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DC at Night

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Native American Olympic Heroes

With the Olympic competition in London completed, talk for the next 4 years can  focus on the question - who is the greatest Olympic champion ever? And one name that will invariably enter into such a discussion will be that of Jim Thorpe, who 100 years ago captured gold for both the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Thorpe was a member of the American team. He was also a member of the American Indian Sac and Fox tribes, which of course makes him the featured competitor at the Best in the World: Native Athletes in the Olympics exhibit now on display at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Native Americans have a storied history with sports. Long before contact with the 1st Europeans, the Mayans participated in a ballgame where losers faced death. In North America, tribes focused on such spirited sports as lacrosse and chunkey.

The 1st Native American to participate in the Olympics was Seneca tribe member Frank Pierce, who was an American marathon runner in the 1904 St. Louis games. Those games also demonstrated how much prejudice still existed toward Indians. As part of a special Anthropology Days series, untrained "savage" people were placed in track and field events they were unfamiliar with to confirm Anglo/European feelings of superiority.

But 8 years later the successes of 2 Native Americans propelled recognition of the athletic contributions of their people to the forefront. One, of course, was Thorpe. But even though he returned to America as a conquering hero, his star quickly faded when it was discovered that he had played in a couple of low-paying professional baseball games before the Olympics. Thorpe was stripped of his medals. He went on to star in baseball, basketball, and football. But his family never gave up their fight to have Thorpe's Olympic contributions restored. In 1983, they finally were successful and his 2 medals are now part of the museum's exhibit which will be closing Sept. 3.

The other Native American 1912 Olympic star was Duke Kahanumku, who gained medals for his swimming and recognition for his native Hawaii. In later years, Kahanumku became a legend for bringing the Hawaiian sport of surfing to the west coast of the United States and high-waved waters of Australia.

Sports experts point to the 1912 games for 3 huge contribution to native American culture and history:
  • showcasing the highly developed athletic program of the Carlisle (Pa) Indian Industrial school
  • demonstrating running as spiritual exercise and
  • introducing Hawaiian island culture to both the USA and the world.
While 1912 was the high-water mark for Native American Olympians, they have continued to make contributions to American teams up to and including this year's competition. One of the most heralded of that group was Billy Mills (Ogala Lakoda) who came from behind in the 10,000-meter race in the1964 Olympics to become the only American to ever win gold in that event.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
I am virtually certain this will be my last post involving the London Olympic games. (For the sake of full disclosure, I must admit I didn't watch a single competition or ceremony. The only glimpses I had of 2012 games were those I caught from TV screens in my travels around DC). That's a reason why I will let author Dave Barry have the final word here on this year's Olympics. Not only did he attend the event in person and, unlike me, actually watch the contests, I consider him to be the funniest American to set pen to paper (or, in his case, more accurately fingers to keyboard) since Mark Twain. To see what Barry has to say in his column "The good, bad, and the awesome about Olympics", click here.

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