Native Americans Jim Thorpe and Louis Tewanima: 1912 Olympic Champions
Thorpe and Tewanima
At the 1912 Summer Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, two Native Americans became world-famous with stunning victories in track and field events by taking first and second places.
Jim Thorpe and Louis Tewanima took the world by surprise and brought home the gold and silver.
Thorpe took the gold medals in nine of the fifteen games. He was the first and only competitor to ever win both the Decathlon and the Pentathlon. Tewanima came up right behind him capturing the silver in the 10,000 meters race. They also captured the hearts of not only America but the world.
Both Thorpe and Tewanima had been torn unwillingly from their homes and forced to learn a way of life they knew nothing about. They went through their young lives facing struggles, sorrow, and loss of families and home. They faced discrimination—but came out on top of the world, together. Rather than succumb to depression and defeat as young boys, they stood tall and learned to survive to become heroes and legends in their own right.
On May 21, 2001, the Sac and Fox Nation of Stroud, Oklahoma, had a Jim Thorpe Honor Day, to celebrate Jim Thorpe as the Athlete of the Century.
James Francis Thorpe was born in May 1888 near Prague, Oklahoma. His father, Hiram Thorpe, was a farmer, and his mother, Mary James, was a descendant of Chief Black Hawk. Black Hawk was a strong warrior and athlete and the last great chief of the Sauk and Fox Nation. At birth, Jim was given the name, Wa-Tho-Huk, which means "Bright Path." The name was a clear indication of his future.
Jim was enrolled in Carlisle Industrial Indian School in 1904 where he excelled in sports. At Carlisle, he trained in football and track. In 1908 he was selected as an "All-American" in a third-team and made his first team in 1909. "Pop" Warner, football legend, coached Jim and saw in him a phenomenal athlete with a great future career. Just eight years later, Jim was on his way to the 1912 Olympic Games as a hopeful contender.
Thorpe had won the all-round championship for the USA in the Pentathlon and the Decathlon at the Olympic games in Stockholm, Sweden. Coming in at second place was another Native American, Louis Tewanima, of the Hopi Tribe, a sure and fleet-footed runner. Included in the article was a beaming commendation for the Native Americans:
"The Indian race of this country came prominently to the forefront in athletic prowess at the Olympic games, which were held during the month of July in Stockholm, Sweden. While the United States was victorious in track events, she cannot be unmindful of the part which the aboriginal Americans took in helping to swell the victory."
In The Red Man, a publication of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, an article was written in September of 1912. In the article, it was mentioned that King Gustav of Sweden crowned Jim Thorpe with the laurel wreath of victory and as he did, he said,
"You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world."
Thorpe had easily made one of the biggest and most impressive wins in sporting history, outdoing his competitors by fantastic and huge margins, coming in first in nine of the fifteen track and field events. Jim set world records in both events. Letters of congratulations were sent to Jim and Louis by then President of the USA, William Howard Taft, and also from the Secretary of the Interior, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and many others who were so proud of our athletes.
When Thorpe and Tewanima returned home they were given a fantastic reception by the citizens of Carlisle. There was a parade in their honor where they were welcomed by their fellow students, a public meeting was held with addresses delivered by prominent people of Carlisle, athletic games, a huge dinner given by the Elks Club, fireworks at the school and another reception at the school's gymnasium where about one thousand people came to see the Athlete of the Century.
Olympics Committee Took Away Thorpe's Medal
The praise, dedications, fame, glory, and memories would last for all time, but the gold medals Thorpe won would not. The Olympics Committee had found out that Thorpe had been paid for the baseball games he had played in. The committee saw that being paid as a professional athlete disqualified Thorpe from the amateur status in the Olympic games. Therefore, the committee decided to take his gold medals away from him.
Citing the rules so strongly, yet neglecting to provide Thorpe with the 30-day time period to dispute the decision, the Committee erroneously wronged one of our greatest athletes ever.
Thorpe's Love for Sports Remained
Jim Thorpe lost his medals, but not his love for sports. He went on to play baseball for the New York Giants, where he was an outfielder for three seasons. He then relocated and played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1917. He returned to the Giants after 77 games with the Reds and in 1919 played his final season in baseball.
Throughout his baseball years, Jim also played in professional football. He was with the Ohio Bulldogs from 1915 until 1920 and the Cleveland Indiana Indians in 1921. After 1921 Jim organized, coached and played with the Oorang Indians, a professional football team of Native Americans.
Jim was very influential and played an important part in organizing the American Professional Football Association, which he was elected President of. Eventually, this association evolved into what is now known as the NFL. Jim ended his football career in 1929 after playing on the Chicago Cardinals for a short time.
