December 17, 2007

Whatever happened to American Indian athletes?

The New York Times has a big story, "Sequoyah High's Success Engergizes Tribe," on an "all-Indian" high school in Oklahoma that has won the state girls' basketball championship three years running. The article focuses on the star guard of the Lady Indians, a Cherokee named Angel Goodrich, and implies that she undermines the stereotype that American Indian girls aren't good at basketball.

There's only one little problem with the theme of the article, which you might notice by glancing at Angel's picture. (The NYT runs a picture of Angel with her little sister, who looks just like her.)

That got me to thinking about how there used to be a stereotype that American Indians were good at sports. Jim Thorpe was the most famous all-around athlete in America ninety years ago. He was, roughly, half-American Indian and half-white and grew up on a reservation. Thorpe wasn't unique at the time -- there were a fair number of Native American baseball stars, such as Chief Bender, the half-Chippewa Hall of Fame pitcher for Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. Another Hall of Famer was outfielder Zack Wheat of the Dodgers, who was half-Cherokee:
"In an era that also produced Jim Thorpe and Chief Bender, Wheat's Indian blood was thought by some to be the primary reason for his excellence. "The lithe muscles, the panther-like motions of the Indian are his by divine right," Baseball Magazine wrote in 1917."

But where have the American Indian athletes gone since then?

Notah Begay (who was on the most interesting college golf team of all time at Stanford, along with the semi-crippled Casey Martin, who won the right to ride in a golf cart in pro tournaments in a famous Supreme Court decision, and some guy named Eldrick Woods Jr.) is a rare full-blooded Indian athlete (Navajo and Pueblo). He won four times in his first two years on Tour (1999-2000), but has run into drunk-driving and back pain problems. (Tiger, by the way, is 1/8th American Indian, via his late father Earl Woods. The Green Beret colonel was always said to be half black, one quarter American Indian, and, oddly enough for somebody born in Kansas in 1932, one-quarter Chinese.)

Sonny Sixkiller was a quarterback when I was kid, and certainly had a cool name, but there sure haven't been many other Indian athletes recently.

American Indians make up 0.8% of college students, but only 0.3% of college athletes.

Here's a table that quantifies my impression: Baseball Almanac lists 49 American Indian major leaguers, out of which 43 of them began their careers from 1897-1946. Some of the more prominent names on the list include Indian Bob Johnson, hard-hitting and hard-drinking Rudy York, Yankee reliever Allie Reynolds, and Pepper Martin, the Wild Horse of the Osage. (Note that I haven't investigated these claims.)

So, there have been only six Indians to begin their careers in the big leagues in the 60 years since 1947.

Rookie pitcher Joba Chamberlain, who was practically unhittable in 24 innings for the Yankees this year is probably the best known Indian baseball player to enter the majors since the fall-off in 1947. He is half-Winnebago, but wasn't raised on the rez. Selena Roberts wrote in the NYT in "Chamberlain Offers His Tribe Hope:"

"With every pitch, Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain peels back the stereotypes of the American Indian athlete as problematic, as fearful of success, as self-loathing."

Perhaps, American Indians just married into white America more and stopped identifying as Indian as much after 1946. For example, Hall of Fame Johnny Bench is said to be 1/8th Choctaw.

Or maybe Indians got fatter when the economy picked up after WWII? They tend to have a lot of trouble with diabetes these days.

Wait a minute ... what happened in baseball in 1947?

Jackie Robinson.

I bet that explains part of why the rate at which big-leaguers identified on the list as Indians entered the big leagues dropped by almost an order of magnitude after Jackie Robinson: some of these Indian ballplayers were Indian like Angel Goodrich is Indian.

Indeed, 16 of the 34 Indians to enter the big leagues from 1909 to 1946 were Cherokee. The Cherokee may have been the most culturally advanced tribe. Sequoyah invented an alphabet for them and they had their own newspaper in the 1820s before Andy Jackson kicked them out of the Southeast and down the Trail of Tears into Indian Territory. One aspect of their enthusiastic embrace of white American culture was that they kept black slaves. Earlier this year, the Cherokee Nation kicked 2800 people out of the tribe for being descended from black slaves rather than from Indians.

It's a clever theory, but I haven't yet found photos of Indian ballplayers who looked particularly black.

