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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


August 10, 2002 - Issue 67


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Longboat Left Great Legacy for Native Athletes

by Doug Cuthand The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon)
credits: National Archives of Canada C-014090
Winnipeg will host the North American Indigenous Games this summer. These games are held every two years, alternating in venues in the United States and Canada.

Today's competitors also look to our past at the great athletes who broke the trail, and one of the greatest was Tom Longboat.

His name draws immediate respect in Indian Country. Annually, the top aboriginal amateur athlete in Canada receives the Tom Longboat award and his name lives on.

Longboat was born in 1887 on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford Ontario. He was a member of the Onondaga Nation and his Indian name was Cogwagee. Throughout his life he would use his Indian name and he never turned his back on his people or his heritage.

His father died when he was young and his mother was left to raise four children by herself. Longboat often was seen running on the reserve. He loved to run long distances and, when he was 19, entered the Hamilton Bay race. He was an unknown and the odds on him were 60:1.

Throughout his life he had to deal with the rampant racism. If he didn't win, he was a "lazy Indian." If he won, he was a "the speedy son of the forest." The newspapers called him "Injun" or "Heap Big Chief."

So, it was no surprise that, when he competed in his first race, the local reporter described him as "a pathetic figure in a pair of bathing trunks with cheap sneakers on his feet, and hair that looked as if it had been hacked off with a tomahawk."

Longboat went on to win the race and came within a shadow of the course record.

A few days later, he won the 15-mile Ward Marathon in Toronto and several months later won the Boston Marathon with a time of 2:24:25 -- a record that would stand until the course was changed and made easier.

He had an enormous reserve of strength. During the last mile of the marathon he would gain speed and sprint to the finish. This would leave his competition in the dust and demoralized.

He became a hero in Canada. He was now a hot property and under contract to Tom Flanagan, the owner of the Irish Canadian Athletic Club. Longboat's career continued to flourish for a while but the strain began to show. Flanagan was domineering and manipulative.

In 1907, the New England Amateur Athletic Union stripped Longboat of his amateur status. He was banned from returning to Boston to defend his title.

However, he was able to be a part of the Canadian Olympic Team and participated in the 1908 Olympics in London, England. Unfortunately, he collapsed at the 19-mile mark and was in second place. The speculation turned to drug use and even the manager of the Canadian Olympic Team mused that it must have been a drug overdose. Others speculated that Longboat was drugged so the bookies could rake in a huge windfall. Others pointed to the exceptional heat on the day of the race as being the main factor.

In the end, Longboat left his condescending manager and did quite well on his own, despite Flanagan's dark threats that he would squander his winnings and end up in the gutter: after all, he was only an Indian.

Longboat went on to win the most famous race of his career in 1908 at Madison Square Gardens. It was a two-man race against Dorando Pietri, the great Italian runner. They raced on a circular track for the full distance of the marathon.

The two ran beside each other for the first 25 miles, with Pietri taking the lead. However, in the last mile Longboat surged ahead in his trademark style. Pietri couldn't keep up and he collapsed on the track.

For their trouble they were each guaranteed a quarter of the gate, which amounted to $3,750 apiece.

In 1916, at age 29, Longboat joined the army and went to Europe. He was a member of the 107 Pioneer Battalion in France and had the dangerous assignment of running messages and orders between units. During this time he also raced in inter-Battalion sports contests. He was wounded twice and once was declared dead. He survived the war and returned to Canada in 1919.

He returned to his roots and married a woman from his reserve. For the last 20 years of his life he worked as a garbage collector in Toronto. He was largely forgotten by the Canadian public but his fame lived on with his own people.

He died in 1947 of pneumonia brought on by diabetes. He was buried on Six Nations. The funeral was conducted in the Native spiritual tradition, a tradition he held to throughout his life.

Today, he remains a special hero to Indians across Canada and in the U.S. People mention his name with respect and take pride in his legacy.

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