting his name when he played for Canada” at the world junior championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is 5-9, 190 — 4 inches short and 20 pounds light by NHL standards — but the Predators expect him to be a punishing body checker (Henderson, 2002). His Inuit name is Kudluk, which translates as “thunder.” In Brandon, Manitoba, where he played his junior hockey, he was called Dr. Tootoo because he sent people to the hospital.

Jordin Tootoo embodies what Nunavut's new territorial government presumably wants in an Inuit person — the merging of Inuit culture with a modern perspective. He has a scar on his hand from a harpoon accident he had while seal hunting four years ago. He also has his own Web site — teamtootoo.com — to market his hats and jerseys from the NHL. To appreciate Tootoo's cultural heritage and lifestyle, consider his grandmother, Jenny Tootoo, was born in an igloo. His uncle, Johnny Hickes, is a successful businessman, yet raises sled dogs. The Tootoo family has found harmony between cultural values and modern lifestyle. For example, in the morning, Jordin's mother, Rose, pulls 2-foot-long arctic char out of her fishing nets along the bay, cleaning them and hanging them to dry in the sun. In the afternoon, she may surf the Internet to see whether the Predators have signed any new players. The Inuit tradition values family above all else, and Jordin still appreciates that traditional even though he now lives in Nashville.

His home town of Rankin inlet is a very close-knit community. Nobody knocks before they enter. Young Inuit boys will often drop by to see their hero when he is home for the summer. Jordin greets each boy warmly, and tells them to go upstairs to look at his awards and jerseys. “I want to open doors for other aboriginal kids,” Tootoo says. “I try to make time for everyone.” (www.teamtootoo.com) Tootoo developed as a leader in the Ranking Inlet environment. “He was a good motivational speaker,” remembers Charlie Karetak, who used to play with him. "Everything he said we tried to do. “His cultural pride was showing then, as it does now.” (www.teamtootoo.com)

Everyone in Rankin Inlet definitely makes time for him. After he signed his first NHL contract in Nunavut's capital of Iqaluit, about 500 Rankin Inlet residents were at the airport when he returned. Tootoo misses Rankin Inlet when he is away playing, but he has survived homesickness by “just not thinking about it.” When he is “down south” in Nashville, his mother sends him beluga whale, arctic char, seal and caribou. He struggled to adjust his diet while away from home but finally has settled on frequent meals of steak (Allen, 2003).

Jordin was better prepared to leave home than other Inuit hockey players because his parents - although they could barely afford it - paid for him to go to hockey schools in Winnipeg, Alberta and British Columbia. His father had played hockey in Manitoba and understood the value of training and cultural acclimatization. When a junior team from Edmonton finally spotted Tootoo in an aboriginal tournament and asked him to come there to play for them at 14, his father knew he should go and begin facing the mental challenges of being so far from home.

Like other Native athletes, Jordin is very aware of his responsibility as a role model to younger Inuit. These feelings were evident in an interview he gave shortly after being named to Canada’s national junior team, making him the first player from Aboriginal descent to represent Canada in international competition. “Not very many kids get the opportunity to play international hockey from the territories, and if my being here opens doors for others, then that is something I welcome. I want to play for my family, my people and myself. Being a role model is something that I take very seriously, and I want more kids (from the territories) to play for team Canada, I want to be the first of many more.” (www.tsn.ca)

When Native athletes leave home to pursue their athletic dreams they encounter a few barriers not usually faced by non-native athletes. Not only are these athletes trying to gain status in the very competitive world of professional sports, there are extra implications to their actions. They are often under increased scrutiny from the local media because of their unique backgrounds. For example, Jonathan Cheechoo of the San Jose Sharks hockey team is a well known and popular player in San Jose despite his ability being relatively unremarkable for an NHL player. Much of his notoriety comes from his noticeable last name, and the fact that he hails from Moose Factory, Ontario, a place so isolated that it is only accessible by snowmobile and helicopter in the winter. Also, the behavior of Native athletes is closely watched by those in their home towns, where they are regarded as role models for the young people. Since their behavior is so heavily scrutinized, any mistake by a native athlete can be very damaging to this athlete’s reputation and have serious repercussions. Notah Begay’s second DWI conviction put him under tremendous criticism. Terrence Tootoo’s DWI charge led him to commit suicide. Another barrier faced by Native athletes is the severe cultural change required when they leave their communities and enter the pro sports world. Many Native cultures value the importance of family- when forced to leave their families to join professional and college teams many Native athletes are unable to make the transition without a decrease in their performance. Also, in the “win-at-all-cost” environment that characterizes pro sports today, most professional sports organizations are unwilling to be patient with a Native athlete who is forced to make a drastic cultural adjustment, and will be quick to reprimand a player for poor performance.

Despite the barriers that Native athletes must overcome to reach the professional level, those who are able to make it to the pros are able to make a greater impact on the lives of young people that a non-Native athlete would. Their presence as role models is very important to the young people in the Native community. Since very few Natives are able to transcend racial boundaries and have success in other areas of mainstream culture, athletes who do provide uncommon sources of inspiration and pride.

Native Americans and Canadians have interacted with sports in many ways. Sport has been a way to prepare Native soldiers for battle. In more recent times it has served a therapeutic purpose and provided a distraction from times of alcoholism and depression. From the lacrosse battles in early North America, to the success of Jim Thorpe in the early 20th century, to the present day success of Notah Begay III and Jordin Tootoo, Native culture has always been somewhat tied to athletics. On the whole, the success of Native athletes in professional sports has had a positive impact on the home communities of these athletes. In order for more Native athletes to reach the professional level, they must be given opportunities and resources equal to non-Natives. It’s critical that more Native athletes are encouraged to strive towards participation in college athletics, where resources are plentiful and free of cost. Scholarship programs that have been created to benefit Native student-athletes must be maintained and even increased. Native children must be taught from a young age to strive to reach college so that they can become educated and help their people prosper in today’s society.

References:
Aboriginal Sport Circle. www.aboriginalsportcircle.com, ref. on March 6, 2004.

Allen, Kevin. Skating across the Cultural Gap. USA Today. July 17, 2003.

Frei, Terry. Taking it like a Man. Denver Post. August 3, 2000.

Fisher, Donald M. Lacrosse: A history of the game. Baltimore: John’s Hopkins Press, 2002.

Freeman, Everett (producer). Jim Thorpe All-American (Video). USA, Warner Pictures, 1992.

Government of Canada. http://canada.gc.ca, ref. on March 5, 2004.

Henderson, Rob. Tootoo looks to suit up. The Brandon Sun. December 18th, 2002.

Jones, Paul. Playing hockey good for therapy. Winnepeg Sun. December 13th, 2003.

Kindred, Dave. Olympic Weekly. Atlanta Journal and Constitution. Sec C, P. 4, December 1, 1995.

Newcombe, Jack. The best of Athletic Boys: White man’s impact on Jim Thorpe. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1975.

Pressley, S.A. Olympic Flame goes extra mile to restore Athletes Honor. Washington Post. May 20, 1996.

Simonich, Milan. Body and Sold. Chicago Sun-Times. January 24, 2001.

United States Congress. Restoration of Olympic Records of late James Thorpe. Washington: US Gov. Print. Off., 1979.

Wheeler, Robert W. Jim Thorpe, world’s greatest athlete. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.
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