The “world’s greatest athlete” was much more than that, and remains an inspiration to the communities he so rigorously advocated for.
Last week, a high school girl’s volleyball team went to the South Dakota Class A state championships for the third year in a row. They lost in the first round, but for a team from a small town on a large reservation, that’s still a big deal.
The Lady Thorpes of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are just one example of how the legacy of their namesake, Jim Thorpe, commonly known as the Greatest Athlete in History, still saturates and empowers Indian country, 61 years after his death.
Despite securing two gold medals in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm—in the pentathlon and decathlon—Thorpe’s life was relatively unremarkable for a Native American man living in what is now Oklahoma before 1924. That is to say before the Indian Citizenship Act, which finally granted him United States citizenship.
Thorpe, of the Sac and Fox and Potawatomi nations, was born in Indian Territory in the spring of 1888—no birth records exist—and attended three Indian boarding schools: Sac and Fox Agency Indian School, Haskell Institute (now Haskell Indian Nations University), and Carlisle Indian Industrial School. His twin brother died of pneumonia when they were nine, his mother during childbirth when he was 11, and his father followed six years later.
A lack of records and verifiable sources make it hard to chart Thorpe’s rise as “sports’ first star” on an accurate timeline. But Thorpe’s first track and field records are from 1907 at Carlisle, where Thorpe was quickly recruited to the football squad by famed coach Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner.
Thorpe’s early football days at Carlisle are besot with achievements. He scored all 18 points in an 18-15 win over top-ranked Harvard, scored a 97-yard touchdown during the Carlisle-Army game in 1912 (a 27-6 Carlisle win), injured future-president Dwight D. Eisenhower during an attempted tackle, scored 25 touchdowns in a single season, and attained All American status in both 1911 and 1912. Thorpe went on to compete and excel in practically every sport he attempted: baseball, basketball, lacrosse, tennis, golf, bowling, swimming, handball, boxing, gymnastics and, yes, ballroom dancing.
The thing about Thorpe, as it is with most people who are “supremely endowed” with athletic ability—Eisenhower’s words in 1961—is that he wasn’t trying to be anything more than what he already was: a country boy from Indian Territory, from Indian schools, who simply and genuinely loved sports.
“I never was content unless I was trying my skill in some game against my fellow playmates or testing my endurance and wits against some member of the animal kingdom,” Thorpe famously said.
This was most evident in 1913 when Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals during a controversial inquiry into his amateur status during the 1912 Olympics. In 1909 and 1910, Thorpe had left Carlisle to play baseball in North Carolina and was paid approximately $2 per game, making him, technically, a professional.
“I hope I will be partly excused,” said Thorpe of the accusations, “by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done.” Those other men had known better than to use their real names on team rosters.
Newspapers at the time (and some still today) readily used the r-word, often describing Thorpe with language more appropriate for animals than humans. For instance, Carlisle was often written to be “scalping” their opponents. Racism like this was common practice. But after the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe’s image was regularly appropriated as a mascot for America’s strength and superiority.
Newspapers of the day readily embraced the image of a physically powerful, but intellectually-wanting Indian, and never hesitated to make a point of Thorpe’s ethnicity: “an unequal conflict between the white man’s brawn and the red man’s cunning,” said the Boston Post of the Carlisle v. Harvard game.
Despite this rampant racism, Thorpe’s athletic career thrived. But athletes’ careers end early in life, and Thorpe’s work after retirement is no less an important part of his legacy. According to Kate Buford, author of Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe, he actively worked in Hollywood to dismantle those stereotypes.
“Once there, because he was so famous, he was not only sought out as a spokesman for Indian causes,” said Buford at “Carlisle Journeys: American Indians in Show Business,” a conference held this past October exploring images of American Indians in mainstream media and entertainment (and originally reported on by Indian Country Today Media Network). “He formed his own casting company to pressure the Hollywood studios to hire real Indians to play Indians in the admittedly stereotypical Westerns of the time. The studios were not fussy: they’d hire Italians, Greeks, Mexicans to play Indians. Thorpe was an important advocate in the 1930s for the Indian stuntmen and women with the studios.”
Thorpe’s work as an athlete, as well as an advocate, make him an unparalleled role model for all people, but especially for young Native American athletes. Thorpe paved the way for athletes like Billy Mills and Sonny Sixkiller in the 60s to prominent figures today like Chris Wondolowski, Sam Bradford, and Shoni and Jude Schimmel.
Still, Native American youth suffer the highest rates of suicide and sexual assault in the country and are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rate as war veterans. Now, perhaps more than ever, they need role models. And thanks to Jim Thorpe, they can count the greatest athlete to ever live as one of them.