The 1928 Cree and Ojibway Barnstorming Hockey Tour
January 16, 2012 1 Comment
Over the weekend Torontoist published an excellent article by Kevin Plummer that provides an overview of a 1928 hockey tour featuring two teams made up of Ojibway and Cree First Nations players. The article is well-researched and historically/socially contextualized, and I highly suggest giving it a read. While I do not want to simply rehash the article here, I do wish to discuss some of its revelations and to highlight a few particularly interesting aspects of the piece.
To begin with, as described by Plummer, here is the background on the tour:
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.
Plummer goes on to explain that the First Nations teams appear to have been self-managed, cleverly marketed, and extremely popular as an exotic spectacle for (presumably white) urbanites in Canada and the US.
One fascinating aspect of the tour is that the Aboriginal players took the ice wearing exaggerated costumes seemingly designed to boost their popularity and exotic mystique. As Plummer notes, teams of First Nations players were not uncommon and would not have drawn a crowd in and of themselves:
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. . . . Wearing [this costume] 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.
As Plummer touches upon, there was a well-established tradition of Aboriginals taking part in degrading spectacles for the benefit of Caucasian audiences. For example, in an article (which Plummer quotes) on the 1860 visit of the Prince of Wales to Canada, Ian Radforth notes First Nations men participated in exaggerated performances of lacrosse for the amusement of the royal guest and the general public:
Native people featured prominently in the much publicized spectacles in Montreal. At the ‘Indian games’ . . . athletes contested at least two lacrosse games, one between an Algonquin and an Iroquois team, and another between Iroquois and white athletes. The Montreal reception committee chose to play up the community’s reputation as a sports centre in order to entertain the royal visitor and to attract a large number of ticket-buying spectators who would help to subsidize the city’s reception. Immediately following the lacrosse matches, men from Kahnawake and Kanasetake performed Indian war dances. Dressed in buckskin, paint, and feathers, the Iroquois warriors danced to the beat of drums and brandished tomahawks and knives, mimicking a bloody battle – complete with the scalping of enemy captives.
What differentiates the Cree and Ojibway hockey tour from other similar spectacles of racist stereotyping – including the 1860 royal visit and the infamous Anthropology Days held at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis – is that, seemingly, First Nations people consciously deployed an exoticized image in order to generate more popular interest and increase profits from the tour. As Plummer argues:
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.
The hockey tour, therefore, suggests a level of agency rarely attributed to Aboriginal athletes in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Though Plummer correctly cautions about reading too much into this assumption. In reality, there was clearly a complex interplay between the structural discrimination that the players, and their fellow First Nations citizens, faced on an ongoing basis in Canada; and the savvy marketing skills exercised by the hockey players to exploit racist cultural stereotypes for personal profit.
I think it is also interesting to consider this tour in the context of shifting patterns of leisure consumption in early 20th century Canada. With specific regard to hockey, Michael Robidoux in his book Men at Play: A Working Understanding of Professional Hockey writes that:
By the turn of the twentieth century . . . through industrialization people now had the opportunity to participate in formal leisure activities. [And] active engagement in formal leisure activities meant a new population of consumer willing to spend dollars in this rapidly growing leisure industry. . . .
With a deep labour-pool eager for action and an already established fan base, sport was transformed from a pastime into a financial enterprise. Profit-making became the focus of sport in Canada and professional hockey team quickly became “incorporated.”
It is in this historical context that a wide variety of entertainment groups, including many sports teams, took advantage of faster and more efficient forms of mass transportation to travel around North America on barnstorming tours. Even as sports increasingly professionalized in segmented leagues, in what is nearly an extinct practice (with the notable exception of the Harlem Globetrotters) barnstorming teams would travel, circus-like, from city to city either putting on exhibitions or playing games against local clubs. Relying heavily on marketing to drum up interest, the teams would combine spectacle and athletic prowess to lure crowds and generate profits. Plummer certainly highlights the many ways in which the First Nations athletes on the 1928 tour used clever and well-organized promotion to generate buzz ahead of their visits to various cities.
It is sad that we do not know more about the 1928 Cree and Ojibway tour, though Plummer does a great deal to reconstruct some of the meaning behind it. As he notes, however, North American newspapers showed no interest in the thoughts and experiences of the athletes themselves – preferring instead, to offer their readers spectacular and exotic descriptions of violent and fascinating Aboriginal athleticism:
Although their names were printed in the newspapers, the Cree and Ojibway Tour players were never given a voice as well-rounded individuals. . . . Descriptions focused on their physical attributes. . . .
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. . . . This emphasis on unthinking, brute force invited aspersions of aggression, of battling, rampaging, and scalping opponents on the ice.
Despite this inadequate media representation, the 1928 tour is certainly a fascinating event for a variety of cultural, social, and political reasons, and one which was very much a product of its unique historical period.
 Ian Radforth, “Performance, Politics, and Representation: Aboriginal People and the 1860 Royal Tour of Canada,” The Canadian Historical Review, 84(1), pp. 5-6.
 Michael Robidoux, Men at Play: A Working History of Hockey, p. 45.