There may never have been and may never again be a culture in which sports so obsessed individuals and communities, produced so many sports nuts, both participants and spectators, as that of the American Indian, a fact that, among others, scandalized early white explorers.
When the Baptist minister David Jones arrived in the Shawnee lands in 1772, he was ill and weak from hunger. He admitted grudgingly that he ate well among the Indians, but he was otherwise generally outraged by the Shawnee culture. Among other signs of their savagery he noted that they had no jails, no proper laws nor government. But what seemed to aggravate the Reverend Jones most was the uncivilized frivolity of these people. "It appears as if some kind of drollery was their chief study," he wrote indignantly. "The cares of this life, which are such an enemy to us, seem not to have yet entered their mind." These merry people were forever singing, dancing and playing games.
Time and again early white observers would make the same essential point: It was the infernal, incessant playfulness of these people that made them so weird. Whites looked at North America as a howling wilderness that had to be quickly and drastically improved if its potential wealth was to be developed. Indians saw it as wealth in place, a providentially created storehouse. Food, shelter and clothing did not, of course, fall on the Indians from the sky. They had to work in their fashion to get what they wanted, but generally they did not have to labor in the imperative, unremitting way the whites did. In consequence they had a lot more disposable time on their hands.
A few more advanced white thinkers ( Benjamin Franklin for one) found there were certain admirable aspects to the Indian ways. For example, it was occasionally noted that most Indians lived as only the richest and most powerful whites did, which is to say, in pursuit of their pleasures. However, the mainstream view was that the native Americans were lazy louts whose idleness was an affront to the laws of man and God.
Indians seem to have held equally low opinions about the whites. They found them to be a grim, joyless, heaving and grunting lot with not much more style or gaiety about them than mud turtles. The bottom line was that white societies were organized to produce work and wealth, and Indian ones to provide leisure and freedom—that is, to allow individuals to do whatever they damn well pleased most of the time.
Along with singing, dancing, theatrics and cracking jokes, red people also enjoyed group storytelling sessions and playing the equivalents of cards and craps. But perhaps more than anything else they liked competitive athletics.
Virtually all the surviving first-hand accounts of early Indian athletics were produced by male Europeans. In consequence there is a strong suspicion that sports reporting from this period, while fairly voluminous, was of very low quality. The whites did not understand what they were seeing well enough to give play-by-play accounts of great games or 10 describe the feats of superstar performers. It is as if 200 years from now, the only information extant about the Boston Celtics or Walter Payton was to be found in letters written home by a Pakistani field-hockey player who had toured the U.S. for a few months.
Also, the Europeans came from a culture that had long been fallow as far as sports went. This down period lasted from approximately the end of the medieval jousting and falconry crazes to the multisport mania of the 20th century. I here was not much in the way of popular sports because: 1) the common man was working so hard; and 2) the authorities thought playfulness was a sign of weak character. Thus whites in pre-Revolutionary America who watched Indians at play did not, on principle, like what they saw. Writers tended to decry these exercises as wasteful and childish.
However, when all the moralizing is deleted, there remains enough substance in some of these accounts to suggest that the red world of sport was a wonderful one. There was an assortment of grassroots games, the rough equivalents of neighborhood bowling or playground basketball. These were essentially pastimes, and while competition might have been hot, they did not require the skill and were not so significant as the high sports, of which more shortly.
All the Indian nations had some sort of throwing games of the duck-on-the-rock, darts or quoits type. In the frost belt, snow snakes—sliding spears over drifts of ice for distance and accuracy—was popular. The Iroquois of northern New York and Pennsylvania developed a complicated version of this in which trenches were dug down hillsides and then iced with water. Miniature 15-inch canoes carved of hardwood were sent down these runs to see how far they would slide into the flats below. Preparing, playing, watching and gambling on snow-boat contests apparently whiled away many cold dark hours for the Iroquois.