We do know of one example where a black ballplayer posing as an Indian was exposed. As I wrote in "How Jackie Robinson Desegregated America:"

In 1901, [Hall of Fame manager John J. McGraw] almost succeeded in smuggling a light-skinned black second baseman onto his team as a full-blooded Cherokee named "Chief Tokohama.''

It might seem exciting to do some digging and find out which "Indian" ballplayers of this era were significantly black, since you could then claim you had discovered somebody who had "broken the colorline before Jackie Robinson." That sounds like a big deal, but it's not, because there were several blackish Cuban ballplayers in the 1930s, such as Bobby Estalella, who came up in 1935 with the Washington Senators. The point of what Robinson did was to break the color line publicly.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

"The lithe muscles, the panther-like motions of the Indian are his by divine right,"

Is this why American Indians rule the gridiron, the stage, and the dance floor? Maybe modern Native-American reservations are the equivalent of the spirit-crushing USSR. Not a lot of panther-like motions happening on the reservation today. And not a lot of Russian cultural traits blossomed in Soviet times.

*NOT REALLY OFF TOPIC* Drudge is headlining with Iran nuclear power plans in big red letters tonight. Flyover country needs to get with the program! If I were 120 years old I bet this would remind me of how the newspapers all at once mysteriously turned against the Kaiser. I guess the more things change the more they stay the same.

Isn't that funny? How the media can all start humming a particular song?

Colby Cosh said...

No mention of Jacoby Ellsbury? He beat Joba to the majors by about five weeks.

Anonymous said...

"I bet that explains part of why the rate at which big-leaguers identified on the list as Indians entered the big leagues dropped by almost an order of magnitude after Jackie Robinson: some of these Indian ballplayers were Indian like Angel Goodrich is Indian."

Or, how about that the Indian niche in the major leagues was taken up by Negroes? I think it more likely that these historical "American Indian players" were part-white or mostly white (as were the ones you cited), and white baseball niches were occupied by Negroes as well.

In recent years, there has been an increasing number of white outfielders and that's good, but at one point it was looking like OF positions were becoming more and more black and dark hispanic territories.

Perhaps that's a reason for the significant increase in top quality - and mostly white - third basemen in the years since the horrendous mistake of 1947.

Previously, guys like Eddie Matthews, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Boggs, David Wright, even Nettles and others would have been put in the outfield. But with so many "fast and athletic" Negroes filling those positions, heavy hitting and athletic whites gravitated toward 3B.

There probably have never been that many American Indian (actually, north American mestizo) athletes of sufficient numbers to provide effective competition to the Negro influx.

In other words, it is not that "American Indian athletes" of the past were "really part Black" and are considered "Black" today. I see no evidence for that. Most it seemed were part, or mostly, white (more likely that they are just being called "white" today and not "black".)

It's that the post-1947 influx of African blood to the majors has filled up many positions and squeezed out the small "Indian" minority.

Of course, it doesn't help that may Indians today are obese alcoholic diabetics.

Steve Sailer said...

By the way, basketball is a big deal on some reservations, and Northern Plains Indians tend to be tall. A reader wrote me in 2004:

"Every year the best Montana high school boy's basketball players are selected from around the state (12 of them) to play the best Wyoming high school boys. ... Three of the starting five boys on the Montana team were Crow speaking Crow Indians (I'm a Crow) and four of the five Wyoming starters were African-Americans.

I was then a [blank] on the Crow Reservation. My secretary's younger brother was one of the Crow kids. The advantages for the Crow were both genetic (average adult male height is 6'3"...our players averaged 6'7"), and life style (Crow boys start playing basketball soon after they begin to walk).

I talked to my secretary's brother (6"8") and asked him about the games. He had never played against African- Americans before. He was amazed at how high they could jump (even though much shorter than the Crow kids), and how strong they were. He was convinced that if the Crow were just an inch or so shorter that the Wyoming team would have wiped them out. He also felt that the 15 years experience he and the other Crow had also helped (he was 18)...

Bergman's Law states that a given species of mammal gets progressively taller the farther away from the Equator they get. Whitetail deer in Montana and Alberta are almost twice the size of Florida or south Texas deer. Moose in Alaska are much larger than those in Colorado, etc. [One refinement to the law for humans is that polar peoples, like Eskimos and Lapps, tend to be shorter than peoples in cold but not frigid areas.]

