Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

July 30, 2007

Carlisle's Football Laboratory

Richard Henry Pratt's school was founded as a daring experiment. It eventually bred Native American pride and gridiron innovations he could never have foreseen.

Nick Matros

In her new book, The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation, Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins presents the birth and evolution of American football through a seemingly unlikely lens, that of the American Indian. Her historical narrative takes us from the battlefield in Dakota territory in 1866 through the darkest age of American imperialism. Jenkins chronicles the birth of the Carlisle School for Indians, Richard Henry Pratt's answer to the unsolvable Indian question. We follow Pratt on his controversial crusade to "kill the Indian, and save the man."

Sally Jenkins/Photo by Nicole Bengiveno
"Any good college-football historian knows the origins of the forward pass at Carlisle, but those are not the popular histories. The popular histories are bullshit."

Sally Jenkins/Photo by Nicole Bengiveno

Pratt, convinced that the American Indian is the equal of any white man, tries to demonstrate this to the American public by using American football. Every game becomes a proving ground. The Carlisle school will see immortal names, like Jim Thorpe, and Pop Warner, walk through its halls and on its fields. It will witness the birth of modern football as we know it, and leave the game in its debt.

Jenkins places every moment impeccably into its historical context. As the Carlisle school experiments with the forward pass, the world races with innovations in the field of aviation. As the Carlisle school begins to win over the hearts and minds of the American public, through trick plays and creativity, we witness, along with the Carlisle students, the large-scale tragedies befalling the American Indian, constantly undergoing tricks and deception on the reservations back home.

Jenkins proves once and for all that football truly is not "just a game" but an essential piece of American history. In the following interview with Gelf, conducted by telephone and edited for clarity, Jenkins talks about humanizing Pratt, exploding Notre Dame mythology, and renaming the Washington Redskins. (You can hear Jenkins and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, August 1, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: In your acknowledgments, you cite Michael Oriard's Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle as an initial inspiration for the Carlisle story. Can you tell us more about what inspired you to write the book?

Sally Jenkins: I actually discovered Carlisle when I was a kid: My Dad would show me children's books about Jim Thorpe, and I got pretty enchanted by the idea of an American Indian football team. They were a very romantic team, the first great trick-play team, so for a kid it was pretty appealing.
Then, frankly, I forgot about them until a few years ago, when I was reading Mike Oriard's book as part of my research for another book—my first book, called Men Will Be Boys, about women and football—and he has a chapter on Carlisle, and I thought, "Hey, I'd forgotten about them," and that just kind of sparked my interest all over again.
I started reading as much as I could find about them, but there wasn't that much to read. There was mostly stuff that was out of print that was either biography of Jim Thorpe or very small local books from the Carlisle area that had attempted to catalogue some of the Indian records. For instance, there was a book called Fabulous Redmen by a guy named John Steckbeck, who was basically, I think, a coach at Dickinson College who tried to catalogue the Carlisle team's seasons. Other than that, there really wasn't a good, straightforward narrative nonfiction book about Carlisle football and what it had meant for the origins of American football.

GM: Which is surprising.

SJ: It was surprising, and I just basically felt like somebody ought to write that story. And I felt like, thanks in part to Mike Oriard's book, that I might have a take on the subject that I wasn't sure anybody else might have had.
Basically, his book ended my book starts with a real American Indian battle in 1866, when American Horse kills William Fetterman at the Fetterman massacre. American Horse then sends about nine children to Carlisle, one of whom is on the first football team there.

GM: You began the story with that battle in 1866, almost a half-century before the Army-Carlisle game. What was the thinking behind that decision?

SJ: Well, without doing that, you rob the 1912 Army-Carlisle game of its stakes. The fact of the matter is the Carlisle team of 1912 wanted to play Army and wanted to beat Army because of the history of conflict between US armed forces and the American Indians. So it just seemed natural to me to work from this real conflict up to the mock-conflict that played out in 1912. By 1912, we're on the eve of World War I; the quarterback of that Carlisle team, Gus Welch, would go on to fight in France. It just seemed like that framework encapsulated, No. 1, the Victorian age; No. 2, the origins of American football; and No. 3, the death of American Indian culture, or at least the semi-death.

GM: You begin, almost, in the conditions that will create Carlisle.

