This Is Hockey Culture, Ep. 2 Transcript: The Untold Contributions of Indigenous people in hockey

Missed the second episode? No worries! Read it here.

In the second episode of This Is Hockey Culture, Sam and I covered the untold contributions of Indigenous culture and Indigenous athletes on the sport of hockey, including going back in history to the very beginning of hockey’s development as a sport and national identity.

Here is the full transcript for the second episode, and don’t forget to tune in Monday, when episode three drops!

Begin Transcript

Kat Pitré: Welcome everyone! You’re listening to This Is Hockey Culture, an SB Nation podcast where we break down the most pressing news circulating the NHL by examining the intersections of politics, identity, sports and culture in order to define what makes hockey, hockey. I’m Kat Pitré —

Sam Siciliano: I’m Sam Siciliano —

Kat: And this is hockey culture!

Sam: We’re going to be talking about what type of foundation the game was built on and the lack of fluidity in the way the game has grown.

Kat: The Indigenous and First Nations communities have left an indelible mark on the sport of hockey. After all, the modern-day version of the sport we all know and love is rooted in Indigenous culture.

Sam: I feel like a lot of times we romanticize Canada as the “birthplace of hockey” — so much so that the IIHF granted Montreal the title in 2008. There’s an intense and dynamic relationship between hockey and Canadians’ national identity but the sport has so many contributors, including those before the creation of organized hockey. I feel like the groundwork for modern day hockey lays on the foundation of indigenous people and that’s a conversation that should have more of a platform.

Kat: This Is Hockey Culture is about defining what makes hockey, hockey. And as we begin to unravel what hockey culture is, I want to tell you the story of one of the most influential people in hockey — Fred Sasakamoose.

Kat: In the fall of 1953, at only 19 years old, Sasakamoose made his debut for the Chicago Blackhawks, as one of the first Indigenous players in the league.

Kat: Fred Sasakamoose  was born in 1933, and his home was ostensibly Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, in Saskatchewan, Canada, although he spent ten years of his childhood in Duck Lake at St. Michaels. Hockey was as much a passion as it was an escape for him, and many other young Indigenous children who, like Sasakamoose, were forced to assimilate and lose their languages and heritage at Canada’s residential schools.

Kat: While he only played 11 games for the Blackhawks, Sasakamoose had a flourishing minor league career until 1960, when he returned home to Saskatchewan. There, he developed programs to create an access point for equipment, training and other resources for his community. In 1962, he helped create the Northern Indian Hockey League, the Fred Sasakamoose All-Star Hockey Week (a diversity focused hockey camp) and a national Indigenous men’s hockey league, the Fred Sasaskamoose Chief “Thunderstick” National Hockey Championship.

Kat: Sasakamoose has been named as a member to the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest civilian honor, for his relentless advocacy and action for Indigenous players in the sport. Sasakamoose has left an incredible impact upon his community and the nation at large, and left a lasting legacy within hockey itself.

Sam: Hockey was born in Canada, but not only by the Europeans who migrated to North America in any sport, it’s important to recognize different contributions to the game, especially because as hockey became commercialized throughout North America, it progressively became more marginalized, the same groups of people who created the sport, completely left out of the conversation.

Sam: Like I said earlier, the relationship between Canada’s national identity and hockey is a dynamic one. Canada so proudly identifies as the birthplace of hockey but fails to recognize Indigenous people who helped to develop the game in tandem. And, so much of indigenous history is passed down through oral tradition, which is a big component.

Kat: Hockey is a big deal in Indigenous communities across Canada at all levels. Pick-up hockey, Rec league hockey and pond hockey are all examples, but big, organized events like the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships too.

Kat: In fact, it was Reggie Leach, who is Ojibwe and spent 13 seasons in the NHL and won a cup with the Flyers in 1975 who said, “I think we as First Nations people are probably some of the biggest supporters of hockey across Canada.”

Kat: Sasakamoose is widely regarded to be one of the first Indigenous hockey players in the NHL, if not the first in some circles, and he is the first treaty Indigenous player, but there are a few other Indigenous hockey players before his time (and even before the NHL’s time in some cases) that history forgets about.

