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Ira “Papa” Hamilton, founder of the Hominy Indians, at left, and brother Otto Hamilton. Courtesy of the Osage Nation Museum, Pawhuska.

Magazine

They Might Be Giants

• By

Posted 09.12.12

Having finished a midday meal on their small kitchen stoves, a group of Native athletes walked from the Southern Hotel and boarding house off Main Street in Hominy, Oklahoma, to a football scrimmage on a rough patch of the Osage reservation near downtown. The warmup was the beginning of preparation for a Christmas Day game with the newly crowned NFL Champions, the New York Giants. The same practice turf served them a year prior when they trained for professional football’s New York Rangers, led by Red Grange, “The Galloping Ghost.” The locals lost by a touchdown in a game orchestrated by Tulsa’s legendary sports promoter Sam Avey.

Typical of the era, professional football teams barnstormed the country following the regular season. Attracted by the potential to earn extra paychecks, the Giants’ ultimate destination on their way through Oklahoma was the glitter of Los Angeles and a team dubbed the “Pride of the West.”

Hominy became one of five authorized, north-central Oklahoma settlements for the Osage Nation when the U.S. government relocated the tribe in the early 1870s from the Diminished Reserve in Kansas. Settling along a creek they named for their tribal leader “Walks in the Night,” or Ho’n-Mo’n-I’n, the uncommonly large natives, many of them exceeding six feet in height and weighing over two hundred pounds, cleared areas for agriculture.

Fewer than 500 populated the settlement at the time of Oklahoma statehood in 1907. As the Osage developed their government allotments, agricultural production centered on cotton, corn, hogs, and cattle while supporting several stockyards. The cultural mix and the revenue source changed dramatically in 1916 with the discovery of the Hominy Oil Field, attracting more than two thousand mostly-white oil field workers, attorneys, car dealerships, movie theatres, hotels, and banks over the next few years. Headright payments from oil production on Osage allotments instantly created several thousand wealthy Natives by generating an average current value of $165,000 annually. A group of Osage men funded an upstart football team lead by rancher Ira Hamilton. “Papa,” related an enthusiastic daughter, Irene Hamilton LaZelle, in a phone call to her Hominy residence, “belonged to an American Native Church, organizing the men to get together and play football.” The team began in 1923 to play teams formed by American Legions of neighboring cities in Kansas and Oklahoma. Success came quickly, yet the team lacked the resources for equipment and travel.

In 1925, four Hominy Osage men bankrolled the team. Underwritten primarily by Dick Rusk, Harry Bigeagle, Allison Webb, and Ed LaBelle, the backing provided uniforms and travel expenses. Team founder Hamilton relinquished his coaching duties and assumed the left guard position. Ira’s brother Otto became a well-respected center, Bill Shadlow dominated the front line, and the towering Pete Big Horse played right guard while fathering eight children who continue to play pivotal roles in the Osage community.

One of the Hominy Indians offered NFL experience of his own. Joe Pappio played offensive line for Jim Thorpe’s Oorang Indians before moving back to Hominy. In game films stored in the Hominy town library, the padless Pappio and 240-pound Buck Harding leveled multiple defensive linemen, separating them from their leather helmets, allowing backs like Salter Fixico and John Levi to plunge for long gains. Pappio returned to the NFL for the 1930 season with the Chicago Cardinals. Organized around the extreme talents of Prague, Oklahoma’s Jim Thorpe, the NFL Oorang Indians hailed from LaRue, Ohio, population under a thousand. The team owner, Walter Lingo—who purchased the franchise for $100 in 1922—believed there was a supernatural link between the Airedale dog breed and Native Americans. His passion for both led him to establish an all-Indian professional football team as a marketing tool that employed only Natives as players. For $500 a week, Thorpe managed and played for the team, and ran the Oorang Airedale Kennel along with his teammates—a Lingo requirement for playing time. Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian with a tribal name meaning “Bright Path,” piloted the touring team that played 20 games in the NFL, winning only three during their brief run in 1922–1923. The team folded in 1924 and the kennels succumbed to the advent of the Great Depression in 1929. Although it’s rumored that legend Jim Thorpe wore a Hominy Indian uniform for several seasons, in fact he never played for the Indians.

