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How Taffy Abel Made Indigenous Olympic Hockey History

When Taffy Abel marched into the 1924 Olympics carrying the stars and stripes of Team USA’s flag, history was made. He became the first Indigenous hockey player to ever compete at the Winter Olympics.
Abel

When Taffy Abel marched into the 1924 Olympics carrying the stars and stripes of Team USA’s flag, history was being made.

Abel was set to be the star for the United States men’s hockey team, but unbeknownst to many, he was also breaking a barrier. Taffy Abel was about to become the first Indigenous hockey player to ever compete at the Winter Olympics.

Abel’s identity as an Indigenous man would remain hidden to the world until following his playing career, as he feared the severe discrimination and racism Indigenous people faced in the 1920s and 1930s. This discrimination included the potential to not be recognized as an American citizen, which would have disqualified him for the Olympic team. In order to avoid the racist backlash he knew would come, Abel pretended to be white.

“He played and passed as a white man in the Olympics and in the NHL,” explained Abel’s nephew George Jones. “He passed as a white guy, not living his Native American heritage, but because of discrimination at the time againt Native Americans, and because of the residential boarding school system that pulled Indigenous kids right out of their homes, the decision to pass as a white person was made.”

Abel captained Team USA, and was the flag bearer for the United States at those 1924 Olympics in Chamonix, France. At the Games, Abel scored 15 goals in 5 games for the United States who took silver at the Games, falling 6-1 to Canada in the gold medal game.

Following the Olympics, Abel became the first Indigenous man to play in the National Hockey League, a label that has traditionally been given to Fred Sasakamoose. Abel made his NHL debut in 1926 with the New York Rangers, 27-years prior to Sasakamoose, who remains one of the first, and most influential Indigenous players in hockey history. Taffy helped the Rangers win the Stanley Cup in 1927-28, and won another Cup in 1933-34 as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks.

“I’m in the business of winning,” his nephew recalls Taffy saying to anyone who asked about his career. With two Stanley Cups and an Olympic silver medal to his name, Abel was a man of his word.

It wasn’t until after his retirement from professional hockey, and the passing of his mother in 1939 that Abel announced and acknowledged his Indigenous roots as a member of the Chippewa Nation.

“He did it to survive and to support his family,” explained Jones of Abel’s reasoning for concealing his identity to make a living in the NHL. Abel feared that if the hockey world knew he was Indigenous, he would not be welcomed in the NHL. “He was the sole breadwinner for his mother, sister, and himself, so he did it to survive.”

For his nephew George Jones, seeing Abel recognized, and acknowledged as the first Indigenous man to represent the United States in the Winter Olympics, as well as the first Indigenous man to play in the NHL is important.

“Back then, discrimination was rampant against Native Americans. You were looked down upon. Taffy always said to me, keeping his identity secret was his mother and fathers doing, but he went along with it.”

Abel’s mother had been Indigenous, while his father was white.

Taffy Abel passed away in 1964, and nearly a decade later in 1973, was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.

With hockey’s ongoing reckoning with race and racism, Jones believes the time is right for Abel’s story as an Indigenous man in hockey to finally come to light.

“Now is the time. Taffy was always an honest person, and I believe he would say that if this can help educate the American or Canadian public about what Indigenous people had to go through, do it.”

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