Jim Thorpe

Jared Kelley   Sport Kings Trading Card   2018

In 1973, President Richard Nixon proclaimed April 16 Jim Thorpe Day.  Proclamation 4209 begins,  “In the early years of this century when Americans of racial and ethnic minority backgrounds were reaching for greater dignity and opportunity among their fellow-citizens, and when excellence in sport commanded increasing admiration across the country, one magnificent athlete from the Oklahoma frontier came to world renown as a pioneer in both of these developing trends.” The president called “upon the people of the United States to mark this day with appropriate observances.” 

How does one “appropriately observe” Jim Thorpe Day?  Well, you start by learning the basics.  I hope I can supply you with just enough information to get you to learn more on your own.  I actually had never heard of Jim Thorpe until I was living in Pennsylvania and discovered a town with the same name.  Now we all know towns and cities named after people, but this one was particularly odd.  What kind of a town name is Jim Thorpe?  So I did what I do, started learning.  I was ashamed and embarrassed that I didn’t know his story before, and disappointed in society for not making him a household name.

There is so much legend and myth that swirls around Jim Thorpe it’s hard to distinguish fact from fiction.  But what’s worse is the white-washing on one hand and the romanticizing on the other.  A lot of information I’ve read and videos I’ve watched contradict one another. I could write 20 blogs about 20 different aspects of Jim Thorpe’s life and not begin to scratch the surface of all that could be said.  Someday I’ll come back and write a blog specifically about Native children being removed from families, decimating their culture, and destroying vital links to their heritage.  There is just way too much to cover here to give you a feel for his life.

Many sources site that he was born to an Irish father and Potawatomi mother and he was raised on a Sac and Fox agency.  That is true, but it’s often not noted that his “white” father was half Sac and Fox and they lived with his family.  His mother was Potawatomi, and her family was part of the Potawatomi Death March in 1838 when armed militia “escorted859 people from northern Indiana to eastern Kansas, a 660 mile march.

Jim Thorpe was born in the spring of 1887 or ’88.  That means he was born only about 12 years after the Battle of Little Bighorn. In the Potawatomi tradition, his mother also gave him the name of something she saw at the moment of his birth, Wa-Tho-Huk, loosely translated as “flash of light on path.”  He had a twin brother, Charlie.

Around the age of eight, Charlie died of pneumonia.  Jim never fully recovered from the loss of his brother, and later in life would say that Charlie’s spirit had joined his and the two lived together as one.  After Charlie’s death, Jim struggled in the schools he was placed in located in Oklahoma and Kansas.  He was known for running away and going home. In 1904, Jim was shipped from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

In the movie Jim Thorpe–All American, Burt Lancaster portrays Jim Thorpe as a young man setting out to be educated.  (The movie is a great watch, but a bit idealistic).   It shows a romanticized version of the school as a college type setting with Jim and his buddies studying and milling around campus.  It states young people from all Native nations flocked to the school to continue their education.   Carlisle Indian School was not a college.  It wasn’t even a high school.  They didn’t have classes beyond the eighth grade. The tv special Sports Century, Jim Thorpe describes that he was “subjected to a harsh regiment aimed at obliterating the last vestiges of his Native American heritage.”  It was a boarding school where children were taken, often forcibly, away from their culture and way of a life. As   The slogan was “kill the Indian, save the man.”

For older boys, it was a job placement facility, as well an outlet for “American” sports.  In sports, Jim found something where he could excel and still be himself.  He quickly became the star of the track team, as well as football.  His physical abilities propelled not just him, but Carlisle Indian School into the spotlight as a football powerhouse, beating competitors like Stanford and Harvard.  The school knew how to capitalize on what they had.  They attributed their success to “warrior spirit.”  Nevertheless, Jim Thorpe, lead by legendary coach Pop Warner, changed college football into the spectator sport it is today.

In 1912, Jim Thorpe participated in the Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden.  He competed in the decathlon, pentathlon, high jump, and long jump–17 events.  He placed fourth in the high jump and seventh in long jump. He received the gold in the pentathlon and won four of the five events.  In javelin he came in third, although he had never thrown one until the Olympic trials.  In the decathlon, he beat the second place finisher by more than 700 points, finishing in the top four of all ten events.  His total of 8,413 points stood for more than 20  years.  King Gustav presented his awards and told him he was the greatest athlete in the world.  In addition, he was on the US Olympic baseball team, which at the time was an exhibition sport.

Often overlooked is that in 1912, Jim Thorpe was not a citizen of the United States.  Native Americans were not given citizenship unless they gave up their citizenships of their nations.  He may have worn an American flag on his shirt, but he represented the nation of Sac and Fox.

Six months later, a story broke in the Worcester Telegram–Jim Thorpe had played professional baseball in 1909 and ’10, breaking Olympic rules of amateurism.  During the summer months he “took a job as a baseball player” in the Eastern Carolina League as a Rocky Mountain Railroader.  It wasn’t uncommon for college players to break the rules during the summer months, even other people on his Olympic team did the same thing.  The difference was he used his real name.

Although IOC rules demanded that any protests needed to take place within 30 days of the games and the news didn’t break until six months later, the committee didn’t care.  They didn’t care that he never denied playing and testified that he didn’t know that it wasn’t allowed. They didn’t care that he was paid a meager amount for expenses only.  They didn’t care that other people on the team did the same thing.  They didn’t care.  They stripped him of his medals, and struck his name from the record books.

