All Native American Football Team

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All native American football team: In honor of Native American Heritage Month, I am excited to share all the wonderful things about this team. The trailblazing, achievements, and skill shown by this talented group. But unfortunately, the men on this team experienced unbelievable prejudice.

Part of honoring the legacy and experiences of the team includes that aspect as well. It was hard to write at times but important. As a note, cute animal photos will be plentiful in this article – animals are wholesome and a recurring theme in the history of this team.

The origin story of the team – the Oorang Indians

Another note is that Oorang is not a city or the name of a tribe. It doesn’t mean anything – it was the way the breeders differentiated their Airedales from other dogs of the same breed. If you’re confused by that I would get used to that feeling. This team is unbelievable.

Who: Jim Thorpe was the head coach, teammate, and recruiter for the team. He never stopped working, he even recruited during games. Other notable players were Joe Guyon, Pete Calac, Elmer Busch (all captains for the Carlisle team – Thorpe’s alma mater), and Nick Lassa also referred to as Long Time Sleep. Nick earned this nickname because he liked to sleep in and was nearly impossible to wake – same Nick, same. Jim Thorpe was allegedly handing out “Native American” nicknames for a greater sense of authenticity.

The team attracted players nationwide, traveling to compete for a chance to be on the team. Many athletes were over 40 and hadn’t played football in years. This was partially due to the racial restrictions, and partially because of the war. At least 10 tribes were represented within the team – Potawatomi, Cherokee, Chippewa, Cupeno, Mission, Mohawk, Mohican, Pomo, Sac and Fox, Winnebago, and Wyandotte.

All native american football team

What: An all-Native American Team. All members had to be Native Americans, but the members didn’t have to be 100% Native American racially.

Where: LaRue, Ohio – the smallest city to ever have its own NFL franchise. The one “home” game had to be played in nearby Marion, Ohio. This was the closest city with a usable football field.

Why: Walter Lingo bought an NFL franchise for $100 to advertise his dog kennel company. He was one of the first team owners in the league. Lingo’s passions in life were an appreciation for hunting and his dogs – not football. The team cost 2/3rd of the price of one dog, so it seemed like a unique marketing opportunity. Walter had some good press – President Harding had an Airedale, and some famous people bought Lingo’s dogs. He found himself needing to overcome the stereotype that his dogs were sheep killers. If you’re uncomfortable with this marketing concept, brace yourself.

Walter had an inappropriate interest in Native American culture. He admired their “hunting prowess” and “way with animals.” Some could perceive these as positive racial stereotypes, but it’s still a stereotype, that isn’t always positive. That is the least problematic part of Lingo, so we will just move right along.

Another big idea Walter had was that there was a “supernatural bond” between his dog breed and Native Americans because the kennels are built over Wyandot Tribal land. That’s just odd.

How, literally HOW: If you’re asking yourself why the NFL would allow such a thing, don’t. It was a dark time in American history, and the league has never shied away from being as racially insensitive as possible whenever the opportunity arises.

How did Walter facilitate his weird dream? Somehow he and Jim Thorpe met during a game, despite Walter not being a football fan. Jim also defended Lingo’s dogs by telling a story about an Airedale Terrier saving a young girl from a bull. How Thorpe knew at that time that the neighbors were labeling Walter’s dog as sheep killer is also unknown. Defeating dog breed stereotypes is admirable.

In 1921, Lingo invited Thorpe and Calac to a hunting trip on his plantation grounds for opossums (there’s a lot to unpack in that sentence). Jim apparently enjoyed the occasional hunting trip. While hunting opossums Walter had an impromptu business idea brainstorming with the men.

Apparently, Thorpe and Lingo thought it would be a great idea to create a team named “after the dogs and the players on the team,” with the main goal of advertising the dogs. Wait! Was it Walter and Jim’s idea? Or just Walter? It’s unclear. It wouldn’t be the first time a person of color is not given proper credit for ideas. An alarming idea in this instance.

The fine print

Somehow Thorpe, with the help of Calac, pulled together a mostly functional team in time for the 1922 season.

Lingo didn’t just want football players, he wanted kennel employees. It’s okay to pause for a facepalm. The work was how the team members “earned their keep.” Back in the day, football players didn’t make much money, $100-$300 a game was the going rate. Football certainly wasn’t a full-time career. But so far as I can tell, team members were never ever required to work for the team to “earn their keep.” But wait, there’s more.

Walter paid Jim Thorpe a $ 500-a-week salary – everyone else got $10-15 a week. Jim was working hard managing the dog kennels while coaching for and playing on the team, so his income makes sense. Everyone else was offensively underpaid.

