Six Nations Track and Field Club
Stories of service as founder/coach of a track club for Native youth, near Niagara Falls, ON (1962-65)In 1962 while living in the picturesque and historical town of Niagara on the Lake, I saw a Reuter article in the local newspaper written by Kahn Tineta Horn, a young beautiful Indian activist from Caugnawaga near Montreal. In this article she was saying that young native people needed non-natives to work with them to help give them a chance in life.
I wrote to her care of the newspaper, saying that I was a Bahá'í and would be able to work with young people in one of two areas. Either I could coach them in mathematics or physics, or I could coach them in Track and Field. I told her up front that I was a Bahá'í, so that she could not later think that I had misled her. She responded promptly saying that she had often heard of their natural athletic abilities, and would I consider coaching Track and Field on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford. This was 70 miles from where I lived and I had been hoping for something much closer to home, but being asked directly, I didn't like not to accept the challenge. Kahn Tineta wrote to the School Board offering my services and saying that I was a blood brother because I was a Bahá'í. She was some years later to have some negative comments about Bahá'ís, but at this time accepted it positively. I assured her that I would in no way take advantage of the situation to proselytize, and of course I honoured that promise.
The School Board accepted my offer and appointed a very nice lady, Mrs Oliver Smith, to liaise with me, open and lock up the school facilities and so on. Mrs Smith was a very dignified and interesting lady, being an excellent potter and sister to the actor Jay Silverheels, famous for his role as Tonto in the popular television potboiler show, The Lone Ranger. A piece of her pottery still graces our living room, long years after I was told that she had ended her life by suicide.
I was given the name of a hopeful athlete, Pete Davis, who lived in Caledonia, which was en route from my home to Ohswekan, where the action would take place. Pete was a gangly fifteen year old and he became the mainstay of the club. Since I knew where he lived, I could winkle him out, even on occasions when his heart was not really in it. There were times when I would wake him up out of bed at six pm to go running. There were times when Pete and I were the only ones there. Pete had a cousin, Cecil Davis, and we got him involved, then friends named Gilbert Montour and Bucky Mountpleasant, then Ron Lickers, and one by one we grew. With a number of good looking young men we started to attract a few girls who overcame their natural shyness to get involved in athletics.
Our running track was no hell! A half mile track used by trotting ponies, and usually churned up by them, but it had to serve. One day we attracted a good runner, Orville something, and he started to train with us.
As the group grew it became obvious that they really lacked a competitive spirit. They knew each other very well and knew who could run faster than who, so races became a sort of procession with no-one trying any harder than they had to. It also became apparent that the young folks viewed themselves as second class citizens because of their native heritage. I decided to focus on two main themes:
1) that they should become proud of who they were.
2) that they should learn to really try in everything they do.
For the first theme, I gathered up all the stories I could of Indian sports heroes and athletes and what they had accomplished, and each week would tell them stories about these people. On one occasion we had George Armstrong, then captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, speak to all the kids of the reserve. He was a real live hero and you could hear a pin drop as he told them about the importance of having a dream, having a healthy life style, and avoiding alcohol. This reinforced the message I was trying to impart. George was a real gentleman with no airs or graces and gave the kids a lot of practical examples from his own life.
To address the second theme, I came out of retirement as a runner and competed against the teenagers. It was one thing to have a friend beat them but for an old man like me, they could not accept it, and soon they were giving each race all they had. In long distance running there is a universal principle that you never quit. Even if it is over and the winner has gone for a shower, if you are still on the course, the race is on, and you have to give it all until you personally finish. I drilled the young folks on this principle every training session, believing that if they could learn it thoroughly, apply it to their running, then transfer it to their studies and to their working life, it would serve them well.
By now I was making the 140 mile round trip two or three times a week to Ohswekan, and the club expanded to about a hundred members. I conscripted various friends to assist me in measuring, timing and coaching. One fellow named Brian came along twice from Hamilton, once to coach and once to give a demonstration. He was the Welsh record holder in the javelin, and the demonstration nearly proved to be a disaster. It was held on the Queen's birthday, known as Bread and Cheese Day on the Reserve. Originally Queen Victoria had arranged for bread and cheese to be distributed on that day, and now the Band Council had taken over the responsibility. About five thousand people were in attendance, almost all members of the Six Nations. (My daughter Jacquelyn who was about four years old confided in an old Mohawk lady, "You had better watch yourself. There are Indians around here.") The spectators lined each side of the race track to watch our athletes perform in competition with each other and the club did pretty well. The track was about thirty yards wide and Brian decided to give his javelin demonstration in the middle of the track with people hanging over the fence on the infield as well as the outfield. He threw a couple of huge throws, over two hundred feet, but on his third effort the wind caught the javelin and it started drifting towards the watching crowd. Fortunately it landed just inside the fence and no-one was injured, and that was the end of his demonstration.
Something very unusual happened one night as I drove on to the Reserve. I am sure it was very symbolic, but what it was symbolic of, I do not know. My car clipped a little bird in flight across the road. I stopped to see if it was OK, and when I walked back I found that the bird was dead but it had been flying with a caterpillar in its beak, and the caterpillar, being given a reprieve, was now heading across the road to freedom. I called to my passenger "George, come and see this." Before George got up to the scene, along came another car and ran right over the caterpillar. I worked often with the symbolism. The caterpillar was going to metamorphose into a beautiful butterfly, and then tragedy struck. It was given a second chance to realise its potential, and then this too was snatched away. All of it seemed beyond the control of the little creature. Beyond mine too.