I’ve read many, many articles that have a happy ending saying that although it took time, he was reinstated.  No, not true, not even to this day.  Jim Thorpe died in 1953.  After decades of pressure, the IOC relented in 1983 and presented his family with replicas of his medals.  That’s it.  He is still not listed as the gold medalist.  The second place finishers are not listed as silver.  Yes, his name was added, with an asterisk. His point total is not listed.  There is no reference at which to measure just how vastly ahead of the competition he was.  The IOC did nothing but make a gesture of appeasement.  And although I’m happy the family did receive acknowledgment, it’s disgraceful that still today his feats are not adequately reported.

So here is where some people end the story.  Or they go on to talk about Jim Thorpe’s career as a founding member of the NFL and his induction into the NFL Hall of Fame’s first class.  Or maybe they throw in a bit about how he decided that since he lost his medals for being a pro baseball player, he would just become one.  He played for both the New York Giants and the Chicago White Sox before leaving to play professional football.  A few stories even go on to tell about how he battled alcohol, married three times, and eventually took odd jobs to make ends meet.  But that’s not where my story ends.

Search for the name of Jim Thorpe on IMDB and you find 71 films.  71.  From 1931 until 1950, Jim Thorpe was one of only a few Native Americans to be cast in movies.  Most of those are uncredited.  Almost all of those he played one of two roles–athlete or stereotypical Indian.  In many of his roles, his character name is listed simply as “Indian.” This was the era of not only the Great Depression, but continued racism in practically all industries, Hollywood included.

By the late 1930’s, Jim Thorpe had a new title, Akapamata, caregiver.  He was an activist fighting for the rights of the Native American nations in the film industry.  He worked tirelessly to obtain parts for Native peoples both on and off-screen in Hollywood.  In 2019, the number of actors with Native ancestry is still small.  Native Americans have over and over and over again been represented on-screen by non-Native actors.  Jim Thorpe made great strides at ensuring the best not only for Sac and Fox, but all nations.   Read an article about his work in the industry here: Akapamata

In May of 2018, Angelina Jolie announced she was producing a biopic of Jim Thorpe.  Reportedly, she has the blessing of the Thorpe family.  Additionally, she has been working with several Native American nations as consultants.  (Although as far as I can tell, none of them are Sac and Fox or Potawatomi.  I could be wrong about that, so someone please correct me if that is incorrect.)  Most importantly, Jim Thorpe will be played by Martin Sensmeier, and actor of Tlingit, Koyukon-Athabascan, and Irish descent, marking one of the few (or maybe only) occasions a Native actor has played a Native historical figure in a major full release movie.  However, at this time, Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story is currently not listed on his IMDB page.

This portrait is by American portrait artist Jared Kelley.  He is well-known in the sports world for his work with Upper Deck and Sport Kings trading cards.  Beckett Monthly has listed him as one of “nine most influential artists in the country who are changing the world of card collecting.”

I had a hard time finding the perfect artwork for this blog.  Not surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of portraits of Jim Thorpe out there, at least not that I could find in four evenings of google searching.  Of those, many are just replicas of famous photos.  In several he’s wearing his leather football helmet, but that seems too constrictive for what I’m trying to convey.  And although this is a sports card, I think it’s more open.

Across the bottom are five events Thorpe participated in, above the Sport Kings Gum banner.  He wears his white track uniform, but only the shoulders are visible.  His head is turned to a three-quarter profile, showing his angular features.  Kelley uses several shades of color on his cheeks to highlight his deep-set features and prominent ridged eyebrows.  His brown hair is perfectly disheveled, a balance between well-kept and a man who just ran a pentathlon , then turned around and did a decathlon the next day.  I love the squint of his eyes.  There are stories about being on the ship sailing to Stockholm and he was just lounging around while the others trained.  When asked why he wasn’t training, he said he was visualizing his long jump.  Maybe that’s what he’s doing here.

There really are a million more things to talk about when it comes to Jim Thorpe.  I’m not even going to go into the soap opera drama that surrounds an entire town changing its name for a person that never stepped foot into it.  Just look that up yourself.  Or the fight that still goes on with his children over moving his remains, I’ll skip that too.

I will say one quick soap box item.  I’m highly annoyed by the internet meme going around showing Jim Thorpe with mismatched shoes.  It says something about how he still won a gold wearing shoes that were the wrong size, so don’t let anything get you down.  While I appreciate the idea, and the story of the shoes is true, I think it really belittles every other hurdle he had to face in his life up until that point.  Yes, at that point, he just put these shoes on and went with it.  But that’s because he’d been through so much in his life, that seemed like a situation he could handle.  In the grand scheme of things, that was no big deal.  Maybe for someone that is privledged enough to not have other challenges that would be inspiring, but I think Jim Thorpe would furrow his brows, lean back his head, and think it is a little bit foolish.

Please find out more about Jim Thorpe.  I have added some links below.

Smithsonian Article

More interesting reading:  Native American Stereotypes in Baseball

Proclamation 4209

Babe Ruth

Baseball Stats

See his actual scanned files from Carlisle Indian School, including correspondence regarding at $25 check from the New York Giants here:   Carlisle Files

New movie article:  Bright Path

Carlisle Indian School

Jared Kelley














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