Kat: In 1901 and 1902, the Winnipeg Victorias won the Stanley Cup with three Métis players, Tony Gingras and brothers Rod and Magnus Flett. Paul Jacobs, who was Mohawk, was on the roster for the 1918-19 season for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Taffy Abel, who was Chippewa, was a member of the 1924 Olympic team and one of the first Americans to succeed in the NHL.

Kat: In the 1930-31 season , Henry Maracle, who’s Mohawk played 15 games for the New York Rangers, before having a flourishing minor league career for years. And, in 1944, the Rangers called Jim Jamieson, who was Cayuga from Six Nations First Nation in Ontario for one game.

Kat: But perhaps the most important impact Indigenous people have had on the sport of hockey is in it’s creation as a sport at all. Without them, hockey wouldn’t exist the way we know it. I’ve been teasing that, and Sam has been teasing that this whole episode, and now we’ll get into actual hockey history.

Kat: Let’s work backwards a little bit. Hockey’s origin actually begins in tandem with lacrosse, which was developed in the mid-1800s by George Beers, who saw it as a uniquely Canadian activity distinct from British sports like cricket.

Kat: But, lacrosse actually has its roots in Baggataway, a First Nations game, and the appropriation of Baggataway into what would eventually be lacrosse, was a part of the first real cultural exchanges between early French settlers and First Nations people.

Kat: Eventually, people forgot that lacrosse was an extrapolation of a First Nations physical cultural tradition, and when it became a codified sport in the mid-1800s, it was primarily for Anglophone, middle and upper class men. Typical, right?

Sam: [sarcastically] Very.

Kat: [laughs] Well, hockey, which was codified around the same time and within the same communities of people, was accessible to a much larger demographic of individuals, including the working class and/or Indigenous peoples, people who were traditionally unable to play lacrosse because of social class.

Kat: Hockey itself most likely developed within the First Nations, potentially from a Mi’kmaq game called Duwarken, which was played on ice and with sticks. The provenance of hockey is kind of hard to pin down, but other influences include the Irish game of hurley. And, Mi’kmaq wood carvers are thought to have created the earliest precursor to the modern hockey stick, which is pretty cool.

Kat: But anyway, because hockey was more socially accessible for a larger group of people, it wasn’t long before hockey, not lacrosse, became the national sport of Canada. While still discriminated against and facing significant barriers, Indigenous players were not only common in the sport, there were whole teams entirely of Indigenous players in the first half of the twentieth century.

Sam: So, like I said earlier, it was a little difficult doing research because there really aren’t that many papers or articles published on Indigenous traditions and the history of it all, but I was able to find this Mi’kmaq First Nations quote, advocating for ‘Two-Eyed Seeing,’ so when looking at the development of hockey and I think that’s really important for the culture as a whole to have this perspective.

Sam: “‘Two-Eyed Seeing’ is learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing … and learning to use both these eyes together, for the benefit of all.”

Kat: I love that quote, and I think what’s been so interesting in going through and researching for this conversation is the fact that, for some reason, we’re so obsessed in hockey culture with pinning down and exact date and time and place of hockey’s development, which, A; doesn’t really exist because it was born out of cultural exchanges over hundreds of years, but also because it ignores a significant community and history that’s not often recognized.

Kat: This is a show about defining what hockey culture is, and sometimes when trying to answer that question, we have to ask ourselves what narratives are being left out of the conversation. And which stories get told, or which stories don’t.

Kat: Because of that, we have to face the aspects of hockey history that are uncomfortable or upsetting to sit with, like recognizing that hockey and other sports were used as tools at residential schools to facilitate assimilation. And, that a lot of hockey history has been whitewashed or are products of colonialization and appropriation.

Kat: But in recognizing that history, it gives us the opportunity to celebrate the true diversity of experiences and identities and cultures that make up our hockey culture and community.

Sam: So I really do believe that knowledge is power, and we owe it to the sport and the players who came before us to respect the rich history of the game. If you’re interested in learning more about hockey, and Indigenous people’s contributions to the sport, Kat and I will be linking resources in the description box of this episode, which I strongly encourage everyone to tap into.