The MT/WY area is the furthermost south that the Crow Indians have ever lived in the past 15,000 years (at least). Mountain men referred to the Crow as the "Giants of the Plains" in the 19th. Century. In the Montana high school basketball circuit Crow are generally the tallest, followed by Blackfeet, then Cheyenne, Sioux, Cree, Atsina, Caucasians/Blacks, other Indians, Japanese (Big Horn County), and Hmong (shortest and mainly in Missoula County).

Anonymous said...

...and implies that she undermines the stereotype that American Indian girls aren't good at basketball.

I didn't know there was such a stereotype.

That got me to thinking about how there used to be a stereotype that American Indians were good at sports.

Ditto. Anyway, a few examples does not a stereotype make.

From the article:

To her teammates, the 5-foot-3 Goodrich is no big deal.

You really have to wonder how well someone who is only 63 inches tall will do in Division I women's college basketball.

Anonymous said...

The NY Times managed to tell a few lies of omission. Sequoyah was not the Oklahoma State champion but the 3A (medium small school) state champion.

They are currently ranked 25th on the USA Today poll and have already lost to another Oklahoma High School (Brooker T. Washington for those of you interested in old segregation schools). See

However, the best girls team in Oklahoma is Sapulpa, Okla which is a school that is 80% white.

Black Sea said...

Maybe they're slowly being absorbed by the "Indian American" community.

The only current Native American pro athlete I could think of was St. Louis Ram's linebacker Brandon Chillar. I googled him to check his background, and found that though the Ram's webpage says he is "One of few Native American players in the NFL", various Indian American pages claim that he's "Indian" in the East Asian sense.

So now I don't know what to think.

Anonymous said...

The easier money is in casinos. Plus, how well do American Indians get along with sports-ubiquitous African-Americans? NAMs often have a largely unspoken "turf" system, and blacks shut out almost all other NAMs in sports (the rule-proving exception being that one insanely tall Chinese basketball player who developed his chops mostly outside the turf).

Anonymous said...

"With every pitch, Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain peels back the stereotypes of the American Indian athlete as problematic, as fearful of success, as self-loathing."

Hysterical. They must use a template for this kind of shit. I had no idea that American indian athletes were hobbled by fears of success, hated themselves, etc... If so, why get involved in athletics? You want to win right?

Anonymous said...

There are some American Indians in professional boxing. Probably the best-known is light heavyweight Jonathan "The Native Sensation" Corn, a Menominee, who has had almost 70 fights and won about 50 of them. Several years ago he challenged for one of the "alphabet soup" titles as a middleweight. His most recent fight was against Roger "Never Can Tell" Cantrell of Washington's Puyallup tribe, who usually fights as a super middleweight. Cantrell, who has a 12-1 record, won by TKO. Also fighting as a super middleweight is George "Comanche Boy" Tahdooahnippah; he's had only nine fights but has won all of them, all but one by knockout, and is a highly regarded prospect.

Iron Rails & Iron Weights

Anonymous said...

Height and White admixture aside, aren't Amerinds of Mongoloid origin? Perhaps they should take up snooker, diving, badminton and ping pong.

Anonymous said...

Nimrod Nation...

No one is so touching, however, as Nimrod star Brian Aimsback, a Native American. He ought to be happy -- he is a famous big scorer, the beloved boyfriend of Hope and active in school affairs. Yet Brian's grandmother sees prejudice against Indians as a big barrier. We can never tell whether Brian agrees with her, because he never articulates his feelings. All we know is that on the basketball court, and especially when he has had a bad game, he can look like a frightened child. Then, near the end of the film, he follows the advice of a Chippewa elder and dons Native regalia for an Indian dancing competition. There, for the first time, we see Brian transformed into a man.

Anonymous said...