As I got to know the young people, social problems emerged. One young man whom my wife and I loved dearly said he hated his father and wanted to kill him. His Dad drank a lot and this fourteen year old and his brothers and sisters were often scared, and could not do their homework, or count on any peace at home. We tried discussing things with him, but it all seemed futile. We took him with a couple of others on our annual vacation, and their company was delightful. Twenty years later, returning to the Reserve to renew old friendships with former club members, now in their mid thirties, I found that some had done very well with stable families and jobs, but this young man had become a carbon copy of all he despised about his father. His children were at home dreading his return and he was off on a binge.
For the adults on the Reserve, Bingo had become a major preoccupation to the extent that free buses were regularly sent to bring players to Hamilton and to Brantford.
On occasion my wife and I popped in to visit the few Bahá'ís who lived on the Reserve. Bob Jamieson and his wife Phyllis ran a small restaurant in the centre of Ohswekan and we enjoyed some cheery visits there. Emily General was a feisty old lady, a retired school teacher and an expert on the history of the Six Nations. She introduced us to a book called Wilderness Messiah, a story of Deganawida and Hiawatha and the religion of the Iroquois Confederacy. Emily organized an annual pageant, at a place called the Theatre in the Wilderness, a beautiful open air setting, with birchbark canoes coming and going in the background.
Emily's brother, Jack General (not a Bahá'í) was Deskaheh in the Cayuga Long House. He was a wonderful, dignified and knowledgeable man and he invited my wife and me to attend a Strawberry Festival in the Long House. We did this and were treated to an experience of another culture and another language. There were many speeches in the native language and dances to the beat of drums and turtle rattles. We were given a thick soup of corn with strawberries in it, a strange combination to my palate, and treated with a great deal of respect. Most of the speeches were about the importance of the young people learning their language and culture. Only one of my young athletes was present, the rest telling me that they avoided such events.
Mr General accepted an invitation to come with me to St Catharines Ontario to address the Bahá'í Community, and he gave a wonderful talk in English to an enthralled audience about giving thanks to the Creator for the Earth and all that is on it. Through him we learned of the Iroquois struggle for independence and how an earlier Deskaheh had appeared before the League of Nations, appealing for justice and recognition that the Iroquois had been the allies of the English, never their subjects. The Iroquois had been usurped as had the Scots in an earlier time.
Back to the Track Club. We were now officially known as the Six Nations Track and Field Club and had many well wishers in the sporting world. The Department of Indian Affairs had heard of us and came out to visit and we managed to get some $1,000 funding from Lottery monies to buy equipment, jumping stands, hurdles, javelin, shot put, etc. I knew that I would not be able to continue my association with them indefinitely, so I selected twelve of the most mature and enthusiastic teenagers to train as coaches and we spent one winter grooming them to eventually take over the Club. At the end of the course all twelve proudly accepted their coaching certificates with due ceremony from Mrs Smith on behalf of the School Board.
During the same period my wife and I were involved in operating a youth club for locals in Niagara on the Lake and were also associated with a group of mostly black kids from Jamestown, New York. The kids in Niagara had been getting into trouble with the law primarily through boredom and having nothing to do. This club gave them the opportunity to get together and socialise, dance the latest steps and get involved in community project such as rebuilding a tennis court, sprucing up the parks, and helping seniors with garden or domestic work. When the Six Nations Track Club came to town we also brought over the Black kids from Jamestown and all the young folks had a great time. The next thing we knew was that the parents of the white kids did not let their children come to the Niagara Youth Club. We asked around and found out that the word was out that we were COMMUNISTS!!!. The worst thing that you could be accused of at the time. Eventually one mother said that she knew we could not be communists because we believed in God. Gradually the youth returned to the club and the program went on. We feel sure that many parents were shocked at the idea of their sons or daughters mingling with Indian or Black youth. This was the time of Martin Luther King and many of our friends were taking part in walks in the South, where racism was in the open.
The next season was the last one I was to be closely associated with them. I contacted two other clubs, the Civitan Track Club in St Catharines, and the Welland Track Club and they agreed to a triangular interclub match in St Catharines. We brought two school buses filled with athletes and they competed with these more experienced and older athletes in all of the usual events. We finished second in the points competition but the thing that pleased me enormously was that all day in all the events, no-one quit. All gave there very best effort, except for one young fellow who was deaf and had not got the message as the others had.
Before my family left to move to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories I made every possible effort to get someone capable to continue the work with this club. It really needed some more support, as it is expecting a lot of kids of 14 to 16 years to organize and run the affairs of a Track Club. While there were many well wishers, I could find no-one willing to take it on.
Years later when I returned to the Reserve I was told that the Track Club had become the foundation of an umbrella organization encompassing all sports on the Reserve. Jack and Emily General had passed away after most useful and fruitful lives. Bob Jamieson had died of a heart attack and Phyllis was happily remarried. Cecil Davis was a steelworker, married to a nurse, with two happy children and a nice home. Gilbert was an accountant in Montreal. One of the girls was a successful hairdresser with her own business. Ron was in the US Marine Corps. Many had taken the lessons, translated them into life skills, and were doing well. Maybe they would have done well anyway. Who knows?
Kahn Tineta went on fighting as an activist for aboriginal rights, always a controversial figure, a fearless and outspoken Mohawk woman. I met her once during the early 1960's when she came to Niagara Falls to take a role in a border crossing demonstration. She arrived late, changed into ceremonial costume at a friends home and I had to lift her into the back of an open automobile as the procession passed by. I was not at all surprised to learn that she was behind the barricades at Oka. I met her again two year ago when she lectured at the Fraser Auditorium of Laurentian University, as impressive as ever. Afterwards we spoke briefly of the Track Club she had initiated. I promised to write an account of it for her.
This is it.