Jim Thorpe Was More than an Extraordinary Athlete

The Olympic medalist's feats were a testament to Native resilience

HUMANITIES, Summer 2024, Volume 45, Number 3

Five illustrations from a 1911 Philadelphia Inquirer article portray a robust Jim Thorpe (also known as Wa-Tho-Huk) in his athletic prime, countering prevalent beliefs that Euro-Americans had about Indigenous people at the time: that we were a people near extinction. 

An excerpt elaborates:   

Once in awhile, across the vista of the passing years, a dying race startles those who are measuring it for its shroud by giving a kick that crabs the entire funeral proceedings. As if in an objection to the obituary being written before the demise is complete, “Lo, the poor Indian,” has chosen the most vitally active pursuit in the life of his paleface traducer in which to demonstrate that he is yet very much a live one. 

Thorpe was very much alive, and so were Indians.  

Thorpe became famous as a student athlete at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and would eventually be hailed as “the greatest all-around athletic marvel the world has ever seen,” with a career in football, track and field, and baseball, and two Olympic gold medals earned at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in the pentathlon and decathlon. But this newspaper clipping from Dickinson College’s Carlisle Indian School collection (digitized with the help of a 2020 NEH Preservation and Access grant) reveals that his performances on the field were not enough to transcend racial stereotypes; Thorpe was still referred to as a “simple-minded Indian.”  

However fantastic and singular Thorpe’s achievements were depicted, they mirror the real life, collective continuance of Native peoples. We, too, have faced numerous hurdles (pun intended) throughout our history, including land dispossession (Thorpe’s Sac and Fox people were moved from their homelands in the Lake Huron and Lake Michigan area to Indian Territory in Oklahoma), forced assimilation through federally run boarding schools (Carlisle, the nation’s flagship Indian boarding school, was founded on the philosophy “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man”), and inaccessible citizenship and voting rights (Thorpe became an American citizen only years after winning Olympic gold for the United States). After all of this, we should be gone (if not physically, then culturally), yet here we are—very much alive