American International Journal of Social Science

ISSN 2325-4149(Print), ISSN 2325-4165(Online) DIO: 10.30845/aijss

Negotiating Identity: Indian Assimilation and Athletics in the late 19th and early 20th Century
Meghan O’Donnell

For many Native Americans in the 19th and 20th century, the transition from tribal sovereignty to a United States government dependency was a harsh and dehumanizing road. A pro-assimilation policy founded on bigotry and social Darwinism perpetuated the longstanding battle between indigenous tribes and the “Great White Father” over the definition of their ever-changing identity. Surviving this onslaught of white expansion in both their land and their culture forced many Indians to choose their role in the overwhelming process of assimilation and acculturation. Many chose to succumb to the pressures of white society and attempted to strip away their tribal traditions. Others rejected the prospect of assimilation outright, choosing instead to retreat further and further into their shrinking reservations, until they became a suppressed and impoverished refugee population in their own homeland. Yet between both of these groups, a small percentage of Indians prevailed who merged into white society and at the same time retained some semblance of tribal identity and pride. Amazingly, this demographic between the two extremes; tradition mixed with a dominate white culture, often developed out of the competitive arenas of American sports. Sports enabled Indian athletes like Jim Thorpe, or the Fort Shaw women’s basketball team, or baseball player George Howard Johnson, to maintain tribal identity and cultural sovereignty, while working and living within an overwhelming dominate white culture. While the majority of Indian populations faded into depressed reservations, or cut their hair and lost their language, Indian athletes became All-Americans, Olympians, champions, and pioneer integrators while retaining their cultural Indian heritage.

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