Hockey player Taffy Abel was the first Native American athlete to medal at the Olympics: NPR
Jones Family Collection
At the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, about two dozen American dignitaries and athletes painfully in the snowy streets during the opening parade. The American flag – then with only 48 stars – was carried by hockey player Clarence “Taffy” Abel.
What few people outside of her family and close friends knew at the time: Taffy Abel was Native American – the first Indigenous athlete to carry the flag at the Olympics. Within days, he had become the first Native American to win a medal in Winter Games history.
“A Native American, wearing our stars and stripes, almost 100 years ago,” said George Jones, Abel’s 73-year-old step-nephew. His voice shook with pride as he spoke of this moment.
Family stories passed down tell how Abel, his sister Gertrude, and his mother Charlotte—a Canadian Chippewa (now called Ojibwe)—all passed themselves off as white, mostly by not talking about it.
“The main thing they were afraid of,” Jones says, “[was] that Taffy and her sister would be taken to residential school. »
These schools were one of the ways in which the United States attempted to eradicate the indigenous heritage of indigenous peoples.
John Abel was white, and before the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, his marriage to Charlotte made her and their children American citizens. Charlotte’s father worked in the Sault Ste. Marie locks down, and the family lived in town, not on the reservation. He was, says Jones, “a little better educated than the average Native American who lived on a reservation there”.
John and Charlotte also lived in town, and “downplaying” Native American heritage in the family, Taffy and her sister attended the local public school. John died in 1920, leaving Taffy as the breadwinner.
“I think it was kind of an open secret,” says Jim Adams, senior historian at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
In many American communities close to Native lands, the practice of “race crossing” was quite common. If you could, you just didn’t talk about it.
Adams says census records showing that today’s Aboriginal population is about 20 times greater than it was in 1890 are not due to steady population growth.
“It’s because people hid their Indian identity at a time when it was a definite disadvantage,” he says.
In 2012, Adams hosted a exposure at the National Museum of the American Indian in honor of Native Olympians. While racial death was common among Native Americans, it was rarer among Olympic athletes.
“Many of the contestants, like Jim Thorpe and Louis Tewanima, were sponsored by the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. So their identity both as an Indian and as a product of the Indian boarding school system was very well known and, in fact, fairly publicized, “Adams explains.
Thorpe was the first Aboriginal athlete to win gold at the Olympics, winning both the decathlon and the pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Games.
Jones, Abel’s nephew, doesn’t think success would have come so easily to his uncle.
“Taffy would never have competed in the 1924 Winter Olympics if he had [come] right away and said, Hey, I’m Native American,” Jones believes. “And I know he wouldn’t have entered the white-dominated world of NHL hockey either.
After helping the United States win a silver medal at the 1924 Olympics, Abel would later join teams in the National Hockey League. He won the Stanley Cup twice: with the New York Rangers in 1928 and the Chicago Blackhawks six years later. His size and tenacity made him a dominant player; he was known as a 60 minute man because he rarely left the ice.
Padding was minimal and helmets did not exist. “So they were tough guys, and he was kind of the toughest guy,” Adams said of Abel.
After his NHL days ended, in 1939, Abel formed an amateur hockey organization at his home in Michigan, named the Sault Indians (soo) in honor of his late mother. It was the time when his legacy was in the open, though even minimal acknowledgment of his efforts as a Native American was still decades away.
“When someone asked him, he was like, ‘Taffy, what a deal [are you] in?’ Taffy always said, ‘I’m in the business of winning,'” Jones says.
And while Canadian Fred Saskamoose is widely credited with being the NHL’s first Indigenous player in the 1950s, Jones and Adams said it was Taffy Abel a quarter century earlier.
Jones has long advocated for greater recognition of Abel’s Olympic accomplishments and his place as the NHL’s first Indigenous player.
Michigan Congressman Jack Bergman in January pink to recognize Abel on the floor of the United States House of Representatives and, together with Jones, intended to declare February 4, 2022 “Taffy Abel Day”. (Bergman’s proclamation today was instead pushed back by other House business to Monday, February 7).
“To me,” Jones says, “the big issue here isn’t so much about Taffy Abel, but it’s Native American justice. If it doesn’t happen on my watch, you know, I have a son . He will follow . And I have grandsons, and they will follow.”
Jones is also hoping for the return of Abel’s 1924 Olympic silver medal, which he says was stolen from the family home in 1964.