‘Playing the White Man’s Games’: Don Marks Talks About His New Book


ICTMN asked, Don Marks, an award-winning, Winnipeg-based journalist and writer about his latest book Playing the White Man’s Games. His first book, They Call Me Chief: Warriors on Ice was a Canadian bestseller and received positive reviews in the Toronto Star, Globe & Mail, Toronto Sun and Montreal Gazette.

The author and sports reporter talked about racism in sports, Ted Nolan and which Native sports figures he would want to write about 50 years from now.

Talk a little bit about how Playing the White Man's Game came about?

This book follows up on the success of They Call Me Chief: Warriors on Ice, which told the stories of Native athletes who overcame significant obstacles to achieve success in the National Hockey League. That book resulted from work on a documentary film through which I had accumulated over 100 hours of videotaped interviews that were condensed into an hour-long production for [Canadian] network television. There was so much fascinating material that had to be left out of the documentary, so I decided to compile the information into They Call Me Chief.

They Call Me Chief was successful because of its easy-going conversational style as the players tell how they overcame obstacles such as the loneliness of Indian Residential Schools, racism, substance abuse, mistrust, treaty restrictions etc,. to achieve success.

Playing the White Man’s Games expands the experience by telling the life stories of Native athletes who excelled in other contemporary sports such as track and field, major college and professional football, major league baseball, pro golf and so on. Again, the players support their blessings of natural athleticism with a strong sense of Native American culture, history, spirituality and identity to overcome significant obstacles and achieve success.

The stories of these men are simply fascinating so the book was immense fun to research and write. The opportunity to interview the athletes (or relatives and friends) was a thrill for me. And, given the amount of racism and stereotyping we experience in society and in the mainstream media, the opportunity to try and provide some balance through these positive stories was welcome and necessary.

Have you always been interested in writing about sports?

Yes, I was employed as a sports anchor/reporter during the 1980s and ‘90s, and I have written about sports for various newspapers and magazines throughout my career. My priority and emphasis has always been on the human stories behind the scenes rather than numbers and statistics. The social, economic, cultural and political factors that come into play make for much more interesting and meaningful coverage. In American terms, I am much more interested in [ESPN’s] “E:60” and “30-by-30” than a sportscast.

How did you choose the athletes featured in your book? Billy Mills, Jim Thorpe and Notah Begay III are well known, but Ed 'Wahoo" McDaniel may be a name many are not familiar with.

Frankly, I chose the athletes who were most widely known so that the book would have as broad an appeal as possible. Fortunately, the notoriety of the athletes stemmed from the enormous success they achieved, so the book contains the most famous and successful indigenous athletes from First Nations throughout Turtle Island.

As for “Wahoo” McDaniel not being as well-known as say, Jim Thorpe or Notah Begay III, I believe this depends on one’s personal experience. Wahoo is certainly well-known to any wrestling fan and achieved quite a great deal of fame for his play in the National Football League. No matter what, his enormous success in both sports, his antics on and off the field or outside the ring, the strong sense of identity and pride in his native heritage that he carried with him at all times and passed on to his son as a single parent, is a compelling and meaningful, fascinating and entertaining, read.

I have made a deliberate attempt at prioritizing the stories of native athletes who have “gone before”, mostly because I do not believe there are any other compilations like this in publication, and there was a need to record these stories in one place for the historical record. An added advantage is that the stories do not become “dated” because most of the major events in the lives of these men are past and will not change.

Then again, I certainly recall hastily rewriting the chapter on NHL Head Coach Ted Nolan which had been heavily focused on Ted being “blacklisted” by the NHL. But then, after more than a decade in limbo, Ted was hired by the New York Islanders on the night before They Call Me Chief was going to print.

And stories like the proper burial site for Jim Thorpe remain in limbo, as does the debate over the use of First Nations people as mascots by sports teams, especially the Washington Redskins fiasco.

You've written about some of the greatest Native Athletes of all time. If you could create a second book like this 50 years from now, who would be in it?

If I were to write a second book 50 years from now, there is no doubt that I would like to profile the enormous success of Carey Price, goaltender for the venerable Montreal Canadiens franchise (and the number one goalie for the hockey-crazed country of Canada in international competition, including the Olympics), and the colorful career of Jordin Tootoo; the first Inuit (“Eskimo”) to play in the NHL who was quite a playboy in Nashville with country and western starlets, but also had to deal with the pressures of his brother’s suicide and substance abuse. Current major league baseball stars such as Joba Chamberlain and Jacoby Ellsbury demand more detail, and I would love to provide more detail about Alwyn Morris holding up an eagle feather at the Olympics and relate this gesture to the moving salutes by black athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith.

The back cover of your book says that some of these athletes are forgotten Americans. Do you feel like this book will help cure that?

I hope that Playing the White Man’s Games will provide the public with information about the many worthwhile causes the athletes in this book are involved with, such as Billy Mills’s Running Strong for American Indian Youth and the Notah Begay III Foundation as well as bringing attention to the achievements and the positive role models offered by these fine people.

I can only go by the experience of my previous book, They Call Me Chief. I was able to maintain contact with many of the athletes featured therein and they told me that the book revived interest in their careers and sparked enormous recognition. The bonus was the fact many of them were invited to provide speeches and inspirational presentations throughout the country (both to CEOs as a “formula for success” and for youth as role models). Hockey schools which were offered by some of the players acquired much more participation and one player had to develop a travelling hockey school to keep up with demand.

Playing the White Man’s Games was released in Winnipeg on October 28 and plans are in place for an American launch/public relations tour in early 2015. The book is available on Amazon.ca and at most Canadian book stores. A review of the book can be found on WinnipegFreePress.com.