As the Washington Football Team Rebrands, Remember an All-Native Pro Team from 100 Years AgoHistorians in the News
tags: sports, Native American history, Jim Thorpe, football
On Wednesday, Washington’s National Football League team unveiled its new name, following a lengthy campaign by Native American activists to abandon an identity long seen as a racial slur.
Largely forgotten in the controversy over Native American-derived team names is the story of a short-lived NFL franchise founded 100 years ago and composed entirely of Native American players.
The Oorang Indians played two seasons starting in 1922, led by the famous Olympian Jim Thorpe. The team concept might seem progressive — its name and stereotypical halftime shows, less so.
The team started when Walter Lingo, a businessman in LaRue, Ohio — population 795 — paid $100 to the newly formed NFL for a franchise. It put LaRue on the map, making it one of the smallest cities ever to have an NFL franchise.
An avid outdoorsman and dog lover, Lingo became fond of Airedales, a breed of terriers. Lingo started to breed his own Airedales from a stock called Crompton Oorang and eventually established a major dog kennel. In 1913, he named his dog-breeding business the Oorang Kennels.
Lingo had another interest: Native Americans. Like many people of his time, he grew up with a romanticized view of American Indians and the Wild West, and his father had told him that American Indians had an intuition about dogs and could “spot certain characteristics” in training them, according to Chris Willis, author of “Walter Lingo, Jim Thorpe, and the Oorang Indians.”
Lingo combined his two passions — dogs and Indians — and named his football team after them. For him, the team was largely a publicity stunt for his dog-breeding business, according to Native American historians and authors who have written about the Oorang Indians.
He invited his friend Thorpe, who had briefly served as the first president of the American Professional Football Association — which later became the NFL — on a hunting trip and made him an offer: become a player-coach on this newly formed NFL team and supervise the training of Lingo’s dogs at his kennel. The pay was $500 a week.
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