Forty-eight stars and 13 stripes swayed as Clarence “Taffy” Abel, an ice hockey player from Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, walked the streets of Chamonix, France, holding the American flag at the first-ever Winter Olympic Games in 1924. Abel was the first Indigenous athlete to medal at the Winter Olympics. His heritage was a secret to most. Abel passed for white.
Nearly a century later, Abby Roque, 24, made her Olympic debut at the 2022 Beijing Games as part of the U.S. women’s ice hockey team. Roque, a Wahnapitae First Nation member, is the first Indigenous player on Team USA’s women’s hockey roster and the team’s only BIPOC player.
“I never processed how few Indigenous players are actually playing hockey around the world,” Roque told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan. “Back home, there were so many Indigenous players around, and now I’m sitting here as the only player and first player on the U.S. women’s team that’s Indigenous. It’s a cool moment and something I’m so proud of, but something I obviously want to help change. I want to see more Indigenous players playing the game and making these teams. It’s really eye-opening.”
Roque’s father, Jim Roque, now a scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs, previously played and coached in Clarence “Taffy” Abel Arena at Lake Superior State. Abel’s legacy is woven into the fabric of her Olympic journey.
According to Abel’s 73-year-old nephew by marriage, George Jones, even before the Games, it was in the family’s best interest to keep their Indigenous side a secret and racially “pass” or identify as white.
“Once you went into passing, you had to play the part, or you would be caught,” Jones said.
Growing up in Sault Ste Marie, a city located on the St. Mary’s River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Abel and his younger sister, Gertrude, were fully aware of their Indigenous heritage. His mother, Charlotte, was a member of the Chippewa Indian Sault First Nation. (The Chippewa peoples are now known as Ojibwe.) His white father, John Abel, relocated from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Michigan in the early 1900s. But outside of their close-knit community, their Indigenous identities remained obscured.
“As you might imagine, in the context of assimilation — in which Native people were literally educated to be ashamed of their Native identities — mixed race children who looked ‘white’ may have found it easier to let themselves be identified as ‘white,’ ‘assimilated,’ ‘civilized’ than to assert a Native identity,” said Philip Deloria, a professor of history at Harvard University. He specializes in Native American, Western American and environmental history.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, hundreds of federally funded boarding schools were built near reservations across America. The schools were designed to force assimilation upon Native American children.
“Taffy and his sister didn’t want to be taken out of their home by people from a residential [assimilation] boarding school and [have them] try to beat the Indian out of them,” said Jones. “It was a big fear.”
Abel and his sister went on to attend local public schools.
Hiding his identity was daunting, but Abel found some solace in hockey.
According to Jones, Abel was mentally and physically aggressive on the ice. The 6-foot-1 Abel thrived in the rink. After high school, he began playing amateur hockey, traveling around the country to compete.
“The word got out among people that were trying to put together the first-ever winter hockey team,” Jones said. “And that Taffy Abel was on the top of everybody’s list.”
Ahead of the 1924 Winter Games, the Olympic committee sent Abel a telegram asking him to report to Boston, where a ship would take him and other athletes to France. Eager to play on the world’s stage, Abel agreed. He later declined, citing lack of funds as the reason. As the head of the household after his father’s passing in 1920, Abel’s money supported his family. But those who believed in his talent rallied to raise the money. Abel collected just enough to take the train from Sault Ste Marie to Boston. By January 1924, Abel’s passport was approved. He and other Team USA athletes traveled from the United States to Chamonix, France.
“If you look at that iconic photo, if he would’ve self-identified as Native American, he would’ve never been holding that flag,” Jones said. “I can just guarantee you that.”
The United States men’s hockey team took the silver medal after losing 6-1 to Canada in the finals. Abel continued his hockey career in the States. He made his NHL debut as a defenseman during the New York Rangers inaugural season in 1926, where they won the divisional title and Stanley Cup during Abel’s second season in 1928. Abel also went on to play for the Chicago Blackhawks, the team brought home the Stanley Cup during the 1933-34 season. Abel retired from professional hockey shortly after.
He continued to pass as a white man throughout his career.
But after Abel’s retirement in 1934 and his mother’s death in 1939, he still seemingly toiled with his identity. According to Jones, everyone knew “passing” was the right thing to do at the time, but Jones believes Abel struggled internally with the decision.
“We know that it was a matter of survival back in that era, especially early on,” Jones said. “Uncle Taffy had to make a living for himself, his sister, and his mother after his father passed away in 1920. Taffy was 20 at that time.
“My uncle Taffy was sad. I know he was sad, and my aunt Tracy [Abel’s wife] said he turned to drinking. (Tracy Abel is deceased. The couple did not have children.) Any time that I hear that it means that he had some internal torment. Just because of the color of your skin, you had to make a radical change in your life and in your network of family and friends to do that. I think there was a lot of torment there.”
Abel formed an amateur hockey team he called the Soo Indians to honor his mother and their heritage after she died. He also served as their coach. It was a way to give back and claim the part of him that was denied for decades.
In 1964, Abel suffered a heart attack and passed away. Decades after his death, his family continues to advocate for his story to be heard.
“I think it’s important to educate, in a way, what did happen and why it happened,” Jones said.
“[Uncle Taffy] led an iconic and historic life.”