Known in his native Onondaga as Cogwagee, the man from Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in Southern Ontario took the running world by storm in the early 1900s, winning the Boston Marathon in 1907 and holding the world’s professional marathon championship title in 1908 and 1909.
Since his death in 1949, Longboat has been memorialized through athletic awards, statues, stamps, movies, books, and, since 2010, an official provincial day every June 4th.
Recent news and sports articles laud him as well. They typically tell the story of a man who reached the top of his sport in an unabashedly racist environment where few Indigenous athletes were able to rise. A 2017 article on cbc.ca, for instance, declared him “ahead of his time” a notion prevalent among most people familiar with his story today.
This representation, though, is untrue, and despite good intentions obscures and deadens Longboat’s legacy as much as honours it. Longboat was definitively of his time, not ahead of it. Having fled residential school as a child, withstood bigoted press coverage throughout his career, and resisted attempts by white managers to control him, he certainly overcame fearsome obstacles on his road to success. But he was far from the only Indigenous Canadian runner of his era to do so.
Newspapers of the time frequently mention others. William Davis of Six Nations placed a “world class” second in the 1901 Boston race, years before Longboat’s victory. Ojibway Fred Simpson was sixth in the 1908 Olympic marathon, which Longboat failed to finish, and Paul Acoose of Saulteaux First Nation in Saskatchewan beat Longboat in 1910 at an event billed “The Redskin Running Championship of the World.” Meanwhile, Albert Smoke, another Ojibway, raced throughout North America in the 1910s before competing at the 1920 Olympics and placing third in Boston.
These and many others were heroes in their time, but today Longboat is depicted as the lone star in an otherwise dark history, thus consigning his contemporaries to obscurity and hiding the fact that far more elite Indigenous runners were competing in Canada in the early 1900s than today. (Cont in comments)