The book reads like a “who’s who” of history.
It also introduces us to and establishes Olympian Jim Thorpe, a multi-sport player once considered the world’s greatest athlete, and legendary coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner.
Abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, Indian War Chief Sitting Bull and future president Dwight D. Eisenhower also play significant roles in the book.
Author Sally Jenkins weaves a history lesson together beginning with a bloody massacre in 1866 and bookends the tale with a battle on the football field in 1912, Indians versus the Army.
In 1866, members of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes lured the U.S. military into a trap. It proved a fierce and violent coup to ward off annexation of their land. Chieftain American Horse slit someone’s throat in the battle, and other natives removed scalps then gallantly rode home to brag of their victory.
The Indians won the battle that day but not the war.
Despite their recalcitrant stance against the expansion of the U.S. Territory, change was coming.
American Horse nearly decapitated a man to display his staunch opposition against being forced into a reservation.
He would later buy a suit from Saks and send nearly a dozen of his offspring to a U.S. government run boarding school.
To demonstrate the transitory times the country faced, Jenkins masterfully walks us through history.
By 1890, the first Transcontinental Railroad is completed. It runs through once serene land the natives called home. The tracks have dissected their frontier, carving out even smaller allotments then what the government issued to the natives.
The infamous “cowboys and Indians” battles have nearly disappeared like the Western frontier.
At this time, football began to take hold of the American psyche. The brutality of the sport provided a new outlet for men to showboat their masculinity.
America is at a crossroads. It knows it must live amongst the natives, the people whose land the government has taken. American leaders know some of the Indians will seek to live outside of the oppressive conditions of the reservations. They question how they will live civilly with the “savages”. Fighting is no longer the answer. Assimilation becomes the solution.
But it is not fully embraced by either side.
Did natives have the mental capacity to “learn the way of the white man”?
Indians feared losing their centuries old mores.
Army officer and abolitionist Richard H. Pratt sought the government’s approval to launch the social experiment.
He had what he believed to be success in absorbing and “curing” the hardest of Indian resisters when he ran a military prison in Florida.
Pratt opened The Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania hoping to strike gold again.
He Christianized the students and cut their hair to make them similar to the white man.
While Pratt’s legacy is mixed, Jenkins makes it clear that the superintendent is fond of the students he recruited and treated them like he would his own children.
Jenkins eloquently illustrates how this experiment is not without heartache and failure.
For every handful of children that willingly assimilate, at least one native revolts, runs away or returns home scared and confused.
Pratt thought abandoning their native tongue, denouncing violence and learning how to eat with a fork and spoon were the only ways American society would accept Indians.
A student named Plenty Horse returned to his reservation with one mission, to wipe the stain of Carlisle from his character.
He killed an innocent American military member to impress his tribe.
Pratt would argue he had more success stories than accounts of failure, and he attributes that the football team he begrudgingly allowed on campus.