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Historicist: The Cree & Ojibway Indian Hockey Tour

In 1928, two teams of aboriginal hockey players embarked on a barnstorming tour through Ontario and the northeastern United States.

Cree and Ojibway hockey teams, 11 January 1928, from City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 5619.

On January 12, 1928, two hockey teams composed entirely of First Nations players took to the ice at Ravina Gardens on Rowland Street for a “a very speedy and clever game of hockey,” as one newspaper described it.

It was one of the earliest stops on what would be a 2,200-mile motor coach tour. Over the course of 60 days, the two teams would travel to over a dozen Ontario and American cities, playing exhibitions against each other or local teams.

The “Cree & Ojibway Indian Hockey Tour,” as it was billed on the side of the bus, featured the “Fast Ojibway Indians” versus the “Great Cree Indians.” One team was composed of Ojibway players from Bear Island in Lake Temagami—now known as Teme-Augama Anishnabai or Temagami First Nation. The other was composed of Cree players from Chapleau (according to one newspaper) or “the James Bay territory” (according to another). Papers weren’t concerned with such precision. It seems likely that the Cree team was drawn from Bear Island as well as Chapleau Cree First Nation, and possibly even Moose Factory or elsewhere.

The substantial media coverage of the lopsided game—a 12-4 result in favour of the Cree team—employed the loaded language and stereotypes of the time. The Toronto Globe reported:

The Cree players went on a rampage against their brother tribesmen, and scored an even dozen goals during the game, which rather shaded the four registered by the Ojibways. Still the crowd passed a pleasant evening, although a little disappointed because the score was so one-sided.

The Cree had things their own way throughout the contest, scoring three in the first period, four in the second and five in the last. The Ojibways livened up in the middle session, and due to the clever work of the Anderson brothers notched three goals, which were their best effort until midway through the last period when G. Turner registered.

With a first glance at the promotional photo above, the Cree & Ojibway Hockey Tour of 1928 appears to be just another occasion—like Wild West shows, pageants at agricultural fairs, and Hollywood movies—where aboriginals performed but had little agency in directing the narrative presented.

However, as the circumstances of the tour—scant as this information may be—emerge, this context suggests that more complex dynamics were at work.

Image of Ravina Gardens from Evelyn Crescent from {a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ravina_gardens.jpg"}WikiMedia Commons{/a}.

It would not have been all that unusual to see aboriginals playing hockey in the 1920s. Several of the players on the Cree & Ojbway Tour had played in Toronto’s Mercantile League or similar leagues in North Bay and elsewhere.

Even a team composed entirely of aboriginals would not have been that unusual. And hockey was a popular winter activity for students at residential schools, as Basil Johnston writes in his memoirs, Indian School Days (Key Porter Books, 1988). By the time Johnston attended in the 1940s, organized hockey had long been played at Garnier Residential School. A team of older boys—looked up to with reverence by Johnston and his classmates—travelled the region playing competitive games against local teams.

And, in northern British Columbia during the early 1930s, a team composed of those from the Shuswap nation, the Alkali Lake Braves, was the dominant team in the region, as recounted in Michael McKinley’s Hockey: A People’s History (McClelland & Stewart, 2006). So, for a 1928 audience, the novelty of an aboriginal hockey team would have been minimal.

The truly unusual thing about the Cree & Ojibway Tour was that rather than standard hockey jerseys, each player wore a “feathered head-dress,” buckskin tunic (emblazoned with a C or an O), and “beaded waists” on the ice. Almost every press report commented on the seemingly traditional attire, and emphasized the players’ authenticity as “full-blooded Indians.”

Typical Bear Island Family, 25 August 1896, from {a href="http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=&rec_nbr=000003219785"}Library and Archives Canada{/a} (PA-123357).

The cultural accuracy of what the bus sign called the “Full Indian Costume” itself is best left for an anthropologist. But wearing it in hockey games certainly didn’t reflect traditional Cree or Ojibway cultural practices. Moreover, it didn’t match the regular daily attire of the players, most of whom worked as trappers and guides and wore regular clothes.

A logical inference is that the Cree and Ojibway Tour players were self-consciously wearing the outfits to market their games to prospective ticket-buyers by playing up white expectations as informed by Wild West shows and Hollywood westerns. As Philip Deloria theorized of similar, non-sporting situations in Playing Indian (Yale University Press, 1998), they were “imitating non-Indian imitations of Indians.”

Official government policy was assimilationist, pushing Indians “to become a part of the modern world by giving up whatever it was that made them Indians,” as Daniel Francis put it in The Imaginary Indian (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992). The Canadian general public, however, tended to prefer Indians in paint-and-feathers. Full costume performances at agricultural exhibitions and Dominion Day celebrations presented aboriginals as symbols of a simpler, pre-industrial past, against which the progress of Euro-Canadians could be measured.

