Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Raven Plays Ball: Situating "Indian Sports Days" within Indigenous and Colonial Spaces in Twentieth-Century Coastal British Columbia

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Raven Plays Ball: Situating "Indian Sports Days" within Indigenous and Colonial Spaces in Twentieth-Century Coastal British Columbia

Article excerpt

The experiences of coastal Indigenous communities in British Columbia playing Western sports in the early twentieth century seems to be a trickster tale. (2) Sports defy simple characterizations as either colonial intrusion, or conversely, vehicles for Indigenous cultural persistence. Throughout Canada sport has been a powerful agent of change used by representatives of settler society, whether from the Department of Indian Affairs, church denominations, or the dominant society more generally, in their attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples. Framed in the Victorian understanding of leisure as a potent source of moral, social, and physical engineering--so called muscular Christianity--sports and recreational activities were introduced to and imposed on Indigenous peoples to aid their so-called civilizing process. Indigenous communities played soccer, lacrosse, and baseball at "Indian Sports Days" held during holiday celebrations; others were invited to fall fairs by organizers to compete in separate all-Native competitions and provide a touch of the "exotic" to the festivities. Yet Indigenous peoples used these same sports events, and the opportunities they offered, to challenge, resist, and even displace colonial agendas. Western sports did not automatically replace existing ones, nor did continuities in play and competition simply mark Indigenous resistance and survival; they occurred simultaneously.

This article evaluates sport as played by Indigenous peoples in select coastal communities of British Columbia to illustrate how Indigenous teams were used to both challenge and reinforce separate sporting cultures and even styles of play. Along the province's southern coast, and in particular in the Vancouver area from the 1910s onwards, Indian Sports Days became important venues for Coast Salish (3) peoples such as the Squamish to (re)define perceived colonial spaces. On the north coast, competitions during Prince Rupert's Fair and Exhibition between the 1910S-1940S celebrated the athletic achievements of their Indigenous participants--among them Ts'msyen, Nisga'a, Gitxsan, and Haida--in segregated and integrated events. Yet Indigenous peoples should also be recognized for the contributions they made to Canadian sporting culture more broadly. Just as their non-Indigenous counterparts did, local athletic societies acted as social clubs and key identity-builders for coastal Indigenous villages in the early to mid twentieth century. On the one hand, these organizations were typical in small-town BC and community-based recreation, while on the other hand they were uniquely Indigenous manifestations.

On both the south and north coasts, we have found in the practice of physical culture what Keith Thor Carlson defined as the "change in continuity, the continuity in change." (4) Just as J.R. Miller challenged scholars to reconsider the history of Indigenous-non-Indigenous interactions as a nuanced, multidirectional, and often contradictory encounter, in this article we argue that sport created complex and multifaceted social spaces, reflecting both Indigenous and colonial agendas. Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens insists that Indigenous-Settler relations in Canada can only be understood by identifying the motivations of each group. (5) In Skyscrapers, and indeed in many of his works, Miller has always highlighted the degree to which Indigenous peoples actively participated in shaping relationships with Settlers, even as they shifted from being defined primarily by cooperation (contact to early nineteenth century), to coercion (nineteenth century), to finally confrontation (early twentieth century to the 1980s). Recently scholars have explored this complicated Indigenous-Settler relationship by writing about Indigenous athletes or the spectacle of Indigenous peoples "playing Indians" at fairs, stampedes, or exhibitions where sometimes even the chronological categorization crafted by Miller is upset. (6) Researchers interested in the growth of Indigenous sporting traditions reject models that gauge Native involvement in Western sports as evidence of assimilation, especially when Indigenous sport history is situated within Indigenous cultures. …

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