To the extent that he was descended from aboriginal peoples, Duke Kahanamoku was one of the great "Indian" athletes of the early 20th century: He won gold at the 1912 & 1920 Olympics [the 1916 Olympics, scheduled to have been in Berlin, were, of course, cancelled], and, at the ripe old age of 34!!! [I kid you not], he still managed to win silver at the 1924 games [the gold going to Weissmuller]:

Duke Kahanamoku, Swimming Hall of Fame
Duke Kahanamoku, Wikipedia
Duke Kahanamoku, Surfing Museum

There were several other Hawaiians who were winning olympic medals in that era, like Warren Kealoha, Pua Kealoha, and Duke's younger brother, Samuel Kahanamoku.

PS: I just learned from googling that Doris Duke [the North Carolina tobacco heiress] may have had affairs with both Duke & Samuel Kahanamoku.

PPS: If you are the type who gets depressed at the thought of how much better our society used to be, or if you've ever suspected that things used to be better [back before the birth control pill & Roe-v-Wade, when white people still made babies], but you never wanted to investigate the matter for fear of how depressed you might become, then do NOT look at old surfing pictures.

And UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you watch The Endless Summer, which depicts a California wherein the GOP could still reliably expect to be able to elect leaders like Ronald Reagan to statewide office.

PPPS: I remember reading when I was a kid that somebody famous had once said that the hardest hit he ever took in his life was from Jim Thorpe. I thought that it was Bronko Nagurski who had said that, but Wikipedia indicates that Thorpe retired from the NFL in 1928, and Nagurski didn't enter the NFL until 1930, so it must have been Red Grange.

By the way, Thorpe was born in 1888, so he was in his late-thirties when he played the football which earned him a spot on the NFL's all-1920's team, and he was about 40 when he retired.

PPPPS: Speaking of the Black folk and the Cherokee, they were in the news earlier this year:

Cherokees eject slave descendants

Cherokees Pull Freed Slaves' Memberships

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with the poster "eh", above. The whole thing sounds made up.

I usually keep my ears open to racial stereotypes, and I have never, ever heard the one about Native Americans being unatheletic, or about Native American girls not being able to play basketball in particular.

Sounds like some NYT reporter couldn't think of something better to make up, so they made up something about, "They told these reservation girls that they couldn't play, but they sure showed them!", which can double up as a script for a feel-good Disney movie if they get fired for making up stuff.

Anonymous said...

Sam Bradford, starting quarterback for the University of Oklahoma, is said to be Cherokee. I'm not sure exactly how much Indian blood he has, but he looks very much like a Native American.

Outside of the reservations, Native Americans are pretty rare, so I would guess that a lot of them have just intermarried with the rest of the population. In Oklahoma, where there are a lot of Native Americans, but most of them don't live on reservations, many people who look white (or black) actually have some Native American blood.

Anonymous said...

Lucius Vorenus, maybe the reason white people stopped having babies is none of those girls wanted to stop looking good at the beach.

Anonymous said...

mrs. anonymous: Lucius Vorenus, maybe the reason white people stopped having babies is none of those girls wanted to stop looking good at the beach.

In googling about the Kahanamoku brothers, I came across this story:

Hobey reminisces: "In about 1932 or '33, my grandfather brought home three surfboards for us kids, and we didn't know how we were gonna handle them. One day, Doris Duke came down on her boat and Sam Kahanamoku was with her. He saw us foolin' around and said, 'Hey, that's not the way you come in on it,' and he showed us how to surf. I caught on quicker than my brothers.

And I found this PDF file wherein, on page 2, there's a picture of an absolutely ravishing young Doris Duke leaning on Samuel Kahanamoku [at least I think that's who it is]:

And in googling about Red Grange, I discovered that he married an airline stewardess, named Margaret "Muggs" Grange.


Doris Duke's only child, a daughter named Arden, died at birth.

Margaret Grange never had any children.

Sometimes it takes all the energy I have not to get swallowed up by despair.

The world is dying before our very eyes.

Darayvus said...

Do Navajo count as "Indian"? They are transplants from Alaska who showed up in New Mexico not long before, and possibly after, the Spanish. They are genetically very distinct from the Uto-Aztecan natives of the area (Comanche etc). I've seen some of their Apache cousins and I can report they are physically distinct, too - they look strangely like very large Japanese (Siberian?), while the locals look like taller central Mexicans.

Anonymous said...

Indians are fairly passionate about Indian teams and will play intramurally on the Rez. On the outside though, they don't have much of an advantage on Blacks, at least not here in Eastern Washington.

