Backed by sheer will, perseverance, and a warrior’s spirit, Jim Thorpe was the man America needed but did not deserve.
During a time that was ripe with bigotry, Thorpe was the David who slew Goliath for his people—the Jesse Owens of Native Americans, who ran proudly with the blood, sweat and tears of his nation standing behind him.
Interwoven in his struggles as a Native American man was a sense of purpose greater than any one person.
“I am no more proud of my career as an athlete than I am of the fact that I am a direct descendant of that noble warrior [Chief Black Hawk],” said Thorpe.
To show pride in his personal accomplishments despite the ever-mounting odds against him was a testament to the person he was. However, he went above and beyond being an idol to many. He was a symbol of hope for a people devoid of it in America. To show pride in what he meant for his people, was a testament to the bravery instilled by his forefathers, who suffered immensely under the racial hierarchies of America.
He was a symbol of hope for all Native Americans, from the Cherokee, to the Sioux, the Dakota and yes, those on the Sac and Fox Reservation. He proved to every Indigenous man, woman and child that the ever-elusive American Dream indeed applied to them—even in a “White Man’s Nation.”
When he won Olympic gold twice in the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon, it wasn’t just a victory for the individual, but a day in which he uplifted his people, rekindling their spirit as a nation of warriors.
Though he was stripped of his medals due to a violation of his amateur status before the Olympics, Thorpe went on to play both professional baseball and football and was an exceptionally gifted football player.
He was a warrior who achieved what his heart desired; a warrior whose greatest accomplishment did not come from his time as an all-American athlete, nor his service as a WWII hero. Instead, it came in the form of overcoming all odds as a boy of mixed-racial origin from the Sac and Fox Reservation.
Indeed, he was the missing link that bridged the divide (in part) between the different races (pun intended), one, whose significance did not garner the recognition deserved until 50-years after his passing.
In honour of “Thorpe’s epic performance at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm,” Thorpe was declared “The Greatest Athlete [of all-time],” as a multi-sport superstar, but to many he meant so much more.
And so has it, the life of Jim Thorpe—the man, the myth, the legend. A life worthy of the songs and oral history to all Native Americans.
Immense hardship in the early-years of Thorpe
Growing up on his family’s log farmhouse on the reserve, Thorpe was born unlike many from his tribe. His family adopted the customs of the “white man” and spoke the only language his parents had in common—English.
He was the product of a mixed-racial union. His father, Hiram Thorpe, married a part-French and part-Potawatomi Indian Charlotte Vieux. They would consummate eleven children together, but unfortunately, only five, including Jim’s twin Charlie survived early childhood.
Attending a reservation school some 20-miles away, Jim and Charlie were victims of the prevailing racist ideas of the times. At the age of 6, they were forbidden to speak in their native tongue—if it wasn’t English, they were not “civilized” enough.
While the cultural genocide of their “inferior” Native American brethren was intrinsic to the racial hierarchies of the times, that was not the only travesty the Thorpe household met.
Unfortunately, an epidemic swept through their school, costing Charlie his life and Jim his interest in athletics and academia.
He was later transferred to Haskell Indian Junior College, some 300-miles away from his abode. Hiram believed discipline was what his son needed, with the distance from home to discourage him from running away. But of course, that did little to prevent him from going home after whispers that Hiram was mortally wounded reached Thorpe.
In 1901, he boarded a train he assumed headed homeward, but to his chagrin, it went in the opposite direction. Over the next two weeks, he spent walking home, only to be met with the wrath of a father consumed with anger.
Jim Thorpe—yeah, that Thorpe. An all-American hero, patriot and athlete led a life of immense hardship in his early years. Going from school to school, where he slowly regained his love for sports, in particular, varsity football.
Unfortunately, the loss of his mother to blood poisoning and a sibling at birth in 1901, was yet another roadblock he had to overcome on his way to greatness – greatness he would receive little recognition for until well after his death in 1953.
The death of his mother and sibling sent the family in a downward spiral, resulting in a fit of crippling anger that left Thorpe to face the wrath of his depressed father. After spending months on the farm as a farmhand, he had enough of the beatings he would receive.
At the age of 13, he ran away to Texas, as if to embark on a Hero’s Journey of his own. He spent the year taming horses for a living, which he surprisingly earned enough to live off, only to return home a year later.
His father—a descendant of a great Black Hawk warrior—came to respect his son, who showed spirit, perseverance, and strength in overcoming one trial after another, and at such a young age.
In the subsequent years, he would set the foundations for what would soon be a prolific career as an athlete, which earned him the title as one of the greats—and deservedly so.
Don’t let the “dark clouds” of Jim Thorpe undermine his stellar athletic achievements
In 1913, Thorpe’s Olympic gold medals were stripped from him by the Amateur Athletic Union and the International Olympic Committee for soliciting “small payments” during his time as a baseball player, resulting in his amateur status being revoked.
Then in 1982, the IOC restored his medals, but unfortunately, the ‘dark cloud’ of the said controversy remained above his head despite the later.
Unfortunately, the prevailing racist ideas of the time left him susceptible to the consequences of a practice that was commonplace amongst many amateur athletes. The only thing he did that they didn’t was use his actual name when receiving said payments. Ultimately, that cost him dearly.
Irrespective of the controversy, this should not take away from his achievements as an football and MLB star.
As a budding football star with the Canton Bulldogs and in the MLB with the New York Giants, he would demonstrate his prowess as an multi-sport superstar, finishing his awe-inspiring career with a return to football with the Oorang Indians and The Rock Island Independents.
A biopic is in the works on the life and career of Jim Thorpe, titled Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story, produced by Angelina Jolie and with Martin Sensmeier cast as Jim Thorpe. It remains without a release date.