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Native Americans Jim Thorpe and Louis Tewanima: 1912 Olympic Champions

Phyllis has a strong affinity for Native American traditions, beliefs, and spirituality.

Poster for the 1912 Summer Olympics, designed by Olle Hjortzberg Host city	Stockholm, Sweden

Poster for the 1912 Summer Olympics, designed by Olle Hjortzberg Host city Stockholm, Sweden

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 the loss of families and homes. 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.

In 1912, the American flag had only 48 stars.

In 1912, the American flag had only 48 stars.

Jim Thorpe

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.

Glen Scobey "Pop" Warner and Carlisle Indians, 1903

Glen Scobey "Pop" Warner and Carlisle Indians, 1903

Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Olympics

Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Olympics

All-Round Championship

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.

IOC Restores Jim Thorpe's Medals to him

Update in July 2022:

On the 110th anniversary of his medal ceremony, Jim Thorpe is finally restored as the rightful and sole gold medal-winner of the 1912 Decathlon and Pentathlon!

This is an exciting and long past due honor to a great American athlete.

See Bright Path Strong | Facebook for more information on this story.

Jim Thorpe in his football uniform, circa 1920s

Jim Thorpe in his football uniform, circa 1920s

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.


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 they 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.

Louis Tewanima at the 1912 Olmypics in Sweden.

Louis Tewanima at the 1912 Olmypics in Sweden.

Hopi Tradition Created an Olympic Champion

In the early part of the twentieth century, 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 was 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 the University of Pennsylvania, Tewanima represented the United States in the Olympics in London, England. Tewanima finished ninth in the marathon.

Glen Scobey "Pop" Warner, 1917. Trainer of two Olympic champions who made world history.

Glen Scobey "Pop" Warner, 1917. Trainer of two Olympic champions who made world history.

Swedish team at the opening ceremony of the 1912 Olympics.

Swedish team at the opening ceremony of 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


Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on March 03, 2014:

Hi teaches. Thank you for your kind compliment. Yes, Jim Thorpe was a great role model for athletes in his time. He dedicated his life to sports and helping younger athletes achieve their goals. He learned a lot from Pop Warner and seemed to carry on with the same dedication Warner had for training young athletes. Louis Tewanima was a fantastic runner and athlete -- however, his dedication in life was to his people and in being a minister. So, Tewanima did not stay in sports and the public spotlight as Thorpe did. They were both loyal and dedicated in their own way to their true passions in life. Thanks again, teaches, for your visit, reading and commenting. I appreciate this.

Dianna Mendez on March 03, 2014:

This is a very well done post on these athletes. I remember all the hype my sisters expressed on Jim Thorpe. He was a role model for many athletes back then.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on March 02, 2014:

Hello Tim. My gosh ! What an amazing, interesting comment you send me. Thank you so much. I never saw the movie and am now inspired to find it and watch it. I am overwhelmed with your comment of inspiration this hub brings out. Thanks again. I really appreciate this.

Tim Mitchell from Escondido, CA on March 02, 2014:

This hub brought an inspired smile to my face Phyllis. A great and thorough article. I was not aware of Louis and his legend. I thank you for the opportunity to learn. I reminisced the movie with Burt Lancaster playing Jim's role. When young that was inspirational along with the stories my dad shared of Jim eventually leading to distance running in high school (early 70's) and beyond. I agree with the sentiment of your article of the inspiration and leadership qualities of Jim Thorpe. I believe this article offers inspiration just like that movie did. Well done in my humble eyes.


Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on March 02, 2014:

Audrey, thank you so much for such a delightful and wonderful comment. I am so happy to know how much you appreciated this hub. I so appreciate your time, reading and votes -- and sharing. Thank you again.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on March 02, 2014:

Jim Thorpe is one of my favorite, if not my very favorite athlete. I have researched his life and found it so fascinating. I also saw the movie about him. Another reason for my interest in Jim, is that he is American Indian. My mother is from the 'Blackfoot Tribe.' I am proud of my Indian heritage. Thank you Phyllis for presenting such an out-standing hub with great photos about both of these men. Voted up, useful, awesome and interesting. I am sharing this as well. Peace and all good things to you ~Audrey

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on February 27, 2014:

Thank you, Gemineye. I hope you liked it.

alex from france on February 27, 2014:

i read your article

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on February 27, 2014:

Frank, thank you so much. I am glad you enjoyed it.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on February 26, 2014:

Phyllis this was a nice touch to go along with the winter Olympics.. It was a refresher read for me but so well worth it :)

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on February 25, 2014:

Hi Jackie.You are most welcome. I am glad you found it interesting. Both men had excellent training to bring out their best abilities. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on February 25, 2014:

So interesting, thanks so much for sharing this with us. Perfect timing too with the Olympics right in our face every day and these stars deserve an honorable mention to say the least. ^

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on February 25, 2014:

Hi Shela. You are most welcome, glad you liked it. I often wish I could have seen Thorpe and Tewanima on that historical day. Thanks for reading and commenting.

sheilamyers on February 25, 2014:

This is a great hub for both the history and the tribute to the men. Like Jodah, I've heard of and knew about Jim Thorpe and his accomplishments, but had not heard about Lewis Tewanima until I read this hub. Thank you for telling us about both men, their Olympic success, and the other parts of their lives. Great job!

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on February 25, 2014:

Hi DDE. Thank you for the read and comment. It is amazing how Thorpe and Tewanima achieved such record breaking wins. Their stories are very interesting. Thanks again. Have a great day.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on February 25, 2014:

A very interesting read on Jim Thorpe and Louis Tewanima most of what I had no idea of.I learned from this hub.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on February 24, 2014:

Thank you very much, Jodah. I am not a big sports fan, but I do love to watch the Olympics and read the history. I am so glad you enjoyed reading and so appreciate your visit and comment. Thanks again.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on February 24, 2014:

Great hub Phyllis. I am a sports fanatic so thoroughly enjoyed this. I had heard of Jim Thorpe but wasn't aware just how great an athlete he was. I had not heard of Louis Tewanima though, so thanks for enlightening me. He also deserves his place in sports history. Voted up.