American Indian Heritage Month & 20th Century’s Greatest Athlete

November 22, 2012
Originally Published in The Pirate Tree, November 22, 2012

From all of us at The Pirate Tree to all of you, sincere wishes for a healthy and joyous Thanksgiving and holiday season. May we see and celebrate the kindness of others. May we surprise a friend or stranger with “unjustified” kindness. May we celebrate goodness with laughter and applause.

November is American Indian Heritage Month and at The Pirate Tree we begin our celebration with a look at one of the world’s most outstanding and versatile athletes – Jim Thorpe, Sac & Fox (Sauk). Thorpe’s native name is Wa-Tho-Huk, meaning Bright Path, and indeed Thorpe’s courage has blazed new paths for many.

In 1912 the king of Sweden shook Jim Thorpe’s hand at the world’s Olympic Games in Stockholm after Jim Thorpe had captured two gold medals. Some had said it was impossible for a Native American to capture any gold medals – but Jim Thorpe placed first in two of the Olympic’s toughest events, the decathlon and five-event pentathlon. King Gustav V told Thorpe, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”

A year later the American Olympic officials stripped Thorpe of his medals. Thorpe was technically a “professional,” having briefly played for a minor league baseball team for a small amount of pay. However the Olympic rules stated that challenges to an athlete’s eligibility had to be submitted to the Swedish Committee within 30 days. The Swedish Olympic Committee ruled that Thorpe was not disqualified. American officials, angry that an “Indian” could capture such prize medals, appealed to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC overruled the Swedes, stripped Thorpe of his medals, erased his record-setting times and his gold performance.

Some feel that Thorpe never fully recovered from the loss of the medals. As a Native American, Jim Thorpe’s abilities, courage and determination were not celebrated in this country. Not then, and seldom before his death in 1953. In 1982 the IOC partially overturned its decision by reinstating Thorpe as co-champion of the pentathlon and decathlon.

From Chief Meyers, catcher for the NY Giants and Thorpe’s roommate:
“Very late one night Jim came in and woke me up …He was crying, and tears were rolling down his cheeks. ‘You know, Chief, the King of Sweden gave me those trophies. He gave them to me. But they took them away from me. They’re mine, Chief. I won them fair and square.’ It broke his heart and he never really recovered.”

But despite prejudice and discrimination, Thorpe’s “bright path” is an amazing path of courage and determination as well as leadership, generosity and contributions to his community, country and professional sports.

As a professional football player, Jim Thorpe was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. Thorpe is one of only two men in history who played for the NY Giants in two different sports. In football he was the running back and in baseball he was the outfielder. As a college student, Thorpe helped his school, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, defeat the most powerful football teams of the time, including Harvard. Before Dwight Eisenhower became an army general or U.S. president, Eisenhower competed against Thorpe in a historic football match between Carlisle and Army. Carlisle won, 27 – 6, with Thorpe scoring nearly all the points.

Thorpe played for the New York Giants (football AND baseball) but also played professional basketball. In 1920, Thorpe was the first president of the American Professional Football League, which later became the NFL.

In 1950 Jim Thorpe received two monumental honors: he was named “the greatest American football player” and the “greatest overall male athlete” by the Associated Press. Many acclaim Jim Thorpe as the greatest athlete of the 20th Century.

Jim Thorpe’s Bright Path by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by S.D. Nelson (Lee & Low Books, 2004) does a masterful job of showing readers both the tough challenges and the persistent spirit of Jim Thorpe.

Jim Thorpe began his first attempts at school and sports with frustration and failure. This biography shows the hardships experienced by many young Native American students at boarding schools, hardships that included not using their own names, their own language or their own traditional knowledge. Children who are new to this country – or new to a school – will appreciate the tough and often lonely experiences of young Jim Thorpe.

Nancy Bo Flood

As a fish-brain surgeon or a rodeo poem wrangler, I have loved stories. I strongly believe that words – in poetry or prose – help heal our hearts and give us new eyes to see the world. I was first a research psychologist studying brain development at the University of Minnesota and London University before following my passion – writing for children. Learn more...