Telling Stories About Indigeneity and Canadian Sport: The Spectacular Cree & Ojibway Indian Hockey Barnstorming Tour of North America, 1928
In January and February 1928, 14 hockey-playing Natives from northeastern Ontario undertook a celebrated barnstorming tour of 17 cities and towns in the United States and Canada. Traveling by charter bus, the “Cree & Ojibway Indian Hockey Tour” was a well-promoted and cleverly-planned road trip that began in North Bay and swung through southwestern Ontario before it reached its real targets: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. In some cities, the players divided themselves into two “tribes,” the Cree versus the Ojibways, and held out their game as part of a series for the “Indian Hockey Championship of Canada.” In other locations, only one team was put on the ice to face a local side. In every place, the Native teams wore buckskin “jerseys” with fringes and (in warmup) ceremonial headdresses made of feathers. Invariably, the pre-game hype oversold the real product that the natives put on the ice, but the spectacle was more important than the quality of the hockey played. This tour was unique. While barnstorming was a celebrated feature of American baseball and football in the 1920s and 30s, it was rarely done in hockey. Moreover, though individual First Nations players were sprinkled through amateur and minor-pro hockey in these years, teams made up wholly of natives were virtually unknown.
In almost every city they visited, the Cree and Ojibway games were received generously (though not wholly uncritically) by the local press. Pre- and post-game articles were often long and detailed and accompanied by photographs. Still, there was remarkable variation in the stories. As Michael Oriard has written about early football in the U.S., the sporting press in the early 20th-century did much more than merely report the facts of sports matches. To sell newspapers writers created a variety of “narrative plots” that taught audiences to “read sports as powerful cultural texts.” Newspaper coverage of sporting events was a form of popular drama that emphasized dominant cultural myths. Even the dullest game could be imbued with meanings drawn from tensions of modern life (science vs. brawn; order vs. chaos; civilized vs. savage). Reportage on the Cree and Ojibway games can be read in this way. This essay argues that sportwriters created three alternate (and sometimes contrasting) narratives to tell the story of the Cree-Ojibway hockey games. First, in some locations, the Indian barnstorming tour was cast as a clever exercise in modern enterprise. These natives (all of whom were reportedly summer fishing guides in northern Ontario resorts) used new technology in communications to sell to southern Ontarians and Americans their “products”: hockey, and northern tourism. A second narrative described ice hockey as an authentically indigenous game, a sport first played by northern Natives that was now being re-appropriated in this colorful tour. Headdresses, buckskin jerseys and invented players names (i.e “Tomahawk”) confirmed the aboriginal nature of the game. The story of these games was the story of a game played in its pristine form. Finally, some sportswriters saw the tour for what some of the players must have believed it to be – a subversive self-parody; a northern, wintry version of blackface minstrelsy. In other words, the Cree-Ojibway tour was a drama of racial mockery and power inversion. In dressing up and acting as “imaginary Indians,” these natives were “having a laugh” at their paying customers’ expense. Put together, these narratives reveal much about the social construction of hockey, race and nation in the 1920s and compose an interesting episode in the social history of Canadian-American relations.
Holman, Andrew C. (2009). Telling Stories About Indigeneity and Canadian Sport: The Spectacular Cree & Ojibway Indian Hockey Barnstorming Tour of North America, 1928. CARS Summer Grants. Item 37.