I was interviewed at length some weeks ago by NPR’s Radiohead for a future broadcast about Carlisle Indian School football. While listening to Sally Jenkins’s interview during the program, I was saddened by the lack of nuance in her description of the 1896 Carlisle-Yale game. Yes, William O. Hickok was a Yale alum but he was also Carlisle’s coach that year. Omitting this important fact spun the officiating of the game as outright cheating. Carlisle Indian School ran a special edition of its newspaper, The Red Man, that included contemporaneous coverage of the game from the viewpoints of several observers who had differing opinions. A reasonable conclusion that could be made after reading these articles would be that Hickok blew the call, to use modern football parlance, by prematurely blowing his whistle before Isaac Seneca or Jonas Metoxen (accounts vary as to who was carrying the ball initially) was taken to the ground. Bad calls are still part of football, so much so that instant replay has been instituted in recent years to overturn them when ample evidence is provided on the video. To say that Hickok, Carlisle’s coach at the time, cheated his own team in favor of his alma mater, is a serious accusation that doesn’t stand up to the available evidence. Think about the boost a victory, or even a tie, with Yale would have given Hickok’s coaching career. He had a significant incentive to beat Yale. He just blew the call and, possibly, his chance at being a top-flight coach.
Contrary to the Radiolab program, Pop Warner didn’t just happen to coach Carlisle. After graduating from Cornell with a law degree, he had coached Iowa State and Georgia–simultaneously–before returning to lead his alma mater. Seeing that his players needed better coaching, Superintendent Pratt asked Walter Camp, the greatest expert on the game of his day, for advice. Camp suggested he consider Pop Warner, an ingenious up and coming coach. Warner and the Indians made a perfect match football-wise. Neither would likely have had the records they did without each other.
Richard Henry Pratt, who was sometimes called “an honest lunatic” by his critics, deserves a more balanced treatment than NPR gave him. Where a common, if not majority, view at the time favored eradication, Pratt held the radical view that Indians could do anything a white man could do. I’ve never found anything from the period stating that Carlisle students weren’t allowed to speak their own languages. They were surely encouraged to speak English but Pratt had no need to force them. How else were they going to communicate with each other if they didn’t? The various tribes represented at Carlisle spoke numerous different languages and could only understand those from their own tribe or one that spoke a similar-enough language. Other schools, where the students were from a single or only a few tribes, may have forced their students to speak English but Carlisle had no need to do that.