SJ: That's exactly right. You have this historian named David Wallace Adams, who wrote the best book about Carlisle called Education for Extinction. It's really a book about Native American assimilation and the attempt to assimilate American Indians by educating them. He looked at parts of the book for me and he asked me, "Why did you choose the Fetterman battle? Why not go with Little Bighorn? Because history is about making choices, and I'm interested in why you made that choice." He understood starting it with a real battle, but he wanted to know, "Why that battle?" I chose that battle because of American Horse's connection to the Carlisle school, and because it was irresistible that American Horse's son was on the first football team. It was much easier to manage that in terms of storytelling.

GM: Was it your intent to make the Carlisle school the focus of the story, as opposed to just the football team, Thorpe, or Warner?

SJ: There have been a lot of books written about Jim Thorpe at Carlisle. I didn't want to write a biography, and for one thing there's an author named Kate Buford already working on one. I also felt like focusing on Thorpe limits the story. Plus, you can't really pull Carlisle away from American Indian politics and American history. It just doesn't make any sense. You strip the story of too much importance, and you strip the games of their stakes, and the emotional payoff for the kids who were on those teams. It's not realistic, not the truth. They didn't play football in a vacuum in Carlisle; they played football against a very complicated backdrop of racial politics.
It's one of the less easy periods of American history to grapple with and to tell. The Victorian age is not as sexy as, say, 1776, or as grand and tragic as the Civil War. It's a lot more morally ambiguous than either one of those moments. You get right to the heart of American imperialism and American racial politics. You take Richard Henry Pratt, the guy who founded Carlisle—he's an American hero in a lot of ways, and he also represents a lot that can make you uncomfortable about being an American.

"They were a very romantic team, the first great trick-play team, so for a kid it was pretty appealing."
GM: Pratt is most commonly associated with the quote, "Kill the Indian, save the man," which clearly represents that attitude of cultural imperialism. Do you think that's a fair way to remember him?

SJ: Well, no. I think that because his language is so harsh, and his message is so harsh, what gets obscured is the fact that he was decades ahead of his time in terms of envisioning total racial equality in this country. He was a dedicated, fierce abolitionist, and he truly believed in racial equality of the American Indian. He truly believed American Indians were the racial equivalent of the white man. His method of proving it was a bit distasteful and harsh at times.
You can't find another liberal humanitarian in that era who really believed, not even for a moment, that Indians were racial equals of whites—not Teddy Roosevelt, not anybody who worked for Teddy Roosevelt. They truly still believed—even liberal humanitarians—truly believed in racial inferiority. Pratt didn't. So you have to give him credit for that. You have to give him credit for incredible gallantry. He was physically courageous, and he was also morally courageous. He wasn't afraid to take an accomplished stand, and he certainly wasn't afraid to say exactly what he thought. I find him to be a thoroughly American character. I find you also end up liking him for his flaws, if that makes sense.

GM: Well, you can sort of see where he's coming from. Do you think The Real All Americans will change the way history remembers Pratt and the Carlisle school?

SJ: I'd like to think so. I think the book humanizes him. One of the things that's been gratifying is that his descendants and some historians, guys like Dave Wallace Adams, and some of Pratt's family members have been in touch, and they told me they thought my handling of Pratt was just right. I'm truly happy about that.

GM: You really take him from that cold "Kill the Indian, save the man" quote to a human being that we can relate to.

SJ: Yeah. He's a really complicated human being. His own father was murdered when he was a boy. He was virtually orphaned, and one of the reasons he was so cold-blooded—and capable of seizing children and raising them away from their parents and taking them to Carlisle and giving them trades and teaching them to do back-breaking labor—is because that was exactly his own experience. I don't think he put those kids through anything he hadn't gone through himself. I think, once you understand that about him, it suddenly makes him a bit more likable.
He was a kid who had gone to work at about 12 or 13 years old—I mean, back-breaking manual labor—in order to support himself and his family after his father was murdered. He's a guy who had been enlisted in the Army literally the day after the first shots had been fired at Fort Sumter, he and surged through the entire Civil War with great gallantry. He's a guy who, literally, lets the Army make a man out of him. You can see why he really believed putting those Indian kids in uniform and teaching them a trade could be a life-saving experience, because it was for him.

GM: Tell me more about the extensive research you did, and the source material.

SJ: I loved the research. The research was like time travel. There's a lot of primary source material available. The student records are in the national archives. It was a federally funded project, so most of the records are either at the national archives or at the historical society of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, or at the US Army War College, which is now what the old Carlisle campus had become. Pratt was a fastidious keeper of all of his letters and documents, and those are at Yale. You can read letters that Pratt wrote to American Horse about the children.
The school papers were very valuable, and fortunately it's the golden age of newspapers. Joseph Pulitzer's World was just a great paper to go to the public library and read every day. There were at least half a dozen great daily newspapers in New York and others out of Boston and Philadelphia, all of which covered college football because it was the national craze. It made front-page news.
Then apart from that great primary source material, again you have the Dave Wallace Adams book, Education for Extinction, and Pratt's own memoirs—things like that. It was kind of like making a collage.

