In sports, the old Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania was best known for it’s proud heritage in football and track, thanks to “Pop” Warner and Jim Thorpe.
But the school also had a talented and popular Native American basketball team during the Black Fives Era. In fact, their history connects with the all-black teams of the time.
The Carlisle Indians, as they were called, were scheduled to play the St. Christopher Club of Harlem in 1915.
“If the Indians can play basketball as well as they play football,” predicted sportswriter Will Madden of the New York Age, a leading black newspaper, “or if they can play as well as the Indians on Hampton’s basketball team, they will undoubtedly make it interesting for the Parish House boys.”
Madden was referring to Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), the historically black college in Virginia.
The Carlisle School had first achieved worldwide fame in 1912 when Jim Thorpe – one of its students – won two Olympic gold medals in Antwerp while the school’s football team, with Thorpe as its star, won the national championship under coach “Pop” Warner.
The school was formed in 1879 with a mission to “civilize” Native American children by taking them away – sometimes forcibly – from their reservations and traditional tribal influences in order to transform them effectively into white people.
The school’s unofficial motto was, “Kill the Indian, Save the man.”
Its founder, Richard Henry Pratt, had commanded a unit of African American “buffalo soldiers” as an officer in the 10th Cavalry. The unit patrolled Oklahoma’s “Indian Territory” to peaceably keep Native Americans on their assigned reservations and away from settlers. When peacekeeping efforts failed, tribal warriors were incarcerated, trained in various skills, and were eventually released. Some were persuaded by Pratt to enroll at Hampton for further education.
Hampton became the model Pratt later used to form the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
American Indian students – close to 1,400 in total – continued to attend Hampton under government sponsorship until the early 1920s, and many played basketball on the college’s varsity team. The success of Hampton’s varsity basketball program during the mid-1910s depended on Native Americans. (Hampton won the black intercollegiate national championship in 1914-15.)
James Naismith, the inventor of the game, mentioned the same Carlisle basketball team in his book, Basketball: Its Origins and Development.
“Carlisle was the first Indian school to play basketball,” Naismith noted, “but the success that it met with there showed that the game was especially adapted to Indian youth.” Naismith explained in detail why he believed that basketball became so well-suited and popular among Native Americans:
I have talked to several coaches of Indian teams and have found that coaching a team of Indian boys presents several problems that are not found among white boys. One coach told me that he had several good players who would not take part in the sport for fear of ridicule, and that some of the boys felt it inexcusable to make a mistake. They would not run this chance before a group of people. Besides, the Indian teams are usually made up of comparatively small men. This fact is a distinct handicap to them; but their ability to move quickly and their art of deception overcome the disadvantage of their height, so that wherever these teams play they are assured of a large crowd of spectators.
Native Americans had always been popular in the black community. So popular, that during the 1910s one all-black sports organization in Brooklyn named itself the Indian Laetitia Athletic Club, and another team in Washington, D.C. called themselves the Hiawatha Cardinals.
I mention this because any research on Native Americans in basketball will lead to a a website known as Native American Hoops, and an organization known as the Native American Basketball Invitational Foundation (NABI Foundation), worthy causes whose missions are to encourage participation and promotion of basketball talent among tribal nations, whether playing grass roots “rez ball” or beyond.
Basketball is the most popular sport on many Native American reservations. Yet, few very talented Native American players make it to collegiate programs or beyond. Find out why.
In my opinion, any study of the history of sports in America can’t leave out the contributions and experiences of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
Most of us know about Thorpe. But, who are the top Native American athletes and prospects of today?
(Photo courtesy of the Carlisle, PA Historical Archives.)