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  • The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation
  • John R. Thelin
The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation. Sally Jenkins. New York: Doubleday, 2007, 352 pages, $24.95 (hardcover)

Sally Jenkins' reconstruction of the Carlisle School for Indians and its successful football teams in the decades before World War I has all the ingredients of a success story. She has brought attention to an understudied institution and episode in American educational history. This timely history addresses significant issues of diversity and opportunity in American society.

Despite this potential the book loses momentum on two counts. First, the legacy of the Carlisle School for Indians is tragic and shameful because it was arrogant and ultimately dysfunctional. Second, the magnetism of Jenkins's title is not really sustained in the subsequent saga. By the end of the book her bold claim of "The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation" wilts because the changes were overrated and counterproductive. Although there are fascinating narratives and biographies, the book's "great expectations" conclude with even greater disappointments.

The author's intentions are sound. She places the Carlisle School into the context of political and social history of the Native American tribes and the wars waged by the U.S. Army and later the patronizing and deceptive programs enacted by the U.S. Government through such agencies as the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Most graduate students and faculty will find this prelude familiar and hence belabored. Jenkins devotes great attention to US Cavalry officer Richard Pratt—a veteran of the Civil War and later the Great Plains Indian campaigns—whose commitment was to founding the School for Indians at an abandoned military installation in Pennsylvania. Not only is Pratt an unlikely hero, his zealous beliefs about cultural assimilation and schooling are autocratic and largely untested. The combination of military conduct with Christian missionary work and industrial training is potent—unfortunately with strong destructive consequences for most of the students and their families. Add to this dubious foundation the feuding with Washington, DC, over funding and policies, one has a school that respected neither the culture or language of Native Americans whose daughters and sons were persuaded or coerced to travel cross-country to enroll.

The most effective features of the schooling plan came at the start as the ritualized induction [End Page 513] resembled the psychological and physical breaking down of conscripted recruits at military boot camp—i.e., cutting hair, replacing indigenous clothes with shoddy uniforms, restricting language, and imposing a strict daily regimen. The saving grace supposedly was that the students shared with all Americans of the era a fascination with the game of football. And although small in height and weight, the students at Carlisle were skilled and bright. Intercollegiate football became their passport to "proving themselves" and to bringing public applause to their alma mater.

To understand how The Real All Americans story fits into the frenzy of spectator sports and popular adulation of college athletics early in the 20th century, two good companion books are Michael Oriard's Reading Football and James Michener's Sports in America. Given the sports page (and front page) coverage, the winning teams from Carlisle gain from games against Harvard, Yale, Penn, Columbia, and other prestigious colleges, one anticipates that this will bring Native American student-athletes some route to upward mobility. What one finds is that the metaphor of football for struggle and triumph in American life is an inflated false hope. The opportunities such athletic accomplishments put in place for the Carlisle student-athletes were meager. Even though Carlisle School played colleges, it really is a hybrid—a school, not a college. So if the coaches administrators and student-athletes at Yale and Harvard and Penn had respect for the Carlisle lads, one might have expected offers of admission for undergraduate study at these distinguished places. The glory of the football field really ended there with little future prospects. For all our glorification of college sports as a socio-economic elevator, the Carlisle legacy indicates it was stalled in neutral...


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pp. 513-514
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