Michigan Olympian Taffy Abel hid his Native American identity to stay safe
Taffy Abel had spent his whole life passing as White. With light-colored skin and brown eyes, it wasn’t hard for him to disguise his identity. So when he became the first Native American to play in the Winter Olympics, on the U.S. hockey team in 1924, he didn’t tell anyone he was a Chippewa.
Abel started hiding his Native American heritage as a kid growing up in the northern Michigan town of Sault Ste. Marie, because he and his family were afraid that he would be taken from his home and sent to one of the boarding schools in the region for Native American children. At these schools, children were forced to stop speaking their native languages and practicing their culture and traditions.
“There was a great fear that Indian kids would be grabbed out of their houses and sent to a boarding school,” said George Jones, Abel’s nephew. “It was a traumatic time for Indians.”
Jones added, “He went through a lot, and it must have taken courage to give up your heritage, but he did it to survive.”
Aaron Payment is chairman of Abel’s tribe, the Sault Ste. Marie Band of Chippewa Indians in northern Michigan, which has about 49,000 enrolled members and also goes by the Native name Anishinaabe. Payment said many of the tribe’s children were taken to one of the Indian boarding schools between the late 1800s and the 1940s.
“It was a horrible, horrible experience for our people,” said Payment, a distant cousin of Abel.
In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Payment said, Native Americans were “welcomed in certain circles but not in others, and hockey was a way to cut through that. It allowed for our people to be able to cross that imaginary line and be accepted. Taffy was proud of his Indian heritage but couldn’t say it aloud.”
Many Native Americans, he said, “didn’t self-identify” with their native heritage because “they didn’t want their kids to get picked on and get chastised.”
Known by the nickname he got as a kid because of his love for taffy, Clarence Abel was born on May 28, 1900, in Sault Ste. Marie and grew up near the tribe’s reservation lands. His mother, Charlotte Gurnoe, was part of the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa band, known commonly as the Soo. She, Abel and her daughter were listed as Chippewas on the 1908 “Durant Roll,” a basic census count of Native Americans named for an agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to tribal historians.
Payment said Gurnoe probably spoke the tribe’s native language and told Abel not to speak it at school.
“It’s a really sad story in America,” Payment said. “We drummed the spirit right out of Indian people.”
Having avoided being sent to an Indian boarding school, Abel attended the public high school. He often played hockey in a makeshift rink in his backyard, his nephew said. When his father, a traveling lumber salesman, died in 1920, Abel became the sole breadwinner for his mother, who was a homemaker, and his sister. He took jobs sweeping the snow off local ice rinks and eventually started playing amateur hockey, where he was paid “under the table,” according to his nephew.
When he was recruited for the U.S. Olympic hockey team, he didn’t have the money to travel to France, so a friend paid his way. His teammates elected him as captain, and he was chosen to carry the U.S. flag during a procession before the games. The team won a silver medal.
After the Olympics, Abel played eight years in the National Hockey League, helping the New York Rangers and the Chicago Black Hawks win the Stanley Cup.
At 6 foot 1 and roughly 225 pounds, Abel was “skilled as a player” and “one of the heaviest body checkers of his day,” said Dave Stubbs, a longtime columnist and historian for the NHL. Still in its infancy in the 1920s when Taffy joined, Stubbs said, the NHL was a “very, very competitive” work environment for players. There was no players’ union, so if the general manager or coach “didn’t like the look on your face, you could be sent back to the minors.”
“The players didn’t want to stand out,” Stubbs said. “They wanted to be a part of the team, and you didn’t want to have an asterisk next to your name for being different. So there would have been no advantage for Taffy to stand from a rooftop and say he was native.”
Because of his appearance, Abel was able to blend in. “He wasn’t like Willie O’Ree or Jackie Robinson, who would have been judged by the color of their skin,” Stubbs said, referring to the first Black players in professional hockey and baseball, respectively. “Taffy would have been judged by his production on the ice.”
Abel was known for his “carcass-rattling” style of play on the ice, said his nephew Jones, and earned the nickname “Michigan Mountain.” A league official once threatened to throw him out of the sport for his “ruffianism,” according to Jones.
He retired from professional hockey after his 1934 season. After his mom’s death five years later, he publicly announced his native heritage, Jones said. Some historians consider him one of the first Native Americans to play in the NHL; the league does not keep demographic records from its early years.
“One of the reasons Taffy hasn’t been officially recognized as the NHL’s first Indian players is because he didn’t bill himself as Indian,” said Jim Adams, a senior historian at the National Museum of the American Indian in D.C. “There’s a solid reason for that. He would have probably been sent when he was younger to a boarding school, and these were not nice places.”
To honor his heritage and his mother, Abel formed an amateur hockey league in Michigan and named the team the Soo. He died of a heart attack in 1964 at the age of 64. He was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973, and into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in 1989.
Philip J. Deloria, a Harvard historian who is of Dakota descent, said Abel is representative of what many Native Americans went through in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“The sense of shame of being native is instilled in them,” he said. “Don’t speak your language; speak English. Comb and cut your hair. Don’t practice your culture. It’s a powerful thing that pushes some Indian people to present themselves as White if they possibly can.”
He added, “There are generations of people who have had to navigate the politics of Indianness.”
Abel competed in the Winter Olympics not long after Jim Thorpe had become the first Native American to win gold medals in the Summer Olympics in 1912. But they were from different backgrounds. Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, never hid his native heritage and attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where he became a football star.
“There was some room for Jim Thorpe to integrate — his exceptional talents meshed with a White desire for Indian ‘primitive’ authenticity,” Deloria said. “But if there had been 40 Jim Thorpes, that would have been too many Indians for the sporting audience.”
There are several Indigenous athletes in this year’s Winter Olympics, including Abby Roque, an Ojibway from Wahnapitae First Nation who grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, the city where Abel was born and raised.
Payment said he thinks Abel, like many Native American athletes, has been overlooked for his accomplishments. “We’re the last people the public thinks about because we’re a small part of the population,” he said. “It takes time for people to catch up, but I think our time is coming.”