This article is about Eugene Standingbear’s late teens.
It was the Roaring 20s, and big cities were letting off steam with jazz, flappers, the Charleston, and bathtub gin, while out west in the Dakotas it was honky-tonk, polka, and rodeos. Uncle Sam had been through the first world war, and now he just wanted to have fun.
In the summers, when he wasn’t at school, Eugene was finding fun ways to make a living. In 1922 he started playing drums in a band. With a drum rack welded onto the back of his Model-T touring car, he left the reservation with a six-man crew of Lakota musicians to ride the honky-tonk circuit along the Nebraska border (Chadron to Martin to Sparks…) and badlands towns up north, like Interior and Wall. They played the popular pre-blues, hillbilly, and novelty songs of the 20s.
The leader of the band was Eddy Coutier, a young Lakota who’d lost his right leg in the war. When he stomped four beats with his wooden leg to start a song, the whole stage shook.
Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!
“It ain’t gonna’ rain no more, no more, it ain’t gonna rain no more.
How the heck can I wash my neck if it ain’t gonna rain no more….”
Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!
“Yes, we have no bananas, we have no bananas today.
We’ve string beans, and onions, cabbages, and scallions…”
The band usually sang the second chorus in Lakota. They were a half-dozen, fun-loving musicians on sax, trumpet, guitar, trombone, drums, and piano… and there were plenty of gigs. Farmers, ranchers, cowboys, and their wives and girlfriends filled the large dance halls on the weekends, and the dance floors were crowded.
More refined orchestras came through the area with good string sections, but they didn’t go over as well in the Dakotas as they did back east. People here wanted hot dancing music.
In 1925 the Lakota band started to get some competition from a polka and novelty band that featured a flamboyant, young accordionist.
“Did you get Chadron?” the boys would ask Eddy.
“Naw, that polka band got it, with the guy that pumps accordion.”
The accordionist was Lawrence Welk, who grew up in the Dakotas speaking only German, and in 1924 started playing with some small touring bands (Luke Witkowski, Lincoln Boulds, George Tucker) before starting his own bands and orchestras and eventually getting famous for his own style of “champagne music.” Though corny, polka let the rough crowds laugh and lighten up despite themselves. It probably helped ease the leftover tensions and prejudices against Indians (from the 18th Century) and against Germans (from the first world war).
The best booking each year for Eugene and the band was a gig during Frontier Days at Interior, north of the reservation. It was a full house every night, and it didn’t empty until dawn. Cowboys danced up to the stage to stuff money in the horns and pants pockets of the Lakota musicians. They made rounds with bottles of 200-proof grain alcohol to spike the band’s soft drinks.
Eddy warned his boys, “Don’t drink too much, just enough to stay awake and keep going.”
During Frontier Days, the hotels were all sold out, so the band would bed down in the hayloft above the livery stable. One morning Eugene was awakened by a shouting match between two cowboys downstairs in the stables. A shot was fired, and the lead zinged through the floor of the loft a few feet from Eugene and ricocheted off the timbers overhead. He bolted out the second-story window, fell on a soft, 4-foot pile of manure and straw that had been shoveled out of the stables the previous night, and muttered a familiar Lakota blessing—Thank God for horses!
After playing in the band all night, Eugene would sometimes rustle up a job the next day as a rodeo clown dressed in long, flapping tennis shoes, a red wig, red rubber-ball nose, and baggy overalls held at the armpits by short suspenders. He’d ride a bucking jackass or paw and snort face-go-face with an angry bull that was reluctant to return to the gates after a wild ride.
In the summer of 1922 he clowned at the Martin Fair and Rodeo in South Dakota. One afternoon he scanned the faces in the stands and recognized one of the baritone players as John “Artie” Artichoker, a top athlete from the Winnebago tribe who’d excelled at two top Indian Universities—Haskell and Carlisle, where he’d played football with the famous Jim Thorpe. Artie had a versatility of music and athletics that was common among Plains Indian men and women. Artie had also noticed Eugene’s antics out in the arena throughout the day and was maybe a little impressed by his fitness and agility.
Eugene decided to have some fun with the band. He stood on the dirt track facing the musicians, swinging his arms in exaggerated arcs to mimic a band director. He didn’t realize that a group of runners had lined up behind him for a foot race around the half-mile track… and the crack of the starting gun sent him flying into the stands and sprawling at the feet of the musicians.
Artie Artichoker broke out laughing and shouted, “Hey! Clown! Let’s see you beat those guys!”
Eugene jumped to his feet and gave chase. Despite his flapping shoes, he caught up to the pack halfway through the first turn and began zigzagging in the outside lanes alongside the Lakota runners. Occasionally he jumped three feet in the air like a scared antelope. In the stretch he pulled up alongside the lead runner and matched him stride for stride.
“Hey!” Eugene shouted with just a hint of a pant. “What’re you guys chasin’… rabbits?”
The runners didn’t seem to be enjoying his show. One panted to the others, “Ignore him. He’s a clown; he’ll quit pretty soon.”
Eugene chuckled. “Well, good luck, fellas. I’m goin’ home now.”
As they approached the last turn, Eugene opened up and slowly pulled ahead of the pack. With a 30-yard lead he tumbled to the ground just before the finish line.
The stands of predominantly Lakota spectators went wild and stomped their feet. “Get up, Clown! Get up!”
But Eugene just lay there, motionless, watching the runners approach. Twenty yards. Ten. Five….
Seconds before they reached the line, Eugene flopped his leg over to win the race.
Later that day, Artie Artichoker introduced himself to Eugene, who’d get the surprise of his life later that summer. After the rodeo, Artie sent a letter to Dick Hanley, the new football and track coach at Haskell Indian University, to recommend Eugene for a scholarship. Hanley was a young ex-marine and serious college coach who heeded the advice of his graduates, especially the top athletes. So against all odds (there was a long waiting list to get into Haskell), Eugene received a letter offering him a full scholarship in the fall of 1922.
