In 1928, two teams of aboriginal hockey players embarked on a barnstorming tour through Ontario and the northeastern United States.
According to a body of historical scholarship, Canada’s First Nations peoples have consistently taken part in officially sanctioned cultural pageants and performances for their own purposes. In the Journal of the CHA (1998), Robert Cupido writes that aboriginal groups in Canada volunteered for Dominion Day celebrations because—while they had no control over the nationalist narratives presented—such pageants provided an opportunity for them to enact cultural traditions then banned by federal legislation.
For similar reasons, Ian Radforth argues in the Canadian Historical Review (March 2003), Ojibways participated in ceremonies planned and stage-managed by federal bureaucrats for the 1860 Royal Visit as well as a means of presenting formal petitions directly to royal representatives.
If publicizing grievances to a broader audience was a motivation for the hockey players of the tour, the Bear Island community certainly had cause. Long before the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Teme-Augama Anishnabai inhabited a N’Daki Menan or homeland of 10,000 square kilometres, Hodgins and Benidickson attest. But eventually they became constrained to the village on Bear Island, particularly after the provincial government subsumed the region in the Temagami Forest Reserve in 1901 and limited land use.
With time, pressure on the Temagami region increased: businessmen came for the lumber and mining resources and altered the landscape; tourists came for the growing number of cottages, lodges, and summer camps; and sportsmen came for the game.
Friction with the provincial government grew. Because they had not been signatories to the 1850 Robinson Treaty, the Teme-Augama Anishnabai maintained that they’d never extinguished claim to the lands of the N’Daki Menan. The province countered, in the late 1920s, that since Bear Island was not an official treaty reservation, the aboriginal residents were squatters, and demanded they pay annual rental fees.
Protests by Chief Pishabo and Ottawa would lead to protracted intergovernmental bickering. Even after Bear Island was recognized as an official reserve in 1971, the underlying issues persisted through court challenges.
If the Cree & Ojbway Tour was indeed a means of drawing attention to these or other grievances, however, reporters didn’t bite. In Toronto and elsewhere, the press had its own strategy for presenting the players, falling back upon stereotypical tropes that mixed admiration and disparagement, romanticization and demonization of aboriginals.
Although their names were printed in the newspapers, the Cree and Ojibway Tour players were never given a voice as well-rounded individuals. Toronto journalists praised the hockey skills of the players, judging that a handful of them were on par with any in the Ontario Hockey Association. But descriptions focused on their physical attributes. “Both teams are composed of big men, who are fast and tireless skaters,” the Providence News said. “They play a hard, body checking game that has always been replete with thrills.”
Praise in such terms, however, implied that their “all-round” athleticism was an innate talent—gained through their rugged “outdoor life,” according to the Toronto Globe—rather than a skill honed through practice. They overwhelmed opponents through sheer athleticism, was the common refrain, rather than utilizing any over-arching strategy.
This emphasis on unthinking, brute force invited aspersions of aggression, of battling, rampaging, and scalping opponents on the ice. An article in the Pittsburgh Press was typical:
One hundred or more years ago this announcement might have meant a bloody war with hatchets, arrows and other deadly weapons playing an important part, but on this particular occasion it means the same tribes coming together in a more sociable way with steel blades and hockey sticks making up their arsenal.
However, the enmity between red-skinned natives still persists on the ice, and…the Cree and the Ojibway ‘Injuns’…will put on a battle royal for the benefit of the Pittsburgh fans.
While the tomahawk will not be included in their equipment the Indians—all full-blooded—are expected to put up a game that will make the customers forget all about the big leaguers for a night.
Needless to say, the tour’s press coverage was about as historically or culturally accurate as the average Hollywood western. Even small details about the players’ origins were confused or contradicted from newspaper to newspaper and city to city.
Images: Entrance to typical camp at Temagami, 1929, from Archives of Ontario (C 7-2-0-7-17); and Toronto Star, January 13, 1928.