November is Native American Heritage Month, an ideal time for Indigenous and non-indigenous Americans alike to remember, honor and celebrate the life and legacy of Jim Thorpe – an icon of Native American strength and resilience.
Nedra Darling, a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and a proud Cherokee Nation descendent, was a featured speaker at the National Native American Boarding School (NABS) Healing Summit on November 20, 2021.
She is the co-founder of Bright Path Strong (brightpathstrong.org), created to share and amplify authentic Native American voices and stories, past and present, through filmmaking.
Bright Path Strong is now in the process of producing a feature length motion picture inspired by the life of Jim Thorpe, whom they call “…an icon and hero to so many Indigenous people across North America and beyond.” Filming will begin in 2022.
According to the Bright Path Strong website, “It’s time to rewrite history and finally tell the truth from Native Americans, for all to honor and celebrate…we’re starting with setting the record straight with legendary athlete Jim Thorpe.
…From more than a decade in government run boarding schools where every vestige of his identity and culture were attempted to be taken from him, to travel accommodations far inferior to his white Olympic teammates, to having his track shoes stolen minutes before the decathlon’s final race, to racist depictions in media downplaying his athletic achievements, Jim Thorpe had to overcome one racially motivated trial after another – and still managed to break world records.”
Nedra Darling devoted her 35-year federal government career to celebrating and uplifting American Indian and Alaska Native peoples and continues her work for Indian Country by telling Indigenous peoples’ stories in movies. At the NABS Summit, Darling emphasized, “It’s my responsibility to give (our ancestors) a voice. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to our ancestors. We owe it to future generations.”
Jim Thorpe was born in Okalahoma in 1888, just twelve years after the Battle of the Little Big Horn, his native name was Wa-Tho-Huk, translated as “Bright Path.” A member of the Sac and Fox Nation, Thorpe was one of the most accomplished all-around athletes in history.
At the 1912 Olympic games in Sweden, he became the first indigenous American to win a gold medal for the U.S. In fact, he brought home two gold medals for the pentathlon and the decathlon events (comprised of ten events in all major track and field disciplines) more than a decade before Indigenous Americans were officially recognized as American citizens. King Gustav V of Sweden witnessed Thorpe’s 1912 Olympic achievements and proclaimed him “The World’s Greatest Athlete.”
Unfortunately, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) later stripped Thorpe of his medals because of a technicality in competition regulations. In 1983, after decades of organized advocacy, the IOC overturned its earlier decision and restored Thorpe’s medals to his descendants.
In 1950, Thorpe was selected by American sportswriters and broadcasters as the greatest American athlete and the greatest gridiron player of the first half of the 20th century. He also excelled in such diverse sports as baseball, basketball, boxing, lacrosse, swimming, and hockey. He was a marvel of speed, power, kicking, and all-around ability.
Those who knew Thorpe also remember his many acts of kindness and caring for his people, beginning when he was a youth at the infamous Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Indian Industrial School. When a teenager at Carlisle, Thorpe one day noticed a much younger student who looked sad and lonely.
The little boy told Thorpe that he was homesick and missed his family. Thorpe reassured the child that he still had family and insisted, “Call me Uncle Jim.” He then raised the little boy to his shoulders and from that day forward while at Carlisle, Thorpe often carried the child around the campus on his shoulders and remained the child’s “Uncle Jim.”
During the Depression, Thorpe worked as an actor in Hollywood, California. He helped thousands of Indigenous people relocate to Hollywood, get jobs in the movie industry, find housing, and took them on hunting trips to obtain wild game for food.
Later in his life he was given the honorary title “Akapamata,” meaning “Caregiver.”
Billy Mills from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota came from behind to win the gold medal in the 10,000-meter race at the 1964 Olympics. He set a world record and is still the only American to ever win a gold medal in the 10 m event. Mills says, “As the last Native American Olympic Champion from the USA and knowing the challenges I faced in my Gold medal pursuit, I feel I have a fair understanding of the injustice Jim Thorpe faced.”
President Barack Obama said the following in his 2009 proclamation designating November as National Native American Heritage Month and the day after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day, “The Indigenous peoples of North America — the First Americans — have woven rich and diverse threads into the tapestry of our Nation’s heritage. Throughout their long history on this great land, they have faced moments of profound triumph and tragedy alike…”
The life of Jim Thorpe illustrates both.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of features about the National Native American Boarding School (NABS) Healing Summit which took place on November 20, 2021. In the weeks and months to come, readers of the West River Eagle will see more stories from the 2021 National Native American Boarding School Healing Summit.
Highlights included keynotes from tribal leaders, a panel of elders who survived boarding school experiences, updates on proposed federal legislation to create a National Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding Schools, and a panel of Indigenous youth active in their communities advocating for boarding school truth, healing and justice, including youth from the Rose Bud and Pine Ridge reservations.