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Congresswoman Deb Haaland working to restore Indigenous Olympian Jim Thorpe’s medals

Democrat Congresswoman Deb Haaland has brought forward a resolution to acknowledge the achievements of James “Jim” Thorpe.
Travis Gladue-Beauregard Montreal, QC

Democrat Congresswoman Deb Haaland has brought forward a resolution to acknowledge the achievements of James “Jim” Thorpe. The resolution requests that the International Olympic Committee restore Thorpe’s 1912 Olympic records by recognizing him as the sole gold medalist in the two events he won, the pentathlon and the decathlon.

Thorpe’s lost legacy

During the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe represented the United States as an enrolled member of the Sac and Fox Nation. At the time, Native Americans were not legally recognized as full U.S. citizens, only gaining full rights in 1924 through the Indian Citizenship Act. Alongside the lack of rights, bigotry against the indigenous people was rampant and systematic, with news openly involving derogatory statements and stereotypes.

In the context of this environment, Thorpe became a celebrated figure both locally and abroad, in many ways helping push forward the cause of genuine equality and acceptance.

Yet just a year later, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in 1913 would go on to strip him of his gold medals, because Thorpe previously was paid around $15 a week ($380 today) for playing semi-pro baseball before participating in the Olympics.

The AAU falsely claimed this made him a professional athlete in a competition reserved for amateurs, despite his baseball league being hardly professional.

By taking away his medals, the AAU turned Thorpe, in the eyes of the public, into a malicious cheater. Thorpe died in 1953, but the defamation against him would continue for years.

Attitudes changed as the decades rolled by, with The International Olympic Committee restoring Thorpe’s medals in 1982. Yet, regarldess of the return, the athletes who finished second to Thorpe are still listed as co-recipients of Olympic gold medals.

Taking away the gold medals of the other undeserving athletes may not precisely change history’s view of Thorpe any more than it already has–still, it is nonetheless an important and symbolic act of justice for his supporters

Haaland, a Democrat and a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, sees the congressional resolution as a way to highlight Thorpe’s accomplishments from the worldwide competition.

“Any person who has represented our country honourably and brought victory home for the United States in the Olympics is an American hero and should be recognized as one, but inherent biases took away that honour from Jim Thorpe,” she said.

Thorpe was almost as gifted as other athletes like Bo Jackson, showing excellence in multiple sporting pursuits. After winning gold medals in some of track and field’s most gruelling events, he played in the major leagues, including the precursor to the NFL.

Historical depictions haven’t been especially kind to Thorpe, despite his consistent career excellence.

Hollywood chose Burt Lancaster, loaded with dark makeup, to portray Thorpe in a 1951 movie about his life, which portrayed the stripping of his Olympic medals as illegitimate.

Upon Thorpe’s death in 1953, he was buried in a Pennsylvania town, which he had never lived nor even visited. It was two towns that essentially amalgamated in hopes of making money from the legend’s corpse. Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk were both successful railroad stop of the booming coal industry. By the ’50s the two towns had hit hard times, but a newspaper editor thought they could find another boon with the body of Thorpe.

Through the editor’s urging, residents of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk voted to merge under name of Jim Thorpe, PA, in 1954.

In a deal with Thorpe’s third wife, the town provided a $10,000 mausoleum for Thorpe’s body. This was the first part of a plan to draw tourists, which Thorpe’s sons had found distasteful.

“Patsy took his body around and farmed him out to bidders,” son Bill Thorpe once told me. He was a soldier serving in Korea when his father passed away.

Bill Thorpe and his two living brothers still want their father’s body to be moved back to his native Oklahoma. They considered the burial arrangement in Pennsylvania disrespectful, saying it did no justice to Thorpe’s Sac and Fox heritage.

Thorpe’s two living daughters take a different perspective of Thorpe’s burial, seeing it as paying respect to a larger than life figure that their father was.

Issues over Thorpe’s burial place have stretched into the current decade, leading the sons to sue in an attempt to move his remains. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, leaving Thorpe’s remains in Pennsylvania.

Despite all the controversy over Thorpe’s death Haaland and other members of Congress are interested in using the power of politics to revive interest in how he lived, by focusing on some of his greatest achievements.

We, as Canadians, can learn a lot from this act of recognition of Indigenous athletes and respect for their legacies. Canada’s own Oklahoman Native American athlete Jack Jacobs transformed Canadian football, and has been in many ways commemorated for his excellence in football, but more has to be done for both him and other indigenous athletes who the public let fly under the radar.

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Travis Gladue-Beauregard
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