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Tom Longboat was a 'light in the darkness for Indigenous people'

Last Updated Jun 12, 2020 at 11:41 am EDT

Long distance runner Tom Longboat. Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada

June is National Indigenous History Month. It is a time for all Canadians — Indigenous, non-Indigenous and newcomers — to reflect upon and learn the history, sacrifices, cultures, contributions, and strength of First Nations, Inuit and Metis people. Throughout the month of June, CityNews will profile Indigenous people, and share their stories and voices, so that we can celebrate the difference they have made in their communities and to our country.


June 4: Today, we celebrate Tom Longboat

 

In 2008, June 4 was declared Tom Longboat Day in Canada. Longboat was an Indigenous long-distance runner, who was born on this day in 1887. Longboat belonged to the Wolf Clan of the Onondaga Nation and was born on Six Nations of the Grand Reserve in Ohsweken, Ont.

At the age of 12, Longboat was placed at Mush Hole Residential School in Brantford, where he was forced to give up his language and his culture. He escaped the former Mohawk Institute Residential School — which has been renovated to preserve it as a historical building — and became a young farm worker. Longboat is said to have developed his running legs while chasing cows.

“Longboat means freedom and sovereignty during a time when racism kept us hidden. He became the light in the darkness for Indigenous people.”

During his running career he became known as the “Streak of Bronze to Wildfire.” In 1907, Longboat stunned the world when he won the Boston Marathon setting a new record. In 1908, at the age of 20, Longboat represented Canada at the Olympic Games. Then in 1909, he earned the title, “Profession Champion of the World,” after winning the world professional marathon championships at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

At the age of 29, Longboat took a leave from his athletic career to join the military. He was a dispatch carrier with the 107th Battalion in France, where he ran messages and orders between units. He was wounded twice during his tours but survived and returned to Canada. Longboat died in 1949 at the age of 62. He was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1955.

“It is our relationship with creation that he was gifted with speed, agility and endurance. Running is a natural part of life.”

Longboat’s Onondagan name is “Cogwagee,” which means everything and too many people — he still is. Cindy Martin, Longboat’s great great niece, and the Six Nations Parks and Recreation, started the Tom Longboat Run in 1999. It takes place at Six Nations — Longboat’s home. The memorial run, which is in its 20th year, is for people of all ages and health levels. Their message is that everyone can strive to be healthy, just like Longboat did.

Longboat’s Onondagan name is “Cogwagee,” which means “everything,” and for many people he still is.

To Martin, “Longboat means freedom and sovereignty during a time when racism kept us hidden. He became the light in the darkness for Indigenous people. His running reminds us of our traditional runners who carry messages to community to community. I think his message was to inspire our people to become athletes and not give up on yourself.”

“It is our relationship with creation that he was gifted with speed, agility and endurance. Running is a natural part of life.”

Click here to learn about Longboat and his legacy and to learn more about what Martin is doing to keep his legacy alive.