Anonymous said...

Eh said:
"You really have to wonder how well someone who is only 63 inches tall will do in Division I women's college basketball."

I guess that Mugsy Bogues (5'3") and Earl Boykins (5'5") were/are lousy NBA players? ;-) You can overcome a lot of height disadvantage with athleticism and coordination. My aunt, for example, is only 5'2", and although she is over 50 so basketball was a little different back then, she did quite well as point guard for the Temple Women's basketball team (Div I) because she was exceptionally strong, quick and explosive and had excellent coordination. She also started at shortstop for Temple women's softball team and was in the pitching rotation, started on the Temple women's field hockey team (and was on the NE regional team and an Olympic alternate), and as a golf amatuer made the cut at the US Women's Open.

Steve relayed:
"By the way, basketball is a big deal on some reservations, and Northern Plains Indians tend to be tall... The advantages for the Crow were both genetic (average adult male height is 6'3"...our players averaged 6'7"), and life style"

6'3" sounds a bit tall. That would make plains indians taller than the Dutch, inhabitants of the Dinaric Alps and the Nilotic peoples of Africa). If my memory serves me right, in Evelyth and Tanner's 1st edition of "Worldwide Variation in Human Growth," the average height of young adult males from the plains tribes like the Blackfeet and Crow was something like 177 or 178cm (i.e., about 5'10"). Granted, this data was taken in the 1960s, so things might have changed (though they haven't much for whites and blacks in the US), but I remain skeptical of this claim that they are anywhere near 190cm on average. If we had a population of 190cm giants living on the Indian reservations, you'd think someone would have mentioned it. (Though perhaps John Komlos and Richard Steckel, among other economic historians, who study height might not want to report such a finding because such a tall population that is relatively poor and underprivileged doesn't jive with their schtick that there are absolutely no differences in genetic potential for height in human populations and all inequalities are caused by poverty and lack of national health care - which is what Komlos asserts in his recent paper where he harps on about the "savage inequality" in the US that causes 180cm young Germans and Scandinavians to "tower" over their "diminutive 179cm young American counterparts (can anyone say making a mounting out of millimeters?)?) I'm not saying that plains indians aren't tall, but I'd like to see some proof that they are.

From anecdote (bad, I know), an aquaintance of mine from Montana who played for the U. of Montana basketball team and then pro ball in Europe once mentioned playing against indian teams from the reservations in high school. I asked him about their athletic ability vis-a-vis whites and blacks and whether they were particularly large. He said that they didn't strike him as particularly tall compared to whites and blacks. What did strike him, however, was how big and bulky they were. He said that they weren't as muscular as blacks, but tended to have broad shoulders and massive barrel chests and that they were also somewhat fat compared to whites and blacks. He also noted that they seemed to have more explosive athleticism than whites on average, but less than blacks. He also said they were good shots and that their basketball skills were fundamentally sound (as opposed to many black players he had experience with who were amazingly athletic, but poor at teamwork).

"Bergman's Law states that a given species of mammal gets progressively taller the farther away from the Equator they get."

No, they get BIGGER, not necessarily taller.

Anonymous said...

The Navajo language is sometimes not counted as "Indian", and some theories propose a separate migration for the ancestral speakers of this language. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that they have some unusual traits in their Y chromosomes or mtDNA. Still, I find it hard to credit that there is anything like a clear distinction between their genes and American Indians in general. Perhaps because of intermarriage with Eskimos? I file that under "maybe". That said, one would expect to see gradients in traits from place to place in the New World, and it so it wouldn't be too surprising that the Navajo (recent arrivals from Alaska or Canada, as mentioned above) might stand out a bit from the locals there.

Anonymous said...

Perk up, Eeyore. I'm breeding up a nice batch of high-g sportsmen.

Anonymous said...

Tiger Woods is 1/4 Chinese, via his mother who is 1/2 Thai, 1/2 Chinese. Earl Woods is not 1/4 Chinese.

Anonymous said...

mrs. anonymous: Perk up, Eeyore. I'm breeding up a nice batch of high-g sportsmen.

God bless you.

And please don't stop - please keep making babies right up until menopause [or even beyond menopause, if that's possible].

Anonymous said...

