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Ox races, horse races, novelty sprints, tug-o-war, catching a greasy pig or climbing a greasy pole fired the competitive spirit of the homesteaders while the Indians concentrated their efforts on pony races and the featured long distance foot race.
It was during such a celebration that a young Saulteaux named Paul Acoose first showed his prowess as a long distance runner. Outstanding as his speed and endurance may have seemed, young Paul was simply following Indian tradition. Running not for the necessity of the hunt or the glory of war, but for the world of professional sport in the White man's arena.
Indian "work running", ceremonial running and inter-tribal competitive running games never ceased to amaze outsiders.
Upon the visit of Ernest Thompson Seton the author to Fort Ellice in 1882, he was astounded to learn that a young Cree runner had arrived with dispatches from Fort Qu'Appelle after running 125 miles non-stop for 25 hours. Yet, a non-plussed shopkeeper matter of factly commented, "Pretty good run."
Ceremonial running was of great symbolic importance to the survival of Indian tribes. On a visit to Taos, New Mexico D.H. Lawrence noted that native runners were "putting forth all their might, all their strength, in a tension that is half anguish, half ecstasy, in the effort to gather into their souls more and more of the creative fire, the creative energy which will carry their tribe through the year, through the vicissitudes of the months ..."
On the plains inter-tribal lacrosse matches with more than one hundred players on each side sometimes lasted for days. Games developed skills needed for success in the hunt, in war and in status-seeking horse raiding parties.
Given the cultural significance of running, it is not surprising that the running feats of Qwewitch and Samuel Acoose, respectively the grandfather and the father of Paul Acoose, have become Saulteaux legends in Saskatchewan.
The Saulteaux, a branch of the Algonkian-speaking
Ojibway, did not reach Saskatchewan until the middle of the 19th century. Their traditional home was the woodlands near the Sault on the north shores of Lakes Huron and Superior. Attracted by the fur trade and the acquisition of arms, the Saulteaux moved west into Minnesota at the end of the 17th century. By the 19th century they had reached buffalo country - the Red River Valley and still later the Qu'Appelle Valley. Quickly they formed alliances with the Algonkian-speaking Crees and the Assiniboines Sioux against the Dakota Sioux and the Blackfoot to the west.
Qwewitch, called "Roll of Thunder" and "Flying Deer", was known more as a great hunter than a warrior. He was a superior athlete. While others hunted on horseback, Qwewitch ran along side the great buffalo letting his arrows fly. Three times he lured buffalo into pounds by posing as one of the herd with a buffalo robe around him. Each time he allowed the lead buffalo to escape, so that its spirit which was linked to the hunter's power, would be protected to ensure future hunting success.
Qwewitch's son, Acoose or Flying Bird, took the name of Samuel and added yet another legend to the Qu'Appelle Valley. In the poem, "Lines in Memory of Edmund Morris", Duncan Campbell Scott wrote: "Think of the death of Acoose, fleet of foot, who, in his prime, a herd of antelope from sunrise, without rest, a hundred miles drove them through rank prairie, loping like a wolf, tired them and slew them, ere the sun went down ..."
In fact, Samuel Acoose spotted a herd of seven elk, and lacking ammunition, he stripped down to breechcloth and moccasins and chased the animals over seventy miles to the end of Crooked Lake. He then ran into the Indian agency building, secured ammunition and killed the tired elk.
Since Qwewitch and his wife lived until the age of 105 and Samuel Acoose until the age of 102, young Paul listened to their tales and learned to love running.
Paul Acoose was born "when the saskatoons bloom sometime before the Riel Rebellion. His mother died at his birth and according to his son, James, he was raised on rabbit soup in the area south of the Qu'Appelle River at the western end of Crooked Lake.
By the time of Paul's birth Indians had been brought under one central administration. Federal government policy amounted to "protection" under the reservation system. "Progression" was deemed assimilation to the dominant White culture. Missionaries and government administrators acted as agents of the culture change process - the first in charge of religion and education, the latter involved in the change from a hunting and gathering economy to one based on agriculture.
