Native American Basketball History Links To Black Fives, Naismith, And Carlisle, Pennsylvania

On April 21, 2008, in Community, Culture, History, Race, by Black Fives Foundation

Beside their football team popularized by Jim Thorpe, the Carlisle Indian School of the 1910s also had a talented Native American basketball team.

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.

The Carlisle Indian School basketball team, 1918

The Carlisle Indian School basketball team, 1918.

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 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 why basketball became so 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 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 an organization known as Native American Basketball (N.A.B.), a worthy organization whose goal is to encourage participation and promotion of basketball talent among tribal nations.

Basketball is the most popular sport on many Indian Reservations. Yet, few very talented Native American players make it to Division I collegiate programs. 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.)

9 Responses to “Native American Basketball History Links To Black Fives, Naismith, And Carlisle, Pennsylvania”

  1. Chris says:

    Interesting post, fascinated with sports history. I’ll have to check out the Native American Basketball site.

  2. GJ says:

    The 3A/4A Arizona high school playoffs are routinely the most crowded/raucous in Phoenix because of the rez schools. Tuba City, AZ (pop.8800) on the Navajo reservation is about 50 miles from anywhere and has a gymnasium that seats 6500.

  3. PeteJayhawk says:

    Don’t forget that Naismith also coached at the Haskell Institute (now Haskell Indian Nations University) here in Lawrence, KS

  4. Matt says:

    Hampton Institute also won the inaugural CIAA champhionship in 1912 behind the stellar play of their leading scorer, George Gunroe (a Native American)….

  5. KD says:

    two years ago our new high school arena was completed in Chinle Az and we hosted our regionals which sold out both times and seats 6500 but filled at capacity like during our sell outs easily holds 8500. great views from any spot in the building also. We are located geographically in the center of the Navajo Nation.

  6. claude-

    you continually blow my mind with history, homeboy!

  7. I am looking for photos and articles about the old Traveling Sioux basketball team out of Rose Bud and/or Ft. Thompson. Thanks!

  8. [...] Americans have played basketball for over a century, they were among the first people to embrace the sport. Basketball would become a part of their culture in many [...]

  9. In the 1920s Jim Thorpe organized a basketball team “World Famous Indians.” My father, who played football for the Giants at that time, played with Thorpe under an assumed Indian name. This was a barnstorming team and I wondered if in your research on the early Black Fives any of these games came to light?

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Quote of the Month

“The wonder-player of ten or even five years ago lives only in the memory of contemporary worshipers of his brief scintillating days in the limelight. His picture hung on the walls of his Alma Mater, his name on a cup, a book of clippings, and the record of his team connect him with the string of those gone to live only in reminiscences.”
– Edwin Bancroft Henderson, 1939

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