“Training camp” if we can even call it that, was kennel-focused. It is worth noting that the team had the first semblance of a training camp in the league. The team members exercised and stayed conditioned by taking care of the dog’s daily needs, training the dogs, and building dog crates. When they had time left in the day they would practice. Other sources indicated they practiced five hours a day and took care of the dogs. When they did practice they had to share the one field that was playable, with high schoolers. The development of the team took an understandable hit, and plays were often made up on the spot.

Being on the high school team was a huge deal – there was only one team in the county with nine high schools. Getting to practice with the greats was the icing on the cake. One high school player at the time recalls practicing with the men very fondly – they taught the high schoolers a lot of techniques and were accommodating when including the boys.

The players received medical care and food from the same trainers and dieticians that took care of the dogs. OOF.

All native American football team – Trailblazing and accomplishments

Jim Thorpe was tied as the first Native American head coach in the league technically (we will get to that in future weeks) in 1921. It’s an amazing accomplishment for the time and will be celebrated here.

While we are talking football firsts, Thorpe was the first president of the American Professional Football Association, and by extension, the NFL in 1920. He played that year as well. Thorpe was a multi-tasker. Jim was also enshrined into the Hall of Fame in its first class.

The team had a 4-16 record between both 10-game seasons. Many players had great plays, but the team was held down by Thorpe, Guyon, and Calac who were experiencing hardships. Thorpe was busy coaching and suffered a season-ending injury in 1923 so his play was limited. Guyon wasn’t brought until halfway through the 1922 season. Pete Calac had war wounds from World War 1 that plagued him during the play. Pete Calac gets honorable mentions here for being such an important talent on the team, more information on his story can be found here.

The home game in 1923 was exciting. 1200 people came to watch the game in Marion, OH and they won 20-6! Notable plays include Guyon scoring two touchdowns, and intercepting a pass. Another player, Eagle Feather, got the other touchdown.

Prejudices, Reputations, and stereotypes, oh my!

There was an implication that the players were lazy or undermotivated when it came to practicing. This doesn’t warrant a response based on the “earning their keep,” working ALL day discussion above.

When asked the quarterback of the team whether or not the team exploited Native Americans, he responded by saying that they leveraged the stereotype of the white people that Native Americans were wild men. Leon Boutwell claimed that most members of the team were better educated and more civilized than the crowds, but they played up on the ignorance by “raising hell” because they had the option to do that when others could not. That’s a glass-half-full perspective and a complex but powerful utilization of racism.

Media and advertisements were incredibly problematic. They played on some of the most hurtful tropes they could find. You can find them on this website.

The team had a reputation of sorts when traveling, and they traveled 19 out of the 20 games, so this was pretty often. They were known for drinking, partying, and being terrible on the field (so many scoreless games). Some people placed the responsibility straight on Thorpe‘s shoulders – he allegedly was not the most gifted in the coaching department.

There are some pretty epic stories of their debauchery, and we are celebrating them having fun in such a horrible situation. They knew the games were all about the dogs, no one cared about if they practiced or how they played. This left time for extracurriculars.

One example was the night they got angry that alcohol stopped being served at 2 AM per the law in Chicago, so they stuck the bartender in a telephone booth and turned it upside down. Another night they wanted to get back to their rooms, so they caught a trolley – one they realized was going in the wrong direction. They literally picked the trolley up, turned it around, and put it on the other side of the tracks going the correct way. That is a strong team.

Joe Guyon, an incredible talent

I am trying to break apart the worst parts of the history of this team with positive points. Joe Guyon is a bright patch of sun in anyone’s clouds. Often overshadowed by Thorpe, Guyon very much made a name for himself on and off the field.

Joe was born in 1894 or 1892 on the White Earth Indian reservation in Minnesota to Joseph and Mary Mindemona Guyon. His Christian name was Joseph Napoleon Guyon, and his name was also O-Gee-Chida. He was a member of the Chippewa tribe. We know that Joe had at least one brother, who also was a football star.

Guyon only had access to education up to 6th grade. He was a smart child and leveraged his athleticism to get sports-related opportunities, and tangentially, education.

Joe had a long, illustrious sports career that was very difficult to follow. He played college ball at Carlisle (yep, Thorpe’s school!) and at Georgia Tech with his brother Charles who was an assistant under Heisman (yes, that Heisman!). He was a member of Heisman’s “Dream Team Backfield,” in 1917 and 1918 – a team some have said is one of the best-assembled college teams ever.

A teammate at Georgia Tech, Judy Harlan, commented on Joe’s “war whoops” that was very recognizable at the end of his numerous amazing plays. Harlan also stated that in one game Guyon wore a horse collar shaped into a shoulder pad that was reinforced with steel. Joe struck the fear into players literally. He also had a killer kick. He was credited with a 95-yard punt (statistics were a bit different in the 1920s so that may not be a direct crossover) and kicked more than 60 yards consistently.

