We spend too much of Thanksgiving glorifying the pilgrims and not enough commemorating the lives of Native Americans. Today, I’ll shift the focus a bit by telling you about a group you’ve likely never heard of. If you don’t believe the Dallas Cowboys’ marketing that they’re “America’s Team,” I’ll give you a different option, one that shines the spotlight on what “America” really means: the NFL’s 1922 Oorang Indians.
Every word of this is true.
This is a story about heroism, tragedy, and America’s love of casual racism. It also speaks to the lure of advertising, animal cruelty, and man’s capacity to subjugate his self-worth for the spotlight. But mostly, it’s about hard-working Americans doing the best they can. It takes place just a few generations after the Old West, as Natives struggled to integrate into a society that stole their land and killed them with impunity. America read about indigenous peoples in dime store novels. It didn’t know them as neighbors.
Today, Native American associations in football are falling out of favor. Washington now has a team called “Football Team” (which, as I type this, is currently crushing the Cowboys at Jerryworld on Thanksgiving). Kansas City is trying desperately to make you forget the Chiefs’ history of tomahawk-chopping and headdress-wearing. But in 1922, these teams didn’t exist. The Oorang Indians were something new.
Your first question about the Oorang Indians will be: Where’s Oorang?
You’ll be forgiven for not knowing. Oorang isn’t the name of a city. The Indians’ home was LaRue, Ohio, population just over 700 today. It’s the smallest home to a US men’s professional franchise ever.
Oorang isn’t a place. It’s a breed of dog.
The King Oorang breed of Airedale terriers was bred by Walter Lingo, who aimed to create the “world’s great all-around dog.” Lingo’s puppy mill, the Oorang Dog Kennels, sold 15,000 Airedales a year. In 1922, you could buy one from Walter for $150. President Harding’s Laddie Boy popularized the breed here in the U.S., which was good for business.
Sadly, Oorang Airedales got a rep as sheep killers. That was bad for business. So Lingo got his celebrity pals to endorse his mill. Ty Cobb. Jack Dempsey. Gary Cooper. Tris Speaker. All hunted with Lingo and spoke his dogs’ praises. Lingo’s most famous pal was Jim Thorpe.
Thorpe was every bit the dominant U.S. male athlete in the 20th century’s first quarter as Ruth, Ali, and Jordan were in theirs. He won Olympic golds and played outfield for the New York Giants. He ruled the football field, where he won three championships with the Canton Bulldogs.
Thorpe was famously of Native American heritage, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation. As his playing career wound down, he and Lingo got an idea: They would create the first all-Native American NFL team, with the principal goal being to promote Lingo’s dog kennels. They would name it after the dogs and the players they recruited.
Lingo bought an NFL franchise for $100, just two-thirds of the cost of an Oorang Airedale. He gave Thorpe $500 a week to coach and play, and also run the kennels. The greatest athlete of the era was now a kennel manager. He needed some help.
Every member of Thorpe’s team would also work in the kennels. Their regimen was monitoring the dogs and building dog crates. The players’ food and medical care was provided by the dietitians and trainers that kept the Airedales healthy. In this way, the Indians invented the training camp.
All the players were at least partially Native American. The team roster included such indigenous players as Long Time Sleep Lassa, Woodchuck Welmas, Joe Little Twig, Samuel Big Bear, Ted Buffalo, Red Fang, Eagle Feather, Arrowhead, Gray Horse, and War Eagle.
Thorpe and future hall of famer Joe Guyon didn’t play much. But that wasn’t the point. The Indians’ purpose wasn’t to win games. The Indians’ purpose was to sell dogs.
The Indians had no home stadium, so they went out on the road and invented a tradition that lasted a century: the halftime show. Most shows involved dogs! Not just the Airedales, but Long Time Sleep had a pet coyote brought in from the Flathead reservation. Everyone loved the canine hijinks. Particularly fun was the firing of guns at birds let loose in the stadium so the dogs could retrieve the carcasses.
It wasn’t just the dogs fans came to see. Thorpe drop-kicked field goals all the way from midfield, and that was cool. But more entrancingly, the players had a third job: to thrill fans with “Indian entertainment.” The home teams’ fans couldn’t get enough of Native Americans exploiting their heritages for the crowd. There was dancing, drumming, and tomahawk-throwing. In a few shows, Long Time Sleep wrestled a bear.
The team played hard, but not very well. They lost their opener to the Dayton Triangles, but beat the Columbus Panhandles and Ohio Cranes to start 2–1! But they couldn’t beat such stalwarts as the Minneapolis Marines, the Indianapolis Belmonts, and the Lansing Durants. (All real teams.)
Wherever they went, the press ginned it up with racist characterizations of marauding Indians coming to scalp the local heroes.
Here’s a cartoon that was typical of the era.
As the players knew winning wasn’t important to Lingo, they regrettably fell to an affliction that affected the indigenous community disproportionally: hard drinking. Typically, they used Long Time Sleep’s bear-wrestling money to buy alcohol.
Before they played the Chicago Bears, they stayed out till bars closed at 2 a.m. They objected by stuffing the bartender in a phone booth so they could keep drinking. They lost that game.
Before they played the St. Louis All-Stars, they drank so hard that when they caught a trolley back to their hotel, they realized it was going the wrong way. They picked up the trolley and turned it around. They lost that game too.
They lost a lot of games, in spectacular fashion. They lost 41–0 to Thorpe’s former team the Canton Bulldogs, 57–0 to the Buffalo All-Americans, and 62–0 to the Akron Pros.
They only scored 37 points that season, though their play improved when Thorpe was in the game. After Thorpe scored on a goal line run against the Bears, the Herald-Examiner observed: “Six Dakota braves in war regalia and paint did a little snake dance when Jim crossed the line.”
They ended the 1922 season 3–6 against NFL teams, and 5–8 overall. Thorpe wasn’t a good coach, which was confirmed the next season when they lost their first 9 games. In both seasons, Thorpe’s former team, the Canton Bulldogs, went undefeated and won the league championship.
The Indians disbanded the next year. A few years later, Lingo and Thorpe put together an all-Native basketball team called the World Famous Indians. Long Time Sleep played on it too, with apparently a different Eagle Feather. They also barnstormed from town to town, though I don’t know if the bear went with them.
Thorpe and Guyon were among the first class to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Joe Little Twig also went to Canton—as a motorcycle cop. Long Time Sleep became a professional wrestler. Most of the rest of the players faded into history. After his career as a sports executive ended, Lingo kept the kennels going until the Great Depression wiped out Americans’ ability to purchase dogs that cost more than a football team.
The Oorang Indians’ legacy was that of a groundbreaking team that attracted great support due to American’s twin passions for dogs and racist caricatures. It’s certainly not a happy story. But it’s one worth remembering on a day celebrated for wanton mistreatment of indigenous peoples and typically awful football.
Oh yeah, one more thing.
On November 30, 1922, the Indians took the field for their only Thanksgiving Day game, a rematch against the Panhandles. They won that game, 18–6. They have a perfect record on Thanksgiving Day games.
That’s a hell of a lot better win percentage than the Cowboys.
This is the 66th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, Colin Kaepernick, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, the midterms, the Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third parties, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, the Trump mafia, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, the impeachment inquiry, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, Boris Johnson, religion, engagement, Bernie Sanders, progressive unity, the Democratic nominee, the pandemic, unemployment, rioting, the Klan, the Confederacy, the GOP 2020 strategy, Biden’s strategy, the wildfire crisis, civil war, Kamala Harris, Trump’s COVID diagnosis, and Biden’s case. Most of these appear in my new edition of Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can get on our PledgeManager now.