In the early years, a baseball pitcher from Guthrie carried the Indians team. His name was Johnny “Pepper” Martin. While a fixture at third base for the St. Louis Cardinals, Martin was nicknamed—in an era fond of nicknames—the “Wild Horse of the Osage.” As Martin moved on to the Major Leagues, the Hominy Indians received an infusion of outside talent, among them an All-American named John “Skee” Levi, who claimed a smattering of Jewish ancestry and mostly Arapaho, played multiple sports for the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas (still there, but now called the Haskell Indian Nations University). He played for a time with the New York Yankees affiliate in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “Got homesick, I had to come back to my people,” said Levi. Thorpe said he was the best football player he’d ever seen. He completed 75-yard passes and, standing on the 50-yard line, he could drop-kick field goals routinely.

Preparing for a post-season game in Muskogee that was to be his final game for Haskell, Levi borrowed 50 cents from a coach for a haircut prior to a visit from Fred Lookout, the son of the Osage chief. The Hominy Indians were practicing for an upcoming game with a rival town, Fairfax. The chief described a dire set of circumstances created by the “squaw men” organizers of Fairfax, mostly white cowboys and boomers who married Indian brides, who had hired the entire Kansas City Cowboys, an NFL team, to play for them.“You’ve got to help us,” Lookout explained. “We fullbloods have many thousands of dollars bet on this game,” reportedly as much as $200,000 in 1925 dollars or over two million in current value. Additionally, he promised, if Levi and his teammates would play, the Osage would make a sizeable donation to the construction of the new Haskell football stadium. Several days later, at the end of a lavish Osage banquet held in Hominy celebrating the entire Haskell team, all agreed to play.

Billed as the “Cowboys vs. the Indians” and played on the side of a hill in neighboring Fairfax, it was said that the setting sun produced a burst of light as Levi scored the winning touchdown. After a game that did not field one Hominy or Fairfax resident, one of the few Osage sponsors who could speak English, John Abbott, declared, “We Osages mighty proud.” The check written in the fall of 1925 for the stadium equated to $506,800 in current dollars.

Although no one got rich playing for the Indians, they were thrilled to get paid playing football with fellow Natives. The scale for post-season games against the richer East Coast teams ranged from $25 ($300 current dollars) to $150 ($1,800). During the regular, 12-game season and for games played closer to home, they played only for a share of the gate. Then, there was the betting.

“I’ve heard stories about some pretty high betting going on during the games,” said Irene Hamilton LaZelle. Asked about the reports that some Osage would slip a player a few greenbacks when they  scored or made a big play, Irene, laughed sweetly, “Papa wouldn’t have approved” of tips for touchdowns.

Hominy Indians team photo. Courtesy Hominy Library.

Attempting to attract spectators, the team often dressed in ceremonial garb before the game and performed Native dances. Raymond Luttrell, brother of player-manager Homer Luttrell, tells this story about a hotel stay in New York. “Some players emerged from the elevator with fullback Fixico wrapped in a blanket and he let out an Indian yell. It caused the old ladies to clear out and made the reporters a little hesitant to approach the players.”

Richard Luttrell, son of Homer, said his father told him of the mischievous Fixico taunting the opposing defense by pointing, a la Babe Ruth, to where he would run through the line or score a touchdown. After zigzagging around the backfield with the ball and with the defense in disarray, Chief Fixico pulled it off, heading through the end zone and the fence behind it.“Chief” was a name Fixico gave to himself. Many other players followed suit. Staying in the Hominy and the Oberlyn Hotels along with many of those coming to watch the games, the team got a “gib kick out of signing fictitious names to the register an’ then watch th’ easterners, who’d stop there, lookin’ at the names,” according to the Oologah Oozings editor and publisher, Bill Hoge, in a December 1947 article. He continued, “They made up a lot wild soundin’ ‘injun’ names.”