Guyon entered into the league in 1919 as a Canton Bulldog, playing alongside Thorpe. He also joined the Oorang team in 1922 with Jim. The men were buddies, and Guyon was Thorpe’s best man at one of his weddings.

Joe played in roughly 1,000 football teams. He bounced between playing and coaching baseball and college and professional football. Guyon was literally the “Coach of All Sports” at Union University from 1923-1927. He was simultaneously the athletic director, and football, basketball, baseball, and women’s basketball coach during those four years.

His achievements did not go unnoticed – he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1966. His performance in 1927 for the New York Giants was heavily emphasized. He helped take his team to the NFL Championship with his diverse skill set – passing, running, punting, tackling, and blocking his way to the HOF.

Guyon is likely a black widower as he was a widower twice over. He had two children with his first wife, Isabel. Although Joe was still playing sports in his 40s, he eventually did retire from the sports world and was a Bank Guard in Michigan. His disposition off the field was completely opposite of his football persona – he was a gentleman, witty, and light-hearted.

Joe Guyon passed away in 1971, one day after his 79th birthday in Kentucky.

The birth of the half-time show

They always say to save the very, very, very worst for the end right? Here you go! Please note the majority of the photos in this section can be triggering as they show the appropriation of Native American culture.

Since the primary purpose of the team was to advertise the dogs, it was a main part of the show… I mean game.

The pregame festivities were fun. The teammates would show off the dogs and have them do tricks for the crowd. Thorpe would also kick punts, showing off his skills.

The halftime show though was a whole other story.

Firstly, Lingo didn’t allow his team to leave the field during halftime like most teams. They had a show to do.

Then came the antics.

The team would dress up in Native American regalia and do “war” dances that were designed to match the Old Westerns with other players drumming. There were weapon demonstrations such as knives and tomahawk throwing. Birds were flown over the field and shot down by the players, so the dogs could catch and retrieve them.

The dogs also chased raccoons up fake trees on the field to show off their hunting skills. Dog tricks weren’t exclusive to the Airedale’s for halftime – Nick’s pet coyote would come and perform as well. A favorite “game” was doing WWI reenactments, with the dogs delivering first aid to the Native American characters in the reenactment who were being defeated. And there was a bear whose home was at the kennels. Nick Lassa would wrestle the bear. Several times.

What did people have to say about it?

William Guthery, Sr. lived in LaRue, Ohio, and practiced with the team during high school practices. At the time of the article being written, William was 97 and the last person to say that he played with the men on the field.

William reports that the general energy in LaRue was appreciation, not resentment, for the team. He describes the team as an “oddity” people became accustomed to (the team or the people?) Town folks were happy that Lingo was succeeding in business. The men were perceived as not bringing trouble and were often viewed as helpful in the workforce. Bringing a team full of Native Americans to a small town in Ohio could likely have turned out quite differently, so this is a positive.

Fans joked about the team asking if they were a dog show with a side of football or football with a dog show.

The language director of the Sac and Fox Nation, Ms. Thompson, felt that Lingo was seemingly mocking Native American culture by having the players put on shows of stereotypes that are harmful to Native Americans.

Dr. Deloria, a Harvard Historian of Native American descent, felt that the men likely felt the shows were demeaning. “Performing” their culture. However, the men saw the economic opportunity in the situation, due to their restricted position in life and job opportunities.

Grace Thorpe, Jim’s daughter, remembers the kennels fondly. Some of her earliest memories were of the dogs. Grace’s mother told her one of the dogs was her first babysitter – he would lead her by the diaper back to the yard if she wandered too far.

The end

The team disbanded in 1924 after its marketability diminished. Jim Thorpe created the basketball version with the same name a few years later, partnering with Lingo once again. Other team members went on to have jobs in many different fields and areas, although some remained in Ohio and others continued playing football.

The Great Depression hurt Lingo’s profits, and his business closed at his death in 1969. Oh no, I’m so… sorry to hear that.

There have been “Oorang bangs” in LaRue – community celebrations commiserating the team. All I have to say about that is that any celebrations not created and hosted by Native Americans are another egregious disservice to these men and their legacy.

The record has it that players smiled fondly remembering the good old days of dogs and footballs, and allegedly “enjoyed every minute of it.” This is a gross oversimplification of oppressed people fighting through stereotypes to make a name for themselves in a society that hated them. They would have had a much better time if they were treated with basic human dignity and respect.

For more Native American Heritage Month articles, here is one all about Jim Thorpe.

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