But what differed about the Cree & Ojbway Tour in 1928 compared to these other events was that, according to the available evidence, it had been organized by the aboriginal participants themselves. No third-party handlers are ever mentioned—as often occurred in relation to other aboriginal athletes like Tom Longboat.

William Friday was referred to as the “captain” of the tour in numerous articles, although neither he nor his three brothers—James, George, and Joseph—are listed on the roster published for the Toronto game. And judging from useful (although undated) genealogies of the Temagami First Nation contained in an otherwise racist 1928 article by ethnographer R. Ruggles Gates, the Fridays were possibly older than the expected age of a competitive hockey player.

Postcard of Hudson's Bay Post on Bear Island, Temagami, ca. 1910, from {a href="http://digitalcollections.torontopubliclibrary.ca/webDC/images.do?contentID=PCR-1541"}Toronto Public Library{/a}.

Descended from the James Bay Cree, the Friday brothers were regarded as first rate trappers, and fishing experts. They worked as guides for the growing number of sportsmen and tourists coming into the Lake Temagami region after the construction of the railway in 1905 and the highway in 1927.

Business-mindedly, William Friday opened Friday’s Hotel at Bear Island in the 1920s, one of several lodges catering to the bustling tourism industry. It’s a reasonable inference that Friday, as an entrepreneur and acknowledged leader of the tour, was also in fact its architect.

For those in Friday’s local community, there was certainly a financial impetus for undertaking the 1928 tour. Most of the players were guides during the tourist season that stretched from the spring lake trout fishing to the fall deer hunt, leaving the winter season for trapping. But the commercial fur trade began to decline as a means of livelihood as newfound accessibility to their hunting grounds increased competition from white trappers, as Bruce Hodgins and Jamie Benidickson argue in The Temagami Experience (University of Toronto Press, 1989).

By the early 1930s, Chief William Pishabo of the Temagami First Nation—whose son was a member of the Ojibway touring team—would complain to federal Indian Department officials that because the provincial government “sold licences to anyone who applied…very little fur remained.” Moreover, because the region was contained within the Temagami Forest Reserve, provincial restrictions on aboriginal hunting and fishing meant there was no other local winter employment. As a result, relief from Ottawa was sometimes necessary to prevent winter starvation on Bear Island.

Postcard of a camp on Lake Temagami, ca. 1910, from {a href="http://digitalcollections.torontopubliclibrary.ca/webDC/images.do?contentID=PCR-1548"}Toronto Public Library{/a}.

For the hockey players from Bear Island or similar Cree communities, the 1928 Cree & Ojbway Tour would’ve provided a novel livelihood during those lean months. While the tour’s origins were never clearly explored by newspaper reporters, it seems that enough guys with the requisite hockey skills were assembled, and they found a marketable angle in broader society’s constructed image of the Indian. With that, and a motor coach booked from Toronto’s Gray Coach Lines, they set off.

Contacting the operators of arenas to seek engagements, they likely booked the barnstorming schedule on the fly until they began receiving invitations. Usually the travelling teams played each other, ensuring an opponent at every stop. Occasionally they teamed up to play exhibitions against local teams, like the Boston University Club. Rink operators would’ve welcomed another event for which tickets could be sold. In Pittsburgh, for example, the touring teams had their game while the NHL’s Pirates were out of town and the venue would have been otherwise empty.

After leaving Orillia on January 3, the teams spent three weeks in Ontario playing in Paris, Toronto, Woodstock, and elsewhere. Then, crossing the border, they played in Detroit, Cleveland, New York City, Washington, Springfield, and Philadelphia prior to Pittsburgh on January 31. In mid-February, they played in New Haven, Boston, and Providence, as they completed the 60-day tour.

Reporters did not ask the players about their experiences on the road, so we do not know whether the tour players encountered hostility off the ice, as did the Alkali Lake Braves, who often had to camp out in mid-winter temperatures when hotels and restaurants refused their patronage.

With only one substitute, the teams had only seven players each. In net at the Cree end of the ice was Becker. He was joined by defencemen Linklater and Cachagee. Centreman A. McCauley and wingers Anderson and W. McAuley were the forwards, with B. McKenzie coming off the bench as the substitute.

The Ojibway team was led by right-winger and defenceman Pishabo. Nineteen years old and 190 pounds, Pishabo was the chief’s son. He was joined in the forwards by brothers H. and R. Anderson, and Langevin. Brothers George and William Turner were defenceman and substitute respectively. The goalie was Petrant, scion of a large Metis family at Bear Island.

Postcard of a camp on Lake Temagami, ca. 1910, from Toronto Public Library.

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