Most Canadian kids have heard the story of Tom Longboat, the Onondaga long-distance runner of the early 1900s. Raised at Six Nations Reserve and forced to attend residential school, Longboat would shatter world records as one of the greatest Canadian athletes of the 20th Century.
But there is so much more to his story – and the legacy he left behind.
Longboat was held in such high regard that two years after his death in 1949, the Indian Affairs Branch and the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada established a national and regional Indigenous athletic award in his honour.
Now, a new book by Western professor Janice Forsyth is telling the first detailed narratives of these Tom Longboat Award winners – all while casting new light on how the awards themselves reflect broader themes of colonialism, self-determination and Indigeneity in sports.
She hopes the stories in Reclaiming Tom Longboat bear witness to a range of experiences and narratives of Indigenous athletes.
“The public generally seems to be so invested in Tom Longboat. He was the proxy for all Indigenous people in sport,” she said. “It’s almost like we’re more comfortable with someone who lived 100 years ago than with Indigenous athletes today.”
Set to be published next spring by University of Regina Press, the book chronicles the genesis and further evolution of Indigenous sport and awards within culture and Canadian policy.
Sport as a political means to an end isn’t a new strategy or concept, said Forsyth, Director of Indigenous Studies and a former Director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies.
“People tend not to think too deeply about sport. There is this myth that sports are naturally objective and that they are naturally good. But just as education is not neutral, neither is sport. It changes the way we think about ourselves.
“Sport is often overlooked as a way colonization happened.”
In the book, Forsyth documents how athletic events using European rules were seen as progressive, handy object lessons in how Indigenous people should ideally practice health, hygiene, citizenship, education and assimilation.
Socially acceptable alternatives to a rising wave of ‘Indian’ political action and culture, sports encouraged people to move their bodies in specific ways with specific equipment and follow specific rules as laid down and enforced by rules-keepers.
But the European concepts of sport and competition were divorced from Indigenous ways of living on the land and opposite to values of co-operating well in order to live well.
Most westernized sports and venues – a hockey rink, for example – leave no room for ceremony, spiritual practices or traditional gathering space.
For her book, Forsyth drew on oral and written sources, including 50 interviews with award recipients. She also formed a close friendship and working relationship with Jan Eisenhardt, who oversaw the development of recreation and sports at residential schools and reserves across Canada. He also conceived of the Longboat Awards.
Established in 1951, the Tom Longboat Awards recognize Aboriginal athletes “for their outstanding contributions to sport in Canada” and annually continues “to honour Indigenous athletes across Canada.” Presented by the Aboriginal Sport Circle since 1998, the awards are presented to top male and female athletes both at the regional and national levels.
Eisenhardt was a national icon in his innovative approach to recreation. His critiques of government policy and practices led to his being blacklisted as a civil servant soon after the Longboat Awards were first presented.
Forsyth credits Eisenhardt’s recollections and boxes of memoranda, memories, and documents as helping provide perspective and for showing how senior bureaucrats turned Eisenhardt’s well-intentioned ideas into a colonialist ideal.
In recent decades, she notes, athletes began using the high profile of sports to re-assert their indigeneity – using games as a platform to celebrate native achievement and values.
“Many started using sports to find their way back.”
Athletes like John C. Courchene, recipient of the Longboat National Award in 1975, made sport their way of publicly re-asserting language and community, she said. But in a Canadian society that valued one narrative – the soundbite of the Indigenous person rising above circumstances – it was, and is, still difficult for Indigenous athletes to make their stories heard.
Even today, sports funding depends largely on performance measurements – record-setting athletes have access to support, while intergenerational sports activities that place a premium on participation might not.
In 2002, Forsyth won the Tom Longboat Regional Award for Ontario for her performances at the North American Indigenous Games. As a university athlete, she was a provincial- and Canadian-level competitor in cross-country and indoor track at 3,000-, 1,500- and 1,000-metre races.
She recalled participating in the North American Indigenous Games in Minnesota in 1995 when the starter for the 800-metre run announced there was room on the track for another few participants, if anyone in the crowd was interested.
Having trained hard to get to the Games, Forsyth was surprised. “I thought, ‘This is not how you do sport.’”
A woman wearing a skirt and moccasins came down from the stands to race. While she was lapped during the race, the crowd cheered enthusiastically celebrating participation and courage, as well as athletic prowess.
“I realized then that I had been socialized to the mainstream culture in sport. At that moment, I realized this is something pretty special. These are stories that need to be told and embraced and built upon,” Forsyth said.
And while post-Longboat generations of accomplished athletes are often recognized in their own communities, there is no national hall of fame and no physical space to honour them. “We have hundreds of athletes who have come along after him – the Tom Longboat Award winners – and yet no one is talking to them or hearing their stories.”