BRAVE NEW WORLD: Haskell University
All Native American Haskell University is ready to gain its proud football heritage
By Laura Dayton
Published: Winter 2001
Can you name this sports celebrity?
He’s frequently called the world’s greatest athlete, and remains America’s greatest all-around athlete of the past century. He won gold medals in both the pentathlon and the decathlon in the 1912 Olympics. He founded professional football, being the first elected president of the American Football Association, now known as the NFL. He is the only American athlete to excel at the amateur level and at the professional level in three major sports—track and field, football and baseball.
Guessed it? The answer is Jim Thorpe. I suppose I could have made the clues even easier had I led them off with “He is the most famous Native American athlete.” There is not another Native American who even comes close to Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian, in his world fame and multi-sport prowess. Sadly, many people can’t name any other Indian athlete.
So where are the other Native Americans who should have followed in Thorpe’s enormous footsteps? As a partial answer, consider the discouraging fact that Thorpe’s Olympic medals were stripped from him, due to an unfair and regrettable decision made by an Olympic sports body, less than a year after his record-setting performances. The ruling claimed he had lost his amateur status by accepting payment for minor league baseball while on vacation several years earlier. The truth is he had earned a paltry $25 a week and did not realize that his playing would jeopardize his amateur status. Although Thorpe went on to experience a long career in baseball and football, he died medal-less in 1953. Later, facsimile Olympic medals were returned to his family, and his name returned to the record books.
Even though Thorpe’s athletic contributions are held in wide regard today, there are additional reasons more Native Americans have not pursued sports careers. In preserving their culture, some Native American families discourage careers in which their sons or daughters may be so engrossed as to lose touch with their roots. While other young athletes see sports as a way out of impoverished conditions, many young Native Americans today lack this motivating factor if their families have incomes from land lease agreements and casinos.
As all Americans know too well today, history changes. At Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, an obscure all-Native American football team is on the verge of showing the country that they are still warriors on the gridiron. With a new coaching staff, the BFS program, a new system of football, a new defense, a new tradition and a lot of eager freshman, they’re building a team to reclaim their school’s past sports pride and to open the doors for more Native Americans to realize their potential on the playing field.
Not Your Typical College
Haskell is unlike any university in the nation, not only because it is the only four-year college available solely to Native Americans but also because of the way it celebrates and embraces a specific culture.
Ricky Bigger, defensive end on this year’s team, says his decision to come to Haskell had as much to do with football as his heritage. “I grew up in an Indian home; my grandparents are full blood and they speak fluently,” he says. “I wanted to come here and learn my language and more about the culture. Just being on the campus is a learning experience. We’ll have pow-wows and get together for Indian tacos. The native food has a lot of meat and is really pretty good for an athlete’s diet.”
Ben Buckskin, center, adds, “It’s not uncommon to see people walking around campus in their traditional wear. When I first came for a visit I enjoyed what I saw immediately. You feel special here and the team is really together as a unit. The entire campus is a family.”
Pete Hahn, quarterback, was interviewed the day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. He described a Native American ceremony called “smudging” on the campus as we spoke. “It’s our way to show respect for the losses, for what has happened.” The ceremony involves a small pyre of herbs and tobacco that burns throughout the day.
Heritage and History
Haskell’s history dates back nearly a century. Among the many Native Americans who have passed through its halls is none other than Jim Thorpe.
The school began as a boarding school, and by the 1920s and 1930s its football team held quite a respectable reputation, several times becoming the national champions. In the 1950s it became a junior college with JV football. In 1999 the school of just 1,000 was accredited as a four-year university and Haskell’s Fightin’ Indians football team began playing NAIA Division I football.
“Haskell is a government school,” explains the Fightin’ Indians’ new Football Strength, Speed and Conditioning Coordinator, Curtis Schultz. “We are located on Indian land and we are college football’s only all-Native American team. We’re also affordable to any Native American with a tribal card—we charge just $105 per semester, including room, board and tuition. It’s a great opportunity for those who come through our doors.”
This season, Haskell has revamped its team. “We’re almost all freshmen, maybe ten sophomores, a couple juniors and just four seniors,” says Coach Schultz. “We’ve switched from option to spread this year, and have a new head coach, Graham Snelding. It’s a young team, but it is pure untapped potential. A lot of these kids have never even lifted weights or explored their real potential. Many Native Americans mature late, and some of these kids are still growing, putting on size and making strength gains like you wouldn’t believe.”
The Dog Soldiers
In the middle of last summer, assistant coach Joe Forchtner was discussing strategy with his colleagues, putting the finishing touches on the playbook. “We began to think about traditions, like the Nebraska Black Shirts,” says Coach Forchtner, “and we realized we needed one as a new rallying point for our defense.”
Out of the caucus came the Dog Soldiers. “With Head Coach Snelding in his first year at the helm, tradition and respect to the school and the Native American was his first priority,” recalls Coach Schultz.
“Tse-tschese-staeste is what the Cheyenne people call themselves. The word Cheyenne was believed to come from the French word chien for dog. The French traders called these people this because of the famous Dog Soldiers of the Cheyenne nation. The Dog Soldiers were the elite military organization of the tribe. They were the last line of defense for the people,” explains Schultz.
The Dog Soldier was held in great regard. The warriors were outfitted with a particular sash, which trailed down to the ground. Each member carried a sacred arrow. During times of battle, a Dog Soldier would impale his sash with his arrow to anchor it to the earth and then stand his ground to the death.
“We contacted the tribe,” recalls Coach Schultz, “and explained what we wanted to do. Shawn Little Bear told us it would be a great honor, and also warned us that we better know what we were doing, because the title Dog Soldier is coveted and should only be given to a special and chosen few. He helped us induct the first eleven Dog Soldiers.
A Dog Soldier came and spoke at the ceremony. “It was very emotional,” says Schultz, who had goose bumps handing out the new Dog Soldier jerseys.
“It was a great ceremony,” says Coach Forchtner. “You could tell these guys loved it. Here were these big, strong, tough macho guys with tears of pride welling in their eyes. It was something to see.”
The jerseys carry a responsibility, one that each Soldier has to earn. “They must maintain their level of play or lose their Dog Soldier title and relinquish their jersey. If someone hustles or outplays them on the field, the jersey goes to them,” says Coach Schultz. “It’s taken quite seriously.”
Family and Tradition
Historically, many N