If you look at
You will see a pictures of last years team. Notice the three obviously European girls.

Also Sequoyah High seems to run the traditional high school girls system basketball of full court trap pressing and having the best player take virtually all of the shots on the offensive end (Angel scored 26 out of 40 points in Sequotah's biggest game last year).

You may want to not that girls high school basketball works more like high school football in that suburban white schools and private catholic schools do the best and many all black schools have very bad teams.

Anonymous said...

Fifty years ago, I lived on the reservation in Cherokee, NC, home of many of the "Eastern" Cherokees--those that the U.S. Army was unable to round up for the "Trail of Tears." I ran a service station at the intersection of E-W U.S. 19 and U.S. 441 at the edge of town.

From what I learned (and observed) at the time, most of the then 2000 or so population were at least half white, many much more so. It only took 1/16 "blood" to qualify for the Tribal Roll (with which went certain benefits, such as property ownership). Most of the full-bloods (and near-full) lived in the more remote sections, such as "Wolftown" and "Big Cove."

As a matter of fact, many of the people living in other communities of western NC had Cherokee ancestors. When the whites arrived as settlers, the Cherokee were very ":civilized," compared with other tribes. Consequently, many soon adopted many of the ways of the new arrivals and Indian men were reasonably successful, right from the start, in wooing and marrying settler gals. I guess the intermarriage probably was more than double that in other regions of the country. Among the Indians with whom I was personally acquainted were many Smiths, Taylors, Sullivans, Queens; I'd guess such names were a distinct majority but there were plenty with Indian names.

There were some of black admixture. Most of these lived in a certain town section whose name I've forgotten and did suffer a slight but not terribly obvious prejudice from others. As best as I could learn, some of these were descended from slaves bought by Indians long ago while others were those whose ancestors had escaped and found refuge with the tribe. The Indians never enslaved those not already slaves, I was told.

In those days, the major warm-weather sport was softball. The town fielded a team which did reasonably well against teams from other places in NC and TN. Also, some played the traditional "Indian Ball," a forerunner of lacrosse. Their version was played with a pair of short sticks (with a netting cup) and a ball slightly larger than a golf ball made of tightly-wound wool yarn. Any number could play--as long as the sides were equal--and the regular object was to disable opponents' strong men and send out (to keep the sides equal) your weakest. The only prohibited behavior or foul was touching the ball with the hand or hitting an opponent with only one hand or sticks in one hand (held to be cowardly, as opposed to slugging with both hands--normally requiring a more manly face-to-face.)

Now they've got a casino!

Anonymous said...

even beyond menopause, if that's possible

No, I think being 55 with an infant is an experience I'll leave to the elite.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post, a lot of history here. However, I'm surprised you didn't mention the old Carlisle Indian School.

Anonymous said...

Angels Mom is a little Cherokee woman originally from Stilwell, OK(a town of mostly Indians), she has black hair and kinda squinty eyes like many Indians. Not at all like most blond Cherokees you meet. You can see her in the pictures of when Angel signed with Kansas. She just happened to join the Navy and fell for a black man and had 3 kids with him. On Senior night they announced Angel as half Cherokee and half black. The comments that CHEROKEES HAD BLACK PEOPLE IN THE CHEROKEE TRIBE WHO ARE NOT INDIAN and about A BLACK PERSON BEING INDIAN LIKE ANGEL IS INDIAN holds no water in this case. She is half Indian even though her fathers traits in looks are dominant. All of us Indians that actually know her will always claim her as one of our own. Her Mother and Father both have won us over. Its not just us Cherokees either, a veteran from around Anadarko (the whole other side of the state) gave her an Eagle Plum last year when they played at Riverside Indian School, for all her accomplishments.

We love her not for the way she looks but for what she does. Last year she led the state in assists in all classes. Everyone takes a lot of shots she just makes a lot more of hers. And she has not been the leading scorer in many games this season, Nikki and Lorin had a say in that.

The combination of Indian and black must be a good one for basketball athletes, the best boys player from Sequoyah, Solomon Horsechief was half Pawnee (from his Dad) and half black (from his Mom).

Billy Mills is half Indian but I don't really hear anyone saying "they must be Indian like Billy Mills is Indian".

Unknown said...

Both of those schools are 6A schools