GM: You make thematic links in your chapters, based on the historical context. For example, "Experiments in flight" juxtaposes early advances in aviation with Carlisle's introduction of the forward pass.

SJ: That was just an unmistakable historical connection that you couldn't help making when you turned the pages of newspapers. I would go read the New York World for the weekend game of Carlisle vs., say, the University of Chicago, and on the front page, there would be news about dirigibles going up and there'd be reports about what the Wright brothers were doing now. I just couldn't help but notice that while Carlisle was pioneering the forward pass, aviators were pioneering man's flight.

Jim Thorpe at Carlisle

Jim Thorpe at Carlisle

GM: So, you let the research inform your creativity, essentially?

SJ: Yeah, exactly. It's funny, because a great friend of mine down at the Washington Post, a guy named David Von Drehle, wrote a great book a couple years ago called Triangle, about the Triangle shirtwaist fire, and David said, "When you research this book, just about everything is available digitally now, but don't do it that way. Go and look at the papers themselves. Because when you research digitally you'll call up one story at a time, but when you go look at the old papers themselves on microfiche and scroll through them that way, you will make connections you wouldn't make otherwise."
So that was probably about as good a piece of advice as any I got on the writing and researching of the book.

GM: You spoke previously about how Pratt's family has reacted to the book. How about the members, leaders, and scholars of the Native American community?

SJ: The very nice thing is that I have yet to hear a word from an American Indian family who had people at Carlisle that hasn't also been very complimentary. The American Indian community has been, literally, lovely about the book. Regardless of what tribe I've heard from, they're all happy the book was written. I think they're delighted to see credit given where it's due, to Carlisle. I mean, honestly, this is the single most innovative team to ever have played the game of football, and they deserve credit for it. Can you imagine what it must be like to be an American Indian, and to know from your own family's oral history that Carlisle pioneered the forward pass, and then to see Notre Dame get credit for it? It must have been frustrating to know that the first great quarterbacks in this country to throw downfield were Frank Mount Pleasant and Pete Hauser, not Gus Dorais.

GM: Is that history lost for some of the American Indians, too? Did you have to help them reclaim knowledge of their own history?

SJ: I think a lot of people weren't that aware of it in the American Indian community. You know who has always been aware of it? Dedicated college-football archivists. This is not news to people who really study college football. You look in the books of, say, a guy like Allison Danzig, who does those big compendiums of college-football history, and it's all right there. Any good college-football historian knows the origins of the forward pass, but those are not the popular histories, those are just the true histories.
The popular histories are bullshit. I mean, a lot of people are trying to say, "Don't you think Notre Dame is going to try to dispute your account of the forward pass?" And I'm like, "You know what? No! Knute Rockne himself was always trying to correct the record on the forward pass." Sportswriters who preferred the myth of Notre Dame wouldn't let him. Sincere college-football historians won't be surprised at all by this information. They'll just say, you know, "Thank God someone finally wrote it in a popular book."

"The way Boise State played to beat Oklahoma—Carlisle played that way on every play."
GM: The scoring, the rules, the style of play are very different in 1912 when Carlisle plays Army, compared to the original games played decades before. What were the most dramatic changes to the game?

SJ: You know, it's funny. The second hardest thing to master in this book, other than American Indian politics, was the changing rules of American football; they are so hard to keep track of. They evolve on an almost yearly basis. The scoring was so much different, and the slow evolution from rugby to modern football… and it's hard to boil all that down and make it readable and understandable.
To me, the most significant rule changes come about in 1906, after the game has really fallen into some disfavor, and Roosevelt calls the Ivy League colleges into his office and tells them they really have to do something or the game will be banned on campuses. Those rule changes are the most important ones. That's when the five players in the offensive line is set, mass-momentum plays tend to be outlawed, and they legalize the forward pass. In 1906, Carlisle starts toying with the forward pass and really flings the ball downfield full-board in 1907. They're throwing the ball 40 yards downfield and throwing the ball 15 or 16 times a game. That is really the year that college football as we know it is created. The 1907 Carlisle team would have been very recognizable to any NFL fan today. For that matter, you know who would really recognize them? Anyone who watched the Oklahoma-Boise State game. The way Boise State played to beat Oklahoma—Carlisle played that way on every play.

