History of Native Americans

in Sports

    From lacrosse to the blanket toss, sports in Native tradition have evolved and endured. Whether the origin is survival or entertainment-based, sports have always played and continue to play an important role in Native American history. Canoeingsnowshoeing, tobogganing, relay races, tugs-of-war, ball games, and lacrosse, are just a few of the sports games early Native Americans played and still enjoy. The traditional game of lacrosse originated in the Iroquois Confederacy. Not only did lacrosse provide the means to challenge oneself physically (it was nicknamed "little brother of war"), it was also considered a gift from the Creator, played for various spiritual reasons, and used to heal the sick. 

     Perhaps the most famous American Indian athlete of all time is Jim Thorpe. In 1907, Thorpe persuaded legendary football coach Pop Warner to allow him to try out for the Carlisle "Indians" college football team. After starring for the team, he went onto stardom in numerous athletic endeavors including as an Olympic athlete and professional player in basketball, football, and baseball. The Carlisle Indian football team where Thorpe began his athletic career, had a winning percentage of 65% from 1893 until its final year in 1917, making it the most successful defunct major college football program of all time. Carlisle was a national football powerhouse regularly competing against other major programs including Ivy League schools. The Indians were consistently outsized by their competitors, and in turn, they relied on speed and guile to remain competitive. Carlisle's playbook gave rise to many trick plays and other innovations such as the overhand spiral throw and fake handoff which are now commonplace in American football.

     The Hominy Indians were an all-Indian professional American football team which played in the 1920s and 1930s. The team was based in Hominy, Oklahoma with players from 22 different tribes. They were named state champions in 1925, and in 1927 they defeated the NFL world champion New York Giants. 

     A more recent phenomenon in Indian country is the passionately followed Native American version of basketball called "reservation ball" or rez ball for short. Rez ball is a fast tempo, transition-based style of basketball that features quick shooting, and aggressive defense that looks to force turnovers through pressing and half-court traps. Many American Indians have gravitated to basketball as a means to get together and overcome strife often faced on reservations. Building upon the popularity of basketball in Indian Country, the Native American Basketball Invitational (NABI) was launched in 2003. The Arizona-based tournament has become the premier all-Native youth tournament in the world and was sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association(NCAA) in 2007.

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