Jim Thorpe has been heralded as the greatest athlete ever, certainly the most accomplished of the first half of the 20th century.
Thorpe won Olympic gold medals in the decathlon and the pentathlon in 1912. He simultaneously played professional baseball and football, interchanging his sport by the seasons. He was a co-founder of and the first president of what became the National Football League.
Many of his records — feats of strength, speed and cunning — would align Thorpe with world-class athletes of today. That’s a massive accomplishment considering improvements in conditioning and equipment of modern sportsmen.
And yet, Thorpe’s skills could not circumvent slights to his Native American roots. His physical accomplishments were often twisted, laced with innuendo and outright stereotypes. The lazy Indian. The drunken Indian. The broke, hapless man, aging and living a vagabond lifestyle in a trailer. And, there was the image of him as a naive, under-educated rule-breaker who somehow deserved it when he was stripped of his Olympic gold.
None of it is true. Not even the story many Kansas Citians might have heard, the one about how and why Thorpe left what was then Haskell Indian School in Lawrence. The notion that he hated it and ran away is an inaccurate version that even this newspaper has reprinted.
Jim Thorpe was born in 1888. He often battled the problem that native people still face: An ignorance that reduces the indigenous to relics of a Wild West, suitable as mascots to be characterized.
Which is why it’s notable that one of his sons, Bill Thorpe, attended Sunday’s Kansas City Chiefs game against the Pittsburgh Steelers as a guest of the Chiefs organization and a group of Native Americans that the team has been working with for more than two years now.
Former Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez accepted a drum mallet from Thorpe during pregame ceremonies honoring American Indian Heritage Month at the stadium.
And yet, for all the tributes, a shocking insult to Thorpe’s native spirit occurred earlier this month.
On Oct. 5, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the macabre tale of how Thorpe’s sons and the Sac Fox Nation of Oklahoma lost a legal battle to reclaim the legend’s body for reburial.
“There is not much else that we can do,” said Bill Thorpe, 87, of the decision. He lives in Arlington, Texas.
Bill Thorpe was a young man in 1953 when his famous father died of a heart attack. The son was allowed to return home from the Korean War for the funeral. Midway through a three-day Sac Fox ceremony to lay Jim Thorpe’s spirit to rest in his native Oklahoma soil, Thorpe’s third wife arrived with a hearse and law enforcement. She took the body and later gave it to two boroughs in Pennsylvania that agreed to change their name to Jim Thorpe, in exchange for burial rights. It was her attempt at ensuring that he’d have a lasting monument.
“We were halfway through a ceremony that was putting my dad to rest the Indian way,” said Bill Thorpe, one of Thorpe’s two remaining sons. “There was nothing that we could do to stop it.”
On Friday, Bill Chapin, a Chiefs senior vice president, and two Chiefs players, long snapper James Winchester of the Choctaw Nation and quarterback Tyler Bray of the Potawatomi Nation, also attended a dinner to honor Jim Thorpe. Richard Thorpe, 83, couldn’t make the trip from his home in Oklahoma.
The keynote speaker was Robert W. Wheeler, a former public relations man for ABC sports now living near Denton, Texas. Thorpe’s sons feel Wheeler’s exhaustive 1975 book, “Jim Thorpe, World’s Greatest Athlete,” is the definitive book on the athlete.
“My father is of an importance like one of the Geronimo’s, and the chiefs of all the tribes,” Bill Thorpe said. Indeed, Jim Thorpe was a descendant of Chief Black Hawk.
The work between the American Indian Center of the Great Plains, a working group of Native Americans, and the Chiefs, is an ongoing relationship. It’s one of outreach and cooperation.
“Since our inaugural celebration of American Indian Heritage Month last year, we’ve continued to keep in close contact with representatives from the American Indian Community Working Group,” Chiefs President Mark Donovan said in a statement. “With their help and guidance, we are continuing to build on our goal of educating our fans and creating awareness of American Indian history and heritage within the Chiefs Kingdom.”
It’s the educational approach the Chiefs embraced Sunday. This wisely keeps the Chiefs a step ahead of the backlash brewing against sports teams with native imagery and names. Those are on-going struggles, with various groups and activists seeking to convince Washington D.C.’s NFL team to finally give up its offensive slur of a name.
