By Mary Belle Zook, Citizen Potawatomi Nation Public Information Department
Citizen Potawatomi descendant and Sac and Fox Nation tribal member Jim Thorpe — Wa-Tho-Huk (Bright Path) — holds a reputation as one of the most talented athletes in history. He was the first Native American to earn an Olympic gold medal at the 1912 games in Stockholm, Sweden, winning first place in the decathlon and pentathlon. However, in 1913, he lost his gold medals after the International Olympic Committee no longer recognized him as an amateur athlete due to his time on a minor league baseball team. Today, the IOC recognizes Thorpe as the gold medal co-winner in the two events. His family, fellow Native Americans, elected officials and fans are fighting to restore Thorpe’s recognition as the 1912 Olympic decathlon and pentathlon’s sole gold winner once more.
“Any person who has represented our country honorably and brought victory home for the United States in Olympics is an American hero and should be recognized as one, but inherent biases took away that honor from Jim Thorpe. This resolution not only recognizes Jim Thorpe for the hero that he is, it also ensures that the records reflect his incredible achievements,” said Representative for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District and President-elect Joe Biden’s U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary nominee Deb Haaland.
Representative Haaland introduced a resolution in November 2019 — co-sponsored by 39 other members of the house, including Oklahoma representatives Tom Cole, Kevin Hern, Kendra Horn, Markwayne Mullin and Frank Lucas — requesting the IOC correct Thorpe’s records.
“Jim Thorpe is a champion who represents Americans from different walks of life, and his terrific achievement as a gold medalist should certainly be acknowledged by the International Olympic Committee. Congresswoman Haaland’s legislation would right this wrong and give Thorpe and all Native Americans the recognition they deserve,” Congressman Cole said in a written statement in early December 2020.
The legislation saw no action in the 116th Congress, but officials are hopeful it will move forward in the future.
Although the IOC reinstated Thorpe’s gold medals in the 1980s to his children, he shares the spotlight with Huga Wieslander from Sweden and Ferdinand Bie from Norway. The IOC also failed to modify the official report. To this day, Olympic records do not mention Thorpe as the true gold medal winner in the decathlon and pentathlon.
A recent petition titled Bright Path Strong has received support from Pictureworks Entertainment, the National Congress of American Indians, tribes and numerous Thorpe descendants. It asks for signatures to “call upon the IOC to remove the red stain of discrimination toward Jim Thorpe, our World Olympic Icon,” said Pictureworks Entertainment Executive Producer Nedra Darling in a statement.
Darling is a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. She hopes the upcoming Hollywood film she is producing called Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story and the petition encourage the IOC to recognize Thorpe’s accomplishments once more.
“This petition is an effort to gather over one million names and voices united in support of Jim and American athletic excellence and Native American resilience,” Darling said.
Thorpe’s mother, Charlotte, was the daughter of Citizen Potawatomi members Elizabeth and Jacob Vieux. Charlotte married Hiram Thorpe, and they began building their family on a ranch near present-day Prague, Oklahoma, in Lincoln County. There, Charlotte and Hiram had eight children: Minnie, Frank, George, Charlie, Jim, Mary, Adeline and Edward.
Born in May of 1887, Thorpe began honing his athleticism hunting, trapping and exploring across Indian Territory. He and his twin brother Charlie attended the Sac and Fox Agency School in nearby Stroud until Charlie passed away at 9 from pneumonia. This caused Thorpe to want to abandon his education entirely, and he ran 23 miles from the school to his parent’s house. However, his father Hiram decided to send him farther away to a boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas, now known as the Haskell Indian Nations University.
After a few years and several stints with truancy, Thorpe found his way to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania where his athletic abilities began garnering attention. He easily broke the school’s high jump record and became a key player in Carlisle’s hockey, lacrosse, ballroom dancing and football programs.
In November 1911, Thorpe and his teammates beat top-ranked Harvard during a football game. He played halfback, punter, defender and place kicker and earned the title of All-American during the 1911 and 1912 seasons.
Thorpe became a member of the U.S. Olympic team for the 1912 games in Stockholm, Sweden, where he won two gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon, and broke a world record. Between the two competitions, he competed in 15 events. Instead of not competing after someone stole his track shoes, he found a mismatched pair in the garbage cans alongside the track and wore extra socks to prevent his foot from slipping out of the shoe that was too large. Thorpe became the first Native American to earn Olympic gold at the age of 25.
However, when it came to light he played semi-professional baseball prior the Olympics, the IOC revoked his medals. They contested his position as an amateur athlete because he received pay. At the time, many college athletes played for money. However, they used aliases. Thorpe did not. Over the last century, the outlook has change drastically, and now the only Olympic event reserved for amateurs is wrestling.
In a letter to the Amateur Athletic Union secretary James Edward Sullivan, Thorpe wrote, “I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know about such things.”
Although Thorpe’s pleads went ignored, the IOC repealed his gold medals, and he could not participate in any future Olympics, he did not stop competing.
Thorpe became the highest paid Major League Baseball player when he joined the New York Giants in 1913. From 1913 to 1919, he played for the Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves. He broke barriers once more as a professional in two sports.
In 1913, he became a star on Indiana’s first professional football team, the Pine Village Pros, and two years later, signed with the Canton Bulldogs. The Bulldogs were part of the American Professional Football Association, later named the National Football League, and for a brief time, Thorpe resided as the APFA president.
He then headed an all Native American team known as the Oorang Indians in LaRue, Ohio, from 1921 and 1923. Although they did not have successful seasons, the NFL selected Thorpe for the first All-NFL team in 1923. Although he never won an NFL championship, he played 52 NFL games from 1920 to 1928 for the Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, Oorang Indians, Rock Island Independents, New York Giants and Chicago Cardinals. Some records indicate he may have also tried his hand at professional basketball.
After retiring from sports completely, Thorpe worked a variety of jobs, including acting. He died after a heart attack in 1953, and his grave is in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Along with fully-reinstating his Olympic gold medals, due to the fact he is not known to have even visited the Pennsylvania town prior to his death, family and others are working to bring his remains home.
Although Thorpe was not considered an official U.S. citizen during the 1912 Olympics — Native Americans did not become U.S. citizens until 1924 through the Indian Citizenship Act — he worked hard to be the best athlete possible, representing his community and country at the highest caliber.
The efforts to reinstate Thorpe as the sole gold medal winner in the decathlon and pentathlon events remain a bipartisan issue. Congressional resolutions and support bring to light Thorpe’s achievements and hard work and provide encouragement for future generations of Native American and non-Native athletes and leaders to accomplish their goals.
“In a time where Americans, and arguably people all around the world are confronting their long-held discriminatory beliefs and behaviors, this is a tremendous opportunity for the IOC to get on the right side of history,” Darling said, executive producer for Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story.