Paul was baptized a Roman Catholic at an age when he could remember it. He attended the Qu'Appelle Industrial School where he was tutored in farming methods. Unlike Tom Longboat, the famous Onondaga runner from the Six Nations Reserve who hated residential school in Brantford and refused to give up his longhouse religion, Acoose became a strong Catholic and spoke fondly of the mission school in later years.
It appears that the missionaries and administrators had their share of failures. In 1894 Father Lacombe organized an Indian Congress when Father L. Soulier visited the Qu'Appelle Mission. Father Salamon contrasts speeches by Chief Osoup (O'Shouppe), a successful "conquest", and Chief Piapot, obviously a "non-conquest:"
"O'Shouppe's speech was applauded heartily time and time again by the Catholic Indians and the Metis. O'Shouppe, just as eloquent as Piapot, put more kindess and persuasion into his voice, and one is impressed by the contrast between Christian modesty and the harsh mocking pride of the old adorer of the sun."
This same Osoup family from the Cowessess Reserve adopted an Irish orphan from Father Hugonard and the Sisters In The Convent at Lebret. The baby girl named Madeleine later married Paul Acoose.
Indian Affairs annual reports indicate that the change from nomadic to sedentary life was undesirable to most Indians. Even by 1909, M. Miller, the Indian agent from the Crooked Lake Agency, had to admit that "Sakimay and Little Bones Bands, #74 and 74A, do little farming, prefer roving life, selling hay, wood, seneca root, small furs, fish. Some work out for settlers."
In spite of Paul's conversion to Christianity and farming, he kept his Saulteaux roots. He spoke Saulteaux, Cree and English, was a fine "fancy traditional" dancer and snare drummer and appreciated the stories of his elders. He also spent enough of his youth on the Sakimay reserve running with his relatives to develop into a fine runner. And run he did - over vast stretches of open prairie broken only by valley ravines with their groves of poplar and clumps of willow.
Acoose The Amateur
The amateur code was created by men of high social standing who wanted to compete against class equals. Men who worked for a living were called "professionals" and were excluded from "amateur" competition. Only when a market for organized sport had developed in urban centres, did "professional" come to mean one who earned money in sport.
In the west the immigration policy of the 1890s and 1900s resulted in tremendous growth. In the area of organized sport in Saskatchewan, the Prince Albert Athletic Club was formed as early as 1883, the first baseball game was played on May 31, 1879 at Battleford and the first hockey game was at Moosomin in February 1895. In the early days of organized sport, lacrosse, cricket and soccer were the most popular.
Correspondingly, these developments meant a gradual economic decline on native reserves and less and less native participation on the local, provincial and national sports scene. The shift from the life skill sports in which Indians excelled to organized urban-based sport meant that native athletes would find it almost impossible to compete on an equal footing. In spite of the rapid shift, Paul Acoose and other native runners of his day managed to catch the tail end of the marathon running mania.
Prior to 1908 Paul had taken part in Grenfell sports days winning every event he entered. On Victoria Day in 1908 he entered a five mile race from Summerberry east against runners from all over Saskatchewan and won easily in under 28 minutes.
His next race in Regina on Dominion Day in 1908 pitted him against the best runners in the province and again he won easily finishing the 10 1/2 mile run in 1:04:06. He was over eight minutes ahead of the second man.
After the Regina race Paul became "a celebrity with a small `c' because he was an Indian," according to 89-year-old Maurice Fitzgerald of Grenfell, himself a fine athlete at the time. "But the open-minded always admired Paul. I know I did."
Paul rode home on the "local" and the town welcomed him en masse. They even had a rig decorated to drive him around town and take him home to Sakimay. A number of supporters considered finding ways and means to send him to Hamilton, the hotbed of road racing, in the fall.
Shortly afterwards W.J. Patterson ("Billy Pat") became his manager and also acted as his trainer along with John McLeod. Not so incidentally, this same "Billy Pat" later became the Premier and the Lieutenant-Governor of Saskatchewan.
His next race was at Winnipeg on July 14 where he ran a handicap 3 miler. His competitor, a man named Evans, was given a head start of 2 minutes 50 seconds and was able to hold on for a narrow victory. Acoose recorded an excellent time of 15:58.
