I’m absolutely uninterested in sports, and am not as interested as I probably should be in early North American Indians, but I sure am glad I glanced at this article on the subject, from of all places the December 1986 issue of Sports Illustrated. The more sports-oriented will want to read the whole thing, but it was the first few paragraphs that caught my attention:
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. [Emphasis added]
At this late date, when drudgery is a prerequisite for—but no guarantee of—survival, it’s hard to imagine that things might not always have been this way. And it’s hard to summon up gratitude for the thinkers and teachers who not only saw leisure and contentment as an affront to God, but persuaded us all that the Bible tells us so.