GM: Is this book more likely to turn an American history buff on to football, or a football fan on to American history?

SJ: I don't know. I think that's been a bit puzzling to the publishers. I don't know how to apologize for this, but I think it might be more of a history book than a football book.

GM: I think it's a fascinating piece of history, though, and anyone interested in the game of football really needs to see how the game develops through this lens.

SJ: I don't think it's any more of a history book than, say, King of the World David Remnick's book about Cassius Clay. The kind of book I was trying to write could pass for either.
The guys I admire are colleagues like David Maraniss, who writes a book about Vince Lombardi or Roberto Clemente, and you wouldn't for a moment suggest they're simply sports books. That's the kind of company I really wanted to be in. The guys I work with are David Maraniss, David Von Drehle, and Rick Atkinson, who's writing that World War II trilogy. These are colleagues of mine at the Washington Post who are great writers of history as well as daily journalists, and I really wanted to take a crack at writing a book like that.

GM: You said before, you can't take this story out of its historical context. It's impossible to separate.

SJ: The story's a lot less fun. You know, what you're left with is kind of a cool game where Jim Thorpe plays for Carlisle and Dwight Eisenhower plays for Army, but quite honestly that game ends 27-6 and the action on the field is not that dramatic, because it's fairly one-sided. What makes it tense and dramatic is the fact that Carlisle wanted to kill those guys.

"I don't think Pratt put those kids through anything he hadn't gone through himself. I think, once you understand that about him, it suddenly makes him a bit more likable."
GM: The Harvard game would have provided more of that cinematic finish.

SJ: Thorpe had said that the Harvard game might have been the best game, or the most dramatic game, he ever played. But the most meaningful was Army.

GM: No sports fan ever wants to admit to a non-follower that it is "just a game," yet the games Carlisle played clearly have meaning in a much deeper context. Can today's football ever reach that sense of being more than just a game, or is what we are left with, quite simply, just a game?

SJ: That's a good question. I've been thinking about that a lot myself, lately. What I really think is, when you're living history, when you're right in the middle of things, it's hard to see what it means. But I have no doubt that in any era, American games, or actually games in general, reflect the values of the culture and society. Whether you're talking about Billy Jean King, reflecting what was going on in the women's movement—I mean, Billy Jean King did more for the women's movement than any Gloria Steinems, or Susan Brownmillers. Title IX is the closest thing to an equal-rights movement to ever pass in this country. Guys like Rafer Johnson and Cassius Clay at the 1961 1960 Olympics, these guys are the harbingers of a new era of civil rights in this country.
Whatever's going on with Barry Bonds right now, and with doping, and body-building, all of this stuff is reflective of what's going on in our history and our culture. One of the things that's going on is that athletes used to represent the most fit members of society and therefore some of the most useful members of society, and now they're just entertainers. That's meaningful, too. You go from World War II, where everybody joined up, to now when Pat Tillman joins up and he becomes a huge national figure for it. I guess what I'm saying is, when you're watching the NFL, you are watching something that is more than just football. It may not always be the meaning that you want to attach to it.

GM: The Carlisle school is referred to in retrospect as a "well-intentioned mistake." Do you feel that America has learned from this mistake in its approach to education? Could it stand to learn some more?

SJ: Here's the deal. History for the American Indians is a current event, there's no question about that. One of the most startling things that I learned… I took a couple really great road trips: I drove around the old Dakota Territory for three or four days, I drove halfway across Wyoming and then through most of South Dakota, and wound up at Pine Ridge. I went to the Fetterman battlefield first, which is in Wyoming. It's beautifully manicured, beautifully kept, beautifully marked; it's got a great museum and a great bookstore. And then you go to Wounded Knee, and it's a dusty weed-strewn patch with one little cement marker, and no real museum, no real… it's just an absolutely striking difference. That difference being, one is a place where a large number of American soldiers died, and another is a place where American Indians died.
So it's hard to go to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and say that matters have improved for the American Indian in this country. Shannon County, South Dakota, which is where Pine Ridge is, is the single poorest county in the entire United States. You go into any little restaurant in Pine Ridge, or any little motel, or store, and there's a picture at the counter of a kid in uniform. One of the interesting things is that the American Indian has been one of the backbones of the US military: 40,000 of them volunteered to serve in World War I. I don't know what the current numbers are, but they're significant.

GM: Well, often it's the case that people who are in poverty and have few other options end up enrolling, so that could have something to do with it as well.