By this time Paul was attracting considerable press attention. The Regina Leader Post may have misspelt his name "Akroos" or "Akoos", but a reporter noted that "he is a splendid specimen of Indian and may become as prominent as Tom Longboat."
By 1908 Longboat was known by a sometimes adoring, sometimes vicious press as "The Onondagan Wonder", "The Streak of Bronze", "The Caledonia Cyclone" and "Wildfire." He had won major amateur races in eastern Canada, the prestigious Boston Marathon in 1907 and had quite possibly been doped at the 1908 Olympics in London to prevent his victory and upset the odds.
By September 1908 the sports writers were spelling "Acoose" correctly and one, in particular, was anxious that Acoose and Longboat race each other. "... the meeting of the Grenfell youth and the Onondaga Indian," he wrote, "would undoubtedly attract a record attendance at a running track in Winnipeg. There are some who think Acoose is not in the same class as the man who has won fame in eastern Canada, but those on the inside ... having witnessed Acoose at both the Manitoba Championship meet and the Trades and Labour sports predict a great future for him. Acoose has both the style and pace of a great runner ..."
At the same time, a Vancouver Saturday Sunset reporter, in tune with the era, offered the following racist comments on Acoose after seeing him win the Winnipeg Labour Day Five Mile in 27:34 and 2/5 seconds:
"Like all of his race, Acoose is flat-footed creating at times the impression of a shuffle. His gait is ungainly, but deceptive, as he travels very easily despite an apparent awkwardness. Acoose was scarcely winded after running his five miles at a fair clip and against a strong wind, so that the power of his endurance should not be questioned ... he is a sort of rough and ready runner ... the Indian is blessed with a spirit of absolute calm and dogged determination ... Acoose is rather unkempt and somewhat inclined to indifference, but with a little more polish may develop into a really high class mar ... the Indian is good for almost any distance from 5-25 miles."
A high class man indeed! One wonders what the reporter would have said had Acoose lost in Winnipeg.
It had been quite a year for Paul Acoose. He was the three and five mile road champion of western Canada and the five mile track champion of Saskatchewan. Somehow amidst the running madness of 1908 he found time to marry eighteen-year-old Madeleine Osoup on August 10th, a marriage that was to last for seventy years.
Paul Turns Pro
Paul turned professional in April of 1909 after
promotor F. Nelson Smith of Winnipeg made a visit to Grenfell. The Leader Post reported that "the gentlemen of this town who are looking after this western runner would have liked very much to have kept him an amateur for a year or two still, but as Nelson Smith made them a very good offer in favour of the Indian, they thought it would be fairer to the runner to let him turn pro if he wanted to, as they have not the time nor the means to take him on long trips as an amateur."
Paul's professional debut was against the English runner, Fred Appleby, in a 15 mile race for $500. Training began in earnest for the big race and by the time Paul arrived in Winnipeg for the race, his trainer, S.J. Merrifield confided to a Manitoba Free Press reporter that "Acoose has come on wonderfully in the last two months ... he has run 26 miles and finished strong. He has been exercising morning and afternoon in preparation ..."
The reporter commented after the interview that "Paul has not changed since his last appearance in the city. He only shakes his head and grunts when asked if he is fit ... Mr. Merrifield does the talking for him."
In answer to the reporter Paul let his running talk for itself. The May 17th race ended in a sensational victory for him in a world record time of 1:22:22. The Manitoba Free Press called it "a most auspicious debut."
The defeated Appleby conceded that "it was the fastest race I have run since I broke the world's record against Shrubb and I consider Acoose as a marvellous runner."
A week later in an Appleby rematch, Paul was scandalously defeated by a gambling enthusiast. Acoose was forced to quit when an Appleby supporter threw tacks on the track which pierced his moccasins. Appleby and his thickly soled shoes then romped to victory.
A month later in Winnipeg Paul faced his first legitimate defeat when he was beaten by Fred Meadows of Guelph in a 15 miler. The gambling stakes were high and many lost money on Acoose's defeat.
In September Paul and his manager, McLeod, travelled to the west coast confident of arranging a big race with John D. Marsh and/or Alfie Shrubb, the English runner. However, their plans fell through and Paul agreed to race a two-man relay team for 12 miles at the Royal Victoria Athletic Grounds in Victoria.
