The Two Worlds of John Orien Crow

Jan 28, 2019

Recently we’ve acquired quite a bit of material from the 1950s through 1970s related to national parks, thanks to the work of Valerie Naylor, former superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. She has been travelling the country acquiring material for us from all of the national parks that Roosevelt had a hand in creating.

The struggle with cataloging more recent documents is that it is sometimes hard to track down information about the creators due to privacy and copyright laws, or the fact that many of the people in these national park related documents are still living. Recently I was determining copyright restrictions for a letter written by a man named John Orien Crow. In the context of the letter I was working on from 1972, Crow was writing as the Commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, no small feat. Yet, as I looked further, I discovered that his accomplishments ran deeper than his decades of government service. It turns out Crow has a place in football history. While this strays from TR history just a bit, I thought with the Superbowl coming up it was an interesting story to share.

Crow was born in Missouri in 1912, the youngest of eight children, but grew up in Oklahoma. He got his start as a linebacker for the Haskell Indian School team in Lawrence, Kansas. Indian schools like Haskell, or Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, were popular places from which to recruit athletes, especially following the success of Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Olympics. Competitive football between the two schools went even further back. The advertisement to the left below is for the first-ever game between Carlisle and Haskell at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, and features President Roosevelt, who opened the fair. Competitions were held to coincide with the 1904 Olympics, although this game was equally playing off of fairgoers' curiosity about the "heathen primitive other" they had seen displayed in exhibits at the fair, and constituted a marketing ploy to showcase the progress of Indian education in America. Carlisle demolished Haskell 38 to 4, although Haskell remained a strong football school for decades to come. The article to the right, from the Pittsburgh Press on November 19, 1929, lists our BIA Commissioner John Orien Crow, or "Young Bison," as a player for Haskell as a 17-year-old.


In 1933, Boston businessman George Marshall and partners bought the Boston Braves football team and renamed it the Boston Redskins to avoid confusion with the baseball team. The coach, a German and Sioux man named William “Lone-Star” Dietz, and three of the players, were of Native American descent. Crow and teammates “Chief” Larry Johnson and Louis “Rabbit” Weller were often made to dress in costume or wear war paint to play up the connection.

Boston Redskins team photo, 1933-1934 season. John Orien Crow is pictured in the top row, second from the left. 

Crow only played with the team for one season and did not move with them to Washington, D.C. This short period of integrated games is often forgotten in sports history, as is the fact that actual Native Americans played for the team. During a 1961 interview about forcing George Marshall to integrate the Washington Redskins, President John F. Kennedy told reporters, “My Indian Commissioner, John Crow, played football–he is a Cherokee–for George Marshall 30 years ago. Apparently Mr. Marshall pioneered earlier in getting Indians into the game, and all we want him to do is just open his mind a little bit further.” While progress had been made in the 1930s to integrate the game (albeit by having to play a character), by the 1960s that history had been forgotten.

Weller and Crow both spent their careers with the Bureau of Indian Affairs after playing football. Crow actually began with the Bureau of Indian affairs (or Office of Indian Affairs as it was known at the time) before his football career, working briefly as a clerk for the Fort Trotten Indian Agency in North Dakota in 1933. He returned to work immediately after playing for the Redskins, and by 1943 was the Superintendent of the Valentine, Arizona, station. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s he worked in management for not just the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but also the Bureau of Land Management, with stations in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. When President Kennedy moved Crow up to the position of Commissioner in 1961, he made history as the first person of American Indian descent to hold the office since 1871 when Ely S. Parker had the appointment. 

In 1964 he was given a career service award from the Department of the Interior, which cited work he had done giving control of land back to the Ute people and distributing assets among the tribe, previously governed by federal oversight. Yet not everyone was happy with Crow’s work. Many youth protestors thought Crow, a Conservative, stifled Indian progress, calling him, “one quarter Cherokee, three-quarters bureaucrat.” Amid protests and demonstrations during the civil rights movement, Crow was asked to resign in 1973.

Sadly, while I was able to piece together Crow's story through a variety of records, there is little information available about him, considering his significance in Native American history. His Wikipedia page is less than a paragraph long and only speaks of his football career, not mentioning his other accomplishments. I am constantly reminded working at this job that everyone has a story. The only question is whether there is a paper (or digital) trail left behind to confirm it.

Posted by Karen Sieber on Jan 28, 2019 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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