Football season is upon us and it prompts me to write about my favorite National League Football team. No it’s not the guys in green and gold from the city by the bay. It’s a team from the earliest days of the NFL that–as far as I know–never played a game in Wisconsin, but had several Wisconsin natives on the roster, and that went by the unlikely name of the Oorang Indians.
In the fledgling days of the NFL a dog breeder named Walter Lingo wanted to boost sales of his line of Airedale dogs, known as Oorangs. He concluded that, if a Green Bay, Wisconsin meat packer could sponsor a football team to push pork chops he, a La Rue, Ohio dog breeder, could field a team to peddle puppies. He needed a marketing gimmick and found it in an unlikely place.
The boarding schools established by the federal government to forcibly assimilate Native Americans into the majority, white culture included comprehensive sports programs wherein Indian kids learned to play basketball, football and of course, “the national pastime” of baseball. By the opening years of the 20th century, “institutes” such as Hampton in Virginia and Carlisle in Pennsylvania were turning out “All-American” caliber athletes, most notably 1912 Olympic champion and the “World’s Greatest Athlete,” Jim Thorpe.
Lingo filled his roster with Indian school alumni and hired the aging but still famous Thorpe as player-coach. The Oorang Indians first took to the gridiron for the NFL’s 1922 season. On the roster were three young men from the Ojibwe reservation at Lac du Flambeau–George Vetternack, Alex Bobidosh and Ted St. Germaine. Of the three, St. Germaine was the standout, but not for his ability with a football. Born in 1885, he left Lac du Flambeau to attend the University of Wisconsin, but found the atmosphere more friendly at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where he played football and earned his bachelor’s degree. Then it was on to Howard University and Yale where, in 1914, he acquired a law degree. Even with a degree from Yale, he soon learned that he was more likely to find a job on an Indian college coaching staff than in a white attorney’s office.
He was already thirty-seven years old when he suited up as a lineman for the Oorangs. When he strode onto the field in 1922, Ted St. Germaine became the first and probably the only attorney at law to play for an NFL team and certainly the only Native American lawyer to ever knuckle down on an NFL line.
The Indians were not much of a marketing gimmick and were even less of a football team. They survived two seasons, won three games and lost sixteen. When the 1923 season ended so did the team. The Flambeau men came home to their reservation. Bobidosh became a renowned master of Ojibwe traditional bark craft and, in the 1950s traveled, along with a supply of saplings and birch bark, to Anaheim, California, to build an Ojibwe long house at a new style amusement park called Disneyland.
St. Germaine became a tribal judge and, in 1932, was the first Native American admitted to the bar in Wisconsin. When Franklin Roosevelt initiated legislation to end the assimilation and allotment policies that had, one, taken children away from their parents and forced them into boarding schools and, two, carved up communally-owned reservation land into individual holdings, Congressional hearings were held around the country. The spokesman for the Lac du Flambeau delegation at the Hayward, Wisconsin, hearings, was Ted St. Germaine. He argued for Indian self-government and tribal control of natural resources as stipulated in the treaties of the 19th century. Some of these concepts were incorporated into the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, but the Ojibwe’s treaty rights governing natural resources were not recognized in Wisconsin until the 1980s.
Ted St. Germaine was long gone by then, as were the Oorang Indians, and the well-intentioned but inhumane policy that brought them together.