In a pre-race interview a reporter from the Victoria Colonist described Paul as "a very quiet athlete and one may spend an hour or more with him and not bring out more than half a dozen words ... he merely said, 'Hmm, you watch me win! Acoose don't like to talk too much!"
Despite the fact that Paul beat "the two palefaces" in 1:03:12 2/5 seconds and that he had done it "without expression, like a cigar store Indian," the Colonist reported that his trip west had been financially unprofitable.
And that was not the worst of it. According to his son James, Paul had gotten terribly seasick on the trips back and forth to Victoria!
Showdown In The East
For almost two years westerners had been anxious for an Acoose-Longboat race. In January 1910 Paul headed east and ran a number of races leading up to a scheduled March 10th race with Longboat. However, just before the race Tom became ill and it was postponed indefinitely.
On March 12th Paul arrived in the Big Apple for a 20 mile race against a top international field - Frank Clarke, Jim Crowley, Thure Johansen, Gustav Ljungstrom, Fred Meadows, Percy Sellen and Fortinato Zanti.
Three days later before a crowd of 3,000 in Madison Square Gardens Ljungstrom set a blistering pace and won in 1:30:58 and 2/5 seconds. Paul was second by 2'/2 laps.
After the race Tom Flanagan, the former manager of Tom Longboat, the future manager of boxer Jack Johnson and soon-to-be "handler" of Paul Acoose, stated in the New York Times that he was "sweet on Acoose." So sweet, in fact, that he picked Paul to win the big Marathon Derby to be run at the Polo Grounds on April 2nd.
Budding nationalism which would soon dominate the Olympic Games was evident at The Derby. "... as last year, the camps of the runners will be situated around the border of the track, each of the nationalities being denoted by flags of the countries represented."
Ljungstrom won again in 2:34:08 and 2/5 seconds and The New York Times noted that "the marathon craze is no longer the popular desire of the lovers of sport ... while there were probably from 8,000 to 10,000 people banked around the bleachers, there were not nearly as many spectators as during the running of the derby a year ago, when even standing room was almost at a premium. The bleachers were well filled, but the grand stand was a desert of empty seats. Here and there were knots of people, but they looked lost."
Paul had not run the race. Despite Flanagan's buildup and $10,000 in prize money at the New York Derby, Paul had returned to Toronto. According to
the Toronto Daily Star, "Acoose would not have been a starter in the New York race ... had he not been waiting in the east and keeping in condition for the "Big Chief" ... Acoose says that he wants to get back to Saskatchewan, and although he is uncommunicative, even for an Indian, and extremely modest, he states that he will take the Longboat scalp to Grenfell when he goes ..."
The race at Riverdale rink on March 30 was billed "The Redskin Running Championship of the World' by zealous promotors and reporters. It turned out to be a rather anti-climatic event with Acoose winning the 12 mile race after Longboat dropped out at the 10th mile.
Shortly after the race Paul announced that he was tired of racing and ready to quit the track for good in the fall. He had had a satisfying trip east. Besides winning a good purse he had also won a gold medal from the Six Nations Reserve.
But the saskatoons were in bloom and it was time to go home.
Paul's Later Life
Paul turned to farming, tended cattle and became an avid gardener. He loved pow wow celebrations and served as a respected band councillor for many years.
He and Madeleine raised nine children, five sons and four daughters and chose the name "Riel" for their eldest son.
Paul ended his professional running career with only $500 in the bank. No one seems to know what became of his many medals and trophies except that some of his professional managers had promised to take care of them. Nevertheless, Paul enjoyed talking about his racing days whenever he was asked about them.
Paul Acoose may have tired of racing in circles on board tracks, but he never tired of running. For a few years after his big professional races, he ran local races occasionally. He ran for as long as he could, and when he could no longer run because of his age, he walked. He never owned a car and rarely liked to ride in one. Until his death in 1978, two years before Madeleine's, he walked miles and miles to visit family and friends. Sometimes on these visits he could be seen carrying a newly harvested bunch of carrots or a sample of new potatoes from his garden. It always gave him great pleasure to claim the first harvest of the season.