Last month “The Strong People: A History of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe” was released. This book is a collection of historical accounts and personal stories written by elders and members of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. One topic in particular surprises readers: the S’Klallam connection to baseball.
We began our love affair with our country’s national pastime in the late 1800s. S’Klallam children were introduced to the sport while attending boarding schools. Their parents, working at the Puget Mill, were encouraged to play for the company team. In the chapter titled “S’Klallam Baseball,” author, elder and former chairman Ron Charles writes:
“It was not long before the S’Klallams were embracing baseball so enthusiastically that it seemed as if they were the inventors of the game. What was it about baseball that made it the S’Klallam game of choice, and why has it remained so popular still today?
“The answer probably has something to do with the fact that Native Americans had a passion for competitive games long before the white man came to America, and baseball may have seemed to them quite similar to games with which they were already familiar.”
Baseball actually served as a natural extension to the activities that were practiced culturally by the S’Klallams.
“S’Klallam youth naturally gravitated toward outdoor activities, as early in life they began to learn their tribe’s hunting, fishing, and gathering practices, and in doing so, they ran, jumped, swam, and sometimes invented their own competitive games, which served them well when they were old enough to help harvest the subsistence foods that fed their families,” Charles writes. “Years of participating in these physical activities tended to produce fast, strong, and agile athletes with very good hand-eye coordination. All of these skills were quite important to the game of baseball.”
Tribal life has always included strong connections between family and friends. Baseball games provided an outlet for get-togethers.
“Back in the 1940s and ’50s, the players, spouses, and fans looked forward to game day, especially when they played other reservation teams, because the whole day became a social event. Rose Purser recalls those days well: ‘The wives from the home teams would prepare a picnic lunch, and after the guys would finish playing, both sides would get together and eat. I just loved those times when we would get together to catch up on news from relatives and friends.’ ”
Baseball’s popularity in Indian country increased just as fast as it did in the rest of the nation. Some Indian players toured the country and world with their teams. In the 1950s and ’60s, there were even attempts to put together all-Indian baseball leagues, but it was the home teams that brought out the most passionate fans.
“The S’Klallam community was well known for its rabid baseball fans, and on game days they turned out loudly to cheer on their guys. They were experts at ‘getting under the skin’ of opposing players. These fans were greatly pleased when their antics could elicit responses from opposing players, causing them to ‘lose their cool.’
“Even through the toughest of economic times, players could always find ways to collect enough balls, bats, and equipment, and on a bright summer day nothing could be more therapeutic than a baseball game. Baseball was also a good way to take one’s mind off the problems of the day, especially from some of the indignities S’Klallams suffered at the hands of a dominant society not yet prepared to treat Native Americans as equals …
“Baseball, however, was more than just a sport for the S’Klallam community, and when their players performed well on the field, they were not simply showing how talented they were, they were showing pride in using the game of baseball to express S’Klallam cultural values and identity.”
In 2009, the Tribe began recognizing Tribal elders who were part of the baseball team over the years. This is an ongoing tradition. They receive a jacket that identifies them as a member of the Little Boston Baseball Ring of Honor. They wear them with great pride.
“The Strong People” is now available. To order a copy, go to www.pgst.nsn.us/strongpeople.
—Jeromy Sullivan is chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. Contact him at email@example.com.