The Olympic Gold Medals were gone, but, it was love for the sport and the opportunity to compete and make his homeland proud that Jim cherished and played for.
U.S. Olympic Medals in 1912
The USA team brought home a total of 63 medals in 1912.
- Gold: 25
- Silver: 19
- Bronze: 19
Jim was named the "Most outstanding athlete of the first half of the 20th century" by the nation's press in 1950, and ABC's Wide World of Sports named him the "Athlete of the Century" every year from 1996 through 2001.
Jim Thorpe left a great legacy and inspiration for all young and hopeful athletes. There is a Jim Thorpe Award and "Watch List" for college football and it is one of the most sought after and prestigious awards for young athletes to strive for.
Jim lives in the hearts and memories of his loving family and dedicated fans. In 2008, Jim was featured in the Olympic Games, a fitting memory for one of our greatest!
Jim Thorpe died in March 1953. Almost thirty years after his passing and thanks to the efforts of his loving family who did not give up, Jim's medals were posthumously restored to him and his name was put back into the Olympian records. This was a long overdue and much-deserved honor.
Louis Tewanima: Hopi Long-Distance Runner
Louis Tewanima was a member of the Hopi Tribe of the Second Mesa in northeastern Arizona. He was born in 1888, the year of the great blizzards in America. Tewanima was a track team member of the Carlisle Industrial Indian School. One of his teammates was Jim Thorpe.
Tewanima is a legend to the Hopi people. He was a runner in the honored Hopi tradition, which originally was centered on spiritual and ceremonial reasons, as in the Basket and Snake dances. Being able to run was also extremely important in times of warfare in the early days. Hopi runners were used to running to and from the enemy country to spy and retrieve items of personal use for their ceremonial fires, to weaken the enemy.
The role of running in Hopi history and culture was, in the beginning, imperative to their lifestyle and survival. The practical side of this was being able to run down the animals they needed to kill for food and to search for other foods far from home. The Hopi were and still are known for being able to run great distances at high speeds. They had no cattle, horses or burros so had to rely on their own fast and fleet footed runners.
Running was also a source of entertainment and competition between neighboring villages. This was a way to prove their strength and fortitude. The Hopi believe that running is good for the body and mind and rejuvenates energy. Being farmers, their gardens were not always close to the villages so families sent their runners out to gather the produce and get it back in time for meals.
In 1680, the Puebloans faced a threat to their way of life and their survival when the Spaniards invaded their lands. The Hopi sent runners with messages to other pueblos to warn the people and to prepare for attacks which saved their lives and their homes. Running, and being able to run great distances at sustained and fast speeds had become an extremely important asset to the safety and survival of the Hopi.
Hopi Tradition Created Olympic Champion
In the early part of the twentieth century, the running became more focused on physical fitness and sports. Out of this culture and from these proud peoples came an Olympic champion that set a U.S. record in the 10,000 meter race that held for 52 years! Louis Tewanima ran right into the pages of Olympic history with a phenomenal record-setting race! With his teammate, Jim Thorpe, the Olympic Games became a very exciting and amazing event in 1912.
Both Thorpe and Tewanima trained under the legendary "Pop" Warner at the Carlisle School. Tewanima, after hanging around the track team, finally convinced "Pop" that he could run. Warner gave him a chance to run in competitions for the school and so began one of the most fascinating sports careers in Arizona history.
True to his tribal tradition, Tewanima was a distance runner. He began winning 10- to 15-mile races. In 1908, after winning the cross country race at University of Pennsylvania, Tewanima represented the United States in the Olympics in London, England. Tewanima finished ninth in the marathon.
Have you heard about Thorpe and Tewanima and their stunning victories in the 1912 Olympics?
Pride and Glory
When Tewanima returned to Carlisle, he and Thorpe became teammates and started beating top colleges in the country time after time in track and field. Thus began the legendary path to world setting records. Together, these two Native Americans brought pride and glory to their peoples and the USA!
After Carlisle, Tewanima returned home to his people at the Second Mesa in northeastern Arizona. He became a preacher and an inspiration to the youth of his people.
These two great athletes, Thorpe and Tewanima, live on in our memories and hearts for all time. Louis Tewanima died in January, 1969. Due to his failing eyesight, he did not know he was walking towards a cliff that plunged 70 feet down. Louis fell to his death at the age of seventy-seven when returning home from a religious ceremony. Sixteen years after Thorpe passed into the land of his ancestors, Tewanima, as he did in the 1912 Olympics, followed his teammate to glory.
© 2014 Phyllis Doyle Burns