Sports among the early North American Indians

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.


3 thoughts on “Sports among the early North American Indians

  1. Hmmm. I can find plenty of scriptural support for contentment, but I’m just not sure about leisure. If leisure equals sloth, then the entire book of Proverbs is against it. But, if leisure equals time spent cultivating relationships, or pursuing beauty, knowledge and excellence, but not necessarily doing the work needed to keep body and soul together, then it might be a worthwhile concept. I do think hunter gatherer cultures probably enjoyed more leisure time then early farmers, BUT, it seems like they didn’t always make the best use of their leisure. (is that an oxymoron?) There is some value in games, songs and dances of course, but where are the Native American counterparts to Shakespeare, Jefferson, Jonathan Edwards, Da Vinci? And then there is the grim fact that hunter gatherer peoples starved in the winter more often then early farming cultures did. Perhaps a more realistic comparison between the two cultures might be seen in the classic tale of the grasshopper and the ant. Sure, the grasshopper frolicked in the summer sun; but the ant was warm and well-fed in the winter, with plenty of time to read by the fire and plan next year’s crop.

  2. I think we just inherited this Protestant work ethic, that just saw work as the end all, to be all in life. Medieval peasants, for instance, had many holidays, and after their work for themselves, and their ruling class, often had much time to enjoy festivals, fairs, Holy Feast Days, etc. Somehow, over the centuries, it became evil, to be idle, even if only part of the time. Many other cultures around the world, regarded work as a necessary evil. The trick was to get wealthy enough, to have servants, etc, so you didn’t have to work. Until recently, if you had visited a village in other parts of the world{especially hot climates} in the middle of the day, you would have been impressed with how quiet it was, and how few folks were out, and about. most work got done before noon, and since you did not need many things to live in such a culture, and the community shared much of it’s resources, why work like a dog, when you didn’t need it, didn’t even Know to ASK for it, and would have had to share it anyway with everyone in the village, who most likely related to you. There are of course downsides to this lifestyle, like having little oversupply to save for hard times. Still, since most people in most places lived like this for most of the last several millennia, it must have had something going for it.

  3. Sometimes I wonder if our definition of work is wrong. I know I have an unconscious definition of work as being whatever is unpleasant, so that if I enjoy an activity, like cutting the grass or crocheting dishrags or reading great books, it doesn’t count as “work,” therefore I’m being frivolous and wasting time. (Well, yardword doesn’t quite count since for Mike it’s “work” and if I didn’t do it because I love it, he’d have to do it because it has to be done. Life is so weird.)

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