SJ: Yeah, it could. The other thing I'm aware of—but don't really know the explanation for—is there's a terrible problem with college dropouts. American Indian education is a tough issue. American Indian communities need to find a way to get their kids to stay in school because their dropout rate is way too high. And the little that I know about it suggests that a lot of times kids drop out to go back home to the reservation, where they feel more comfortable. Education remains a problematic issue in a lot of American Indian communities. Assimilation remains a bit of a problem. How do you assimilate into this country and how do you hang on to your valuable cultural heritage?

"You're supposed to be glad when a book is finished and published, and I actually am sad. I wish I still had time to go to the public library every day and work on it."
GM: Which now, in the wave of mass immigration, takes on a larger picture in education in general with our bilingual programs, and attempts at multicultural education.

SJ: Sure. And the other interesting thing is, how do you respond to the fact that your culture and your tradition gets co-opted on a daily basis by American commerce? I mean, you walk down Christopher Street in New York's Greenwich Village and there are four stores selling dreamcatchers and, you know, all kinds of paraphernalia, allegedly American Indian. People want to buy that stuff, but they don't necessarily want to send an American Indian to college.

GM: With the understanding that Native Americans have played such a fundamental role in American sports, does it shed new light on team names such as those of the Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, and Atlanta Braves, to name a few?

SJ: Yeah. One of the things that's interesting is that the roots of the NFL are very much related to American Indian football. In a lot of places like upstate New York, or the Great Lakes districts, they've got a new recognition—in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for instance. A lot of Carlisle guys would come home and play for barnstorming local teams, or started barnstorming local teams. The evolution of the NFL really came out of these little towns or reservations where you had semi-pro teams bouncing around, playing each other. Some of those teams were American Indian teams.

GM: Could the Indians, Braves, and Redskins over time come to represent and celebrate this history, or are they simply too jingoistic? Should they simply change their names and mascots?

SJ: The Redskins, quite honestly, need to change their name. That's a slur. It's not like the Seminoles. You know, Redskins is a slur. I mean, you wouldn't call a team the… the…

GM: Fill in the blank.

SJ: I don't know, it's just not right.

GM: Especially coming from the city that changed the "Bullets" to the "Wizards." That's dubious in itself that they felt that was significant enough to change. But they didn't blink about the Redskins.

SJ: You'd like to see if they could find an answer to that one.

GM: What projects are you working on now?

SJ: I'm looking to do some more history. I really got hooked. I really feel like I might have found what I'm supposed to be doing. The research was the most fun I've ever had working. I actually had a weird experience; you're supposed to be glad when a book is finished and published, and I actually am sad. I wish I still had time to go to the public library every day and work on it. So, I'm looking for another topic.

Nick Matros

Nick Matros is a writer, Italian teacher, and high-school chess coach.

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- Sports
- posted on Aug 24, 07

Not really a football fan but definitely interested in Native American history; can't wait to read the book The Real All Americans, and depending on the level of difficulty, I may use all or parts of the book for my seventh grade English/reading classes.

- Sports
- posted on Sep 10, 07
susan cashman

My husband,Brad,recently bought a copy of The RealAmericans, while we were on vacation.He LOVED it! We will be attendingthe public reception at the Carlisle HistoricalSociety on Tues.,Sept18.I was wondering if you would be interested in writing an article in the Washington Post about the upcoming 40th anniv. of the upset game with the College of William and Mary beating Navy? My husband played in that game and at that time W and M were known as the Indians. I find it fascinating how mascots have had to become so politicly correct.Brad played on the last George Washington College football team before they dropped football. Hope to meet you on Tues. Susan Cashman

- Sports
- posted on Oct 02, 07

I read Ms. Jenkins book and found it enthralling. I wondered if there is or ever been a movement to help restore Jim Thorpe's Olympic medals. It seems appropriate, perhaps at the 2012 Olympics, a hundred years later....


- Sports
- posted on Feb 27, 08
Jim Friesen

I read with interest your website on the evolution of American football. You may not be aware that we also play football in Canada, and that our game with the forward pass originated in the early 1870's. Mc Gill univeristy of Montreal played two games against Harvard in 1874 in which McGill introduced the forward pass to the game.Also our pro game in which teams from east and west play for the Grey cup has been in existance for over 100 years. Many of the inovations to the game have come out of Canada and although we call hockey our national game, foot ball is a very close second.--- Thanks for being able to comment on this subject.

- Sports
- posted on Feb 28, 08

Jim, thanks for the comment. This McGill webpage suggests that the forward pass didn't come to the school team until 1921.

Article by Nick Matros

Nick Matros is a writer, Italian teacher, and high-school chess coach.

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