Haskell Track Star
At the time Eugene enrolled at Haskell, the school was putting out some of the finest athletes in the world. Their nonconference football team, the Fighting Indians from Lawrence, Kansas, toured the country to play against Yale, Harvard, and other college teams from Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, California…. They had an all-American fullback, John Levi, who could throw the ball goalpost to goalpost, and an all-American tackle, Theodore “Tiny” Roebuck, who in one game pushed a California team all the way back from mid-field in three plays to score a touchback for Haskell.
They didn’t host football games at Haskell because the school didn’t have a stadium until 1926, the year Eugene graduated… but that stadium is another great story that ties into Eugene’s life (he was a sort of Native American Forrest Gump), so we’ll look at that at the end of this article.
But at 5’11, Eugene wasn’t invited to Haskell for football. Coach Hanley had him earmarked for decathlon events, especially running the 100-meter dash, 400-meter dash, 1,500-meter run, and relay races.
Track season didn’t come around till spring, so Eugene spent a few months in the fall and winter cheerleading for the football team and playing on the scrub team against the school’s giant football players… and giants they were. Five varsity gridmen were his roommates. Well over 6 feet tall, they ducked to get through the doorways. When friendly gibes turned to scuffles and laughter in the room, Eugene was often caught in the middle and came out with a shiner or swollen lip.
Things weren’t any easier on the field. During one scrimmage he slipped through the offensive line and tackled team captain John Levi. Actually he barely brushed Levi’s shoe, but it was enough to make the big guy stumble and fall. For several plays, Levi kept a hungry eye on Eugene, and Eugene kept out of his way.
When track season started, Eugene found serious competition for the first time in his life. Lawrence White Bird was half Cheyenne, half Lakota, and became Eugene’s best friend and toughest competitor at Haskell. In short runs (50-yard dash or half-mile sprint) White Bird usually won. But in mid-distance speed pick-ups like the 300-yard stride it was Standing Bear who usually broke the string. Other top runners at Haskell in the early 1920s were Winfred Bland (Creek) and Wallace Little Finger (also called “Yellow Horse”… Lakota).
Like Notre Dame, the Haskell track team was nonconference but well-known. Coaches knew they’d get stiff competition from the student athletes from Lawrence, Kansas, so schools from around the country invited Eugene’s team to track meets, and they invariably returned to campus with some first-place awards.
Though Eugene wasn’t part of the varsity football team during his time at Haskell (1922-26), there was one football game in particular that would be life-changing for both the college and for Eugene. It happened in Oklahoma in 1924, it wasn’t part of Haskell’s official schedule that year, but it would forge a deep bond between the school and the wealthy Osage tribe.
Many Native American athletes were big, strong, and quick, making them natural football players. That was especially true of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma, who were known as the biggest people in North America. The Osage were also the richest community on Earth at the time because of oil discovered on their land in 1897. So with lots of money and natural talent, two of the favorite pastimes for Osage men were football and gambling.
In 1922 a football team was formed in the reservation town of Hominy, Oklahoma. The Hominy Indians defeated other teams throughout Oklahoma (Stillwater, Oilton, Avant, Bartlesville, Fairfax…), and teams from Missouri, Kansas, and New York. A lot of heavy betting went on behind the scenes. At one point the team won 28 consecutive games and were dubbed “The Terrors of the Midwest.” The climax came in 1927, when the Hominy Indians defeated the NFL champion New York Giants… to become the unofficial world football champions… but that’s getting ahead of our story.
The game that changed everything for Haskell University happened in 1924, when the Indians were still an up-and-coming team. Hominy was scheduled to play against the town of Fairfax. Fairfax was situated at the edge of the reservation… but at the very center of the darkest controversy in Osage history. White interlopers were moving into and around Fairfax, causing murder and mayhem, literally… doing whatever it took to grab some of the tribe’s vast oil wealth.
Leading up to the football game, they placed massive bets against Hominy and secretly hired a crew of professional football players from Kansas City to play for Fairfax. The intent was to make a quick windfall. Well, secrets never survive on the “Indian grapevine,” so the rumor about Fairfax recruiting pros spread quickly. When word reached Haskell University, the football team persuaded the coaches that something had to be done. They reached a spontaneous decision to travel to Hominy and play with the Indians to even the playing field.
The result was a big win for the Hominy Indians, for the Osage people, and especially for Haskell University. The Osage were so appreciative that they donated $250,000 for a new stadium at Haskell, with the condition that the students themselves would do much of the heavy lifting to avoid cost overruns.
So Eugene was graduating from Haskell at a crazy-wonderful time; 1926 would be the banner year for Haskell athletics:
- Haskell’s majestic 10,500-seat stadium was completed that summer.
- Homecoming day on October 3, shortly after Eugene’s graduation, attracted 125,000 fans and was preceded by a five-day powwow, including 4,000 Native Americans dressed in traditional clothes and a vast community of tipis covering 20 city blocks south of the campus.
- In the Homecoming football game, Haskell beat highly skilled Bucknell Institute 36-0.
- The team went on to have a record year, playing against top college teams from coast to coast… winning 12 games with no losses and one tie (12-0-1).
The new love affair between Haskell University and the Osage tribe was also life-changing for Eugene Standing Bear. On graduation day, the charismatic Lakota track star was invited to Oklahoma to marry the daughter of Fred Lookout, the principal Chief of the Osage tribe… and Eugene would enter a life of black-tie-and-tuxedo parties, golf tournaments, and presidential inaugurations in Washington DC.
(Read more about that… )