Editor's Note: With the beginning of the 2012 Olympics in London, the National Museum of the American Indian released the following article on its blog. An exhibit with these athletes is on display now.
Molly Stephey in Entertainment. Discussion »
WASHINGTON Even the most casual sports observer has heard of Jim Thorpe. The Sac and Fox athlete who swept the Pentathlon and Decathlon at the 1912 Olympics earned awards, accolades, and die-hard fans in nearly every major sport in the early 20th century: baseball, football, basketball, track and field. But he wasn't the only American Indian athlete who sealed his reputation at the Stockholm games.
Thorpe was joined by three Indian brethren from the US whose influence, even 100 years later, continues to reverberate throughout in Indian Country and beyond: Hopi runner Louis Tewanima, Native Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, and Penobscot runner Andrew Sockalexis.
Lewis Tewanima - Hopi, 1889?-1969, after winning a marathon
in New York City, May 6, 1911.
Like Thorpe, Tewanima entered competitive sports by way of the Carlisle Indian School in rural Pennsylvania- 2,000 miles from his birthplace on the remote Hopi mesas of Arizona. In 1907, he was ordered by federal authorities to attend the government-run school after a long dispute with the tribe over the education of its children. Tewanima arrived at the Carlisle's doorstep "virtually a prisoner of war," the school's superintendent Moses Friedman later put it.
At 110 pounds, the twenty-something's scrawny physique belied his natural athleticism. According to legend, Tewanima learned enough English to tell the school's famed coach, Glenn "Pop" Warner, "Me run fast good. " After clocking his times, Warner needed no further convincing. Just a year later and with minimal training, Tewanima found himself competing at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London alongside fellow Carlisle Indian School teammate Frank Mt. Pleasant (Tuscarora). Competing against the world's most rigorously trained runners, Tewanima placed 9th in the marathon with a time of 3:09:15. The performance of the virtually unknown athlete caught the eye of President Theodore Roosevelt, who reportedly remarked at a reception for the team, "This is one of the originals."
When the 1912 Olympics rolled around, Tewanima returned with yet another Carlisle teammate, Jim Thorpe. Neither was required to compete in qualifying trials, such was the confidence in their abilities. Tewanima won the silver medal in the 10,000 meters with a time of 32:06.5 - a US record that stood for more than 50 years until Oglala Lakota runner Billy Mills broke it to win the gold medal during the 1964 Games.
Tewanima, Thorpe, and Warner enjoyed a hero's welcome upon their return to rural Pennsylvania. Thousands of fans lined the streets to watch the now world-famous athletes parade through town, followed by a speech from the Carlisle superintendent that was as critical of Tewanima's culture as it was complimentary of his athletic achievements:
"His people, the Hopi Tribe of Arizona, had been giving the Government much trouble and were opposed to progress and education. It was finally decided to send twelve of the head men and most influential of the tribe to Carlisle to be educated in order to win them over to American ideas,"
"Louis Tewanima here is the twelfth of that party. He is one of the most popular students at the school. You all know of his athletic powers - I wanted you to know of his advancement in civilization and as a man."
What Friedman didn't realize (or perhaps preferred not to acknowledge) is that Tewanima's athletic prowess was a direct result of his Hopi upbringing. Born in the late 1880s, Tewanima spent his childhood carrying on the ancient Hopi tradition of running as a spiritual act. For the tribe, long-distance running is a physical form of prayer believed to produce rain for their parched lands, good fortune for their people, and a connection to their ancestors. Hopi foot races were legendary for the endurance they demonstrated, not the least because most runners ran barefoot, despite the region's rocky, cactus-strewn landscape.
Molly Stephey is a Public Affairs Producer for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
photo credit Library of Congress, Marquette University Libraries
posted July 28, 2012 9:30 am edt
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