Chiefs fans who slather their faces and bellies with costume paint are not honoring native people. Misappropriating elements of native sacred rituals — feathers, headdresses and drumming — with buffoonery in pre-game tailgating is not honoring native people. But it’s also a matter of free speech, spectator’s rights.
For the team, it’s a public relations tangle. There will be no pleasing everyone. Whatever the Chiefs organization does to mediate concerns, it will never be enough for some. And it will be too politically correct for others.
Bill Thorpe shares the genial attitude of his father toward such things. He says he isn’t overly concerned with team names, the actions of fans that are derogatory. But speak with him for more than five minutes and it’s clear he dearly wishes that more people knew native people; had a chance to see intricate beadwork, leather-making and traditional dancing.
For his book, Wheeler spent two years conducting more than 200 interviews with teammates, family and friends who had known Thorpe. He even interviewed Burt Lancaster, who portrayed Thorpe in a 1951 movie, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who as a cadet at West Point had played football against Thorpe.
The book undercuts many myths.
Thorpe didn’t so much run away from Lawrence, as he ran toward home. The story is often repeated that Thorpe disliked Haskell Indian Junior College and soon left, literally walking all the way back to Oklahoma.
That’s only partially correct, according to Wheeler and Bill Thorpe. He wasn’t there very long and he was young, not even a teenager.
Jim Thorpe had been a twin. But his beloved brother Charlie died of pneumonia when the boys were eight years old. Jim had a hard time readjusting to school in Oklahoma without his brother, his constant companion. He’d run 18 miles to get back home, nothing to a boy who grew up swimming streams, chasing and breaking wild horses.
So the decision was made to send him to Haskell, as a new start, an Indian school where there were no memories of Charlie’s presence.
But soon after he arrived, his father was shot in a hunting accident. So Thorpe left for home. He hopped a train, mistakenly going the wrong direction and wound up an extra 270 miles out of his way, his son said. It took him two weeks, but he did walk home. His father recovered and it was decided that this time, he’d go to school at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.
But Haskell is where Thorpe received his first football and first became enthralled with track and field events.
At Carlisle, Thorpe was coached by the famous Glenn S. “Pop” Warner. And led the team to defeating the powerhouse college teams of that day. Successes there led to his Olympic pursuits.
Wheeler interviewed Abel Kiviat, Thorpe’s roommate on the ship to reach Sweden. Kiviat was Jewish and revealed that he and Thorpe weren’t given keys to rooms, like the rest of the competitors. They were expected to sleep in steerage below.
Wheeler also found a picture of Thorpe training on the ship and heard the stories of how he led workouts. The interviews corrected the oft-repeated “no training” stories and the lie that Thorpe would drink and then compete.
For perspective, understand that it wouldn’t be until 12 years later, in 1924, that Congress would grant American Indians the rights of U.S. citizenship.
Wheeler and his wife Florence Ridlon are credited with finally restoring Thorpe’s Olympic medals. Many others had tried to before, including sportswriters, coaches and politicians.
But it was Ridlon who in 1982 reached between two metal bookcases at the Library of Congress and discovered a pamphlet of the official rules for the 1912 games. Due to how the medals were taken, she was able to prove that procedures weren’t followed. Thorpe had been accused of breaking amateur status because Warner had sent him to play semi-pro baseball in North Carolina for $2 a game.
The gold medals were restored and given to his children, who gave them to the Oklahoma State Historical Society.
Ridlon and Wheeler, along with their son Rob Wheeler, recently wrote an article on Thorpe’s years in Hollywood for a publication of the Smithsonian. In it, they detail how he helped found the Native American Actors Guild and worked to get native people hired in the many western films of those decades, pressing against stereotypical representations. Equal pay and health insurance, especially for native stuntmen, were among his causes.
By the end of his life, Thorpe and his wife did live in the trailer, but it wasn’t due to a lack of money. His widow showed Wheeler shoe boxes full of receipts from Thorpe’s many public appearances, earning $500 a speech. Rather, he preferred to travel in a trailer so that he could hunt and fish at the crack of dawn, wherever they traveled.
Thorpe drank, but not to excess.
He was most often described as genial and generous. He especially liked speaking with school groups; always telling them what he told his own children: Don’t cuss, exercise, eat right and go to bed early.
“Dad was just a pretty happy-go-lucky individual,” his son said. “He was just a good man.”
There is no need to embellish either the personal trials of Thorpe, or his enormous athletic accomplishments. The truth is honorable enough.