One of the most daunting to wear the Indians uniform was Pete LaZelle. LaZelle graduated from Hominy High School in 1923, where he captained the basketball and football teams. At six foot six inches and 200-plus pounds, he was called “Big Chief” according to his daughter, Jackie, who now resides in neighboring Skiatook. “His father was French and his mother was Potawatomie from Shawnee. She operated a spa-like sweathouse adjacent to the main house. The house was so close to the railroad tracks, the doors creaked and the windows shook from the rumble of the trains.” LaZelle kicked extra points after touchdowns, sometimes into cow pastures.

The Hominy home field, itself a pasture, sported a metal cable that cordoned off the playing surface. Fans drove their cars right up to the cable and sat on their hoods or dragged benches and chairs to front-row positions along the barrier, recalled Irene LaZelle. The “nouveau” rich natives of the period had the bucks for the fancy sedans and fur coats of the spectators ringing the perimeter.

Eschewing the hayseed pasture for the concrete stands of Osage Park in nearby Pawhuska, the local American Legion organizers prepared for the Indians’ showdown with the Giants. An ever-changing collection of players from 15 different Native tribes, including an Eskimo, made up the Hominy Indian professional football team that was in the middle of a prodigious 28-game winning streak. An unknown sports writer had penned them “the terrors of the Midwest.”

The New York Giants pulled out of St. Louis headed, ultimately, for Los Angeles on the westbound Texas Special luxury train. Stepping off the posh KATY railroad cars and onto the brown, Pawhuska stadium turf, the newly crowned champions warmed up for the gridiron tussle with the local heroes.

Lacking the funds for a bus, the home team arrived in their usual caravan of Buicks and Pierce-Arrows. Little Feather, Big Twig, White Eagle, Running Hawk, John Levi, and their tribe of 20 entered the gates to the cheers of 2,000 townies and visitors. Though several unnamed Giants missed the train, they were still the national champions of professional football.The Daily Journal-Capital  of Pawhuska reported in their account of the competition that the Giants dominated the first quarter with a “brilliant passing game,” and, “undoubtedly would have meant a victory, if ‘Dutch’ Hill had played his customary flashy game.” Yet his four dropped passes kept them off the scoreboard. It became their undoing when one such pass deflected off Hill into an unnamed Indian’s hands, who, stimulated by a screaming grandstand, raced 50 yards to take the early lead. [1]

Then, fill-in Giant halfback Ben Hobson, who played for the Buffalo NFL team during the regular season, broke the scoring drought for the Giants with a bruising five-yard run off tackle in the second quarter. Levi took over for Hominy, executing bullet-like passes, including a third-quarter, 60-yard touchdown strike at the goal line to a stretched out Pappio.

The fourth quarter was a slugfest. The Giants flailed wildly with a series of deceptive plays, but the Indians covered them all. As the clock reached the end, the scoreboard declared the improbable results: Hominy Indians 13, New York Giants, 6. The crowd rushed the field, and the bookies paid off bettors.

 


 

Footnotes

1.Newspaper accounts gave most of the laudatory ink to the Giants while minimizing the Indians’ personnel. On Tuesday, December 27, 1927, the Daily Journal-Capital of Pawhuska failed to acknowledge the name of the Native who made the Indians’ first score, writing only that a “fleet Indian snatched a pass from the air after Hill had fumbled and raced 50 yards for a touchdown.” They also omitted the fact that Hobson and a standout lineman in the game and article, Rudy Comstock, were ringers, added to bolster the Giant’s lineup, who played during the regular NFL season for Buffalo, N.Y., and Frankford, N.J.


Originally published in This Land, Vol.3, Issue 17. Sept. 1, 2012.

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