America’s Greatest Athlete Ever, Jim Thorpe, Was Indigenous

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.

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