It should be noted that all over the continent Indians were inveterate gamblers, betting on all sporting events, even the most casual ones. Having no legal tender, they wagered tools, weapons, crops, food and, particularly, their clothing. There is a considerable body of literature consisting of shocked reports by whites about Indian losers walking away naked from gambling frolics.
Europeans, particularly upper-class ones, were no strangers to gambling, but even among those who could afford it there was a pervasive sense that this was a bad habit. What bothered white observers (an inordinate number of whom were divines) about Indian betting was that everybody did it shamelessly. They apparently thought of gambling as a principal and natural human pleasure.
Like all sporting peoples, the native North Americans crafted balls—of leather, woven fiber and wood—and found many interesting things to do with them. When Englishmen arrived in Virginia they found the natives playing soccer. Elsewhere there were various forms of competitive dodgeball. The Zunis and other Southwestern nations had a netless tennis or badminton game in which feathered balls were kept aloft as long as possible with wooden rackets. Nearly everywhere there was a kind of field hockey. In the Great Plains, after the arrival of the horse, this, evolved into a wild form of polo. Among the Crow, players could dismount and pursue the ball on foot. While most Indian sports were sexually segregated, Crow polo was coed, and it was thought that lighter, more agile women were often the superior players. This was certainly the case in one game for which something like a play-by-play report survives. One woman leaped off her horse and began to stickhandle the ball. She got away from two defenders who grabbed her by the belt by simply unbuckling it. As she drove toward the goal, she stopped and raised her hands at the goal mouth and let out a menacing growl, mimicking a grizzly bear. This shattered the goalie's concentration, and the woman then scored the goal.
Some nations took such diversions more seriously than others, but all of them had a few they regarded as high sport—socially and theologically as well as athletically. Among North Americans it was widely assumed that many beings of the pantheistic spirit world were keen sports fans. Victory, many strategists thought, depended on getting support from benign immortals. Important sporting events tested not only physical skills but the piety of participants. While in our times an occasional chaplain may appear in a locker room, most coaches and managers then were also priests and shamans.
Foot racing was treated as a very high sport by Indians. Since their success as hunters and warriors so depended on their fleetness and endurance, they inevitably devised ways to exhibit these qualities in a formal way. Before major races, important runners and their entourages would withdraw from the community to prepare—sometimes for many weeks. Apparently metaphysical rather than physical conditioning was emphasized. Runners in training variously prayed, fasted and dieted. In regard to diet, some felt that bad qualities could be transferred by the wrong food, while the good properties of certain animals were passed on to those who ate them in the right way and at the right time. Thus deer and eagle were sometimes served at training tables, while turtle was taboo. Peyote was occasionally prescribed as a means of giving competitive advantage.
Spiritual advisers massaged their athletes and oiled and bathed them with secret preparations. Sometimes these handlers also attempted to sabotage the well-being of an opposing runner. Among the Tarahumara of the Southwest a favorite trick of sporting shamans was to roll a large cigar of tobacco, dehydrated turtle and bat blood. According to Dr. Carl Lumholtz, a 19th-century anthropologist/explorer, if the shaman was successful in blowing smoke from this doped stogie into an opponent's face the man's running would be slowed.
How good Indian runners were compared with modern ones is now impossible to determine, because their societies had neither the technology nor inclination to keep our kinds of records. However, there are some thought-provoking, if imprecise, reports that suggest that there were some formidable fliers. A Quaker missionary, James Emlen, reported that in 1794 an Iroquois courier named Sharp Shins did 90 miles across the rough hills of western New York in the hours between sunrise and sunset. During a war between Indians and settlers, white officers swore they knew a Mohave who had run nearly 200 miles through terrible heat in less than 24 hours. Also, a Pawnee ran 120 miles in 24 hours and a day later returned the same distance in 20 hours, according to American officers at Fort Sill, Okla.
As far as formal racing goes, there are at least two instances when Europeans with timepieces saw what they considered to be phenomenal performances. Anthropologist Lumholtz spent considerable time with the Tarahumara, a nation of still-famous runners who habitually ran down deer for the feast. In 1892 Lumholtz calculated the winning time in a race he watched as 2:00:21 over a 21-mile course. This might not be a record for a contemporary marathoner, but the Tarahumara were required to kick a ball, soccer style, as they ran.
In 1877 Luther North, the white commander of a troop of Pawnee scouts employed in the wars against the Sioux and Cheyenne, took the best runner in his unit, a 23-year-old named Big Hawk Chief, to a measured half-mile track at Fort Sidney, Neb. There, timed by a stopwatch, the Pawnee turned in a 3:58 mile with splits of 2:00 and 1:58. Modern track buffs tend to be irritated by this report on the ground that everyone knows Roger Bannister was the first human to break the four-minute-mile barrier. What we actually know, of course, is that Bannister was the first to be so certified according to our present record-keeping system. Simple logic and evolutionary biology suggest that there are no imperative reasons why Big Hawk Chief could not have run as fast as North said he did.
Besides running, another popular high sport was variously called the wheel or hoop game. The basic equipment for this contest consisted of a throwing spear and a disk of stone, wood or stiffened leather. The disk was set with spokes and had holes carved in it or sections marked off like those of a dart board. It was rolled down a field, and the contestants threw spears at it. Scoring was complex: Points were awarded for hitting or passing through certain areas of the rolling target as well as for near misses. There is now no sport with which it can be compared, and unfortunately, the Europeans who saw it played were not able to describe the subtleties of the wheel game.