Vanishing and Visible Indians: The Redwood Highway Indian Marathon of 1927

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM
Salon 10 (Palmer House Hilton)
Tara Keegan, University of Oregon
In 1927, the Redwood Empire Association, a tourist agency in Northern California, staged a 480-mile footrace to promote the new Redwood Highway along California’s northwest coast. By inviting only “members of the Indian race” to enter, these California boosters represented the region by exploiting the image of the California Indian rather than the more common environmental imagery of tall trees and a rocky, wild coastline. Though this type of endurance event was a highly modern sporting spectacle, longer and more extreme than any previous American footrace, it showcased a skill that had long been crucial in indigenous traditions throughout the continent. Standing at the intersection of Native tradition and American modernity, the race provided visibility for Native people in the face of persistent myths of inevitable Indian extinction. This paper explores the ambivalent press coverage of the race that simultaneously celebrated gritty athletic accomplishment and continued to reinforced destructive Indian stereotypes. It also considers the memories and opinions of the race’s winner, a Karuk Indian named Johnny Southard, who sponsors nicknamed “Mad Bull” in an effort to authenticate his Indian heritage. Journalists didn’t consult Southard as they constructed his image for adoring fans, or even as they attributed quotes to him. I argue that despite the fervid and genuine interest in the marathon and even the individual racers, fans’ and readers’ loyalty was ultimately directed towards the region free from Native presence, not their adopted living Native mascots. Even so, the race offered a platform for Native people to assert a modern Native identity, a pairing usually deemed oxymoronic. Early-twentieth sports fans and modern scholars alike have talked much about the disappearance of Indian people in California; this paper is a story of Native survival and agency within a settler colonial structure that sought to exclude them.
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