One hundred years ago, when the modern Olympic era began, the United States population was one third of what it is now and most athletes were chosen from elite eastern schools. But athletes from the working classes found ways to compete, including young Native men who were sent to the Carlisle Industrial School. Natives sent to such schools to “Kill the Indian to Save the Man” were encouraged to Americanize, but in sports they could put aside the demoralizing aspects of “civilizing” and compete on the field.
Arguably, Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox) was the greatest athlete of all time. He won gold in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Unfortunately, the world of sports politics worked against him when it was discovered that Thorpe had played semi-professional baseball, the strict interpretation of an athlete’s amateur status caused the loss of his records and medals. Thorpe had to play the “just an ignorant Indian” card since Glenn “Pop” Warner and other supporters did not step up to defend him. Some critics have speculated over the years that Avery Brundage, who Thorpe beat out at the 1912 Olympics and later became an Olympic official, denied Thorpe’s reinstatement request in later years for personal reasons.
Thorpe played professional baseball and football from 1913 to 1928. His teams won titles but never a championship, but he was always the main attraction. The fledgling National Football League hired Thorpe as its first President to give them credibility, even as he coached and played in games. He helped organize an All-Indian NFL team, the Oorang Indians in the 1920’s. In the late 1920’s he barnstormed with a basketball team called “Jim Thorpe and His World Famous Indians.”
Running has always been an athletic endeavor that Native Americans, north and south, excelled at. There is a spiritual element to running, it is one person and the Creator, but that person also runs for his family, clan and tribe. Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota) had the most impact and influence in the modern era, winning the 10,000 meters in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, becoming only the second Native to win Olympic Gold. His closing finish after getting bumped and left behind by other runners is an Olympics classic.
What may be forgotten is that Hopi runner Louis Tewanima won the silver in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics as a teammate of Thorpe from the Carlisle team. Tewanima’s medal was the best by an American in the 10,000 meter event until Mills beat it. Tewanima ran in both the 1908 and the 1912 Olympic marathon races. Louis Tewanima is a national hero to the Hopi who honor him every Labor Day with a race. The Carlisle School for a couple years had Tewanima, Frank Mount Pleasant and Thorpe, who as a three man team beat elite college teams with 30-40 members.
Frank Mount Pleasant
A Tuscarora from Buffalo, New York, as a chief’s son he was sent to boarding schools and ended up at Carlisle. He was the first Carlisle student to qualify for the Olympic team, competing in 1904 and 1908 in the long jump and triple jump. He was the quarterback on the Carlisle teams that for a few years had the best national records of 10-1, the latter years with Thorpe. The only game they lost with Thorpe was when Mount Pleasant didn’t play. He was the first quarterback to throw spiral passes. The combination of lean and fast Native athletes, the innovative forward pass and new formations deployed by Coach Pop Warner revolutionized football. Mount Pleasant went on to coach college football from 1910-1915, served in WWI and played semi-pro football after the war.
His Native name was Cogwagee, an Onondaga from Six Nations, Brantford, Ontario. Longboat started his long distance running career in 1905, and would soon win most of the big races in North America and some in Europe. His time of 2:24:24 in 1907 Boston Marathon beat the previous mark by 5 minutes. He represented Canada as a marathon runner in the Olympics and gained renown as a professional long distance runner as it became a popular sport. He bought out his contract after disputes with managers and sponsors and ran even better. In WWI he served in Europe as a dispatch runner, a dangerous duty. Longboat is celebrated as a Canadian national hero on his birthday, June 4. Ellison “Tarzan” Brown (Narragansett) was the only other Native runner to win the Boston Marathon, he ran in the 1936 Olympics and would’ve competed in 1940 but the outbreak of WWII cancelled it.
Ben Nighthorse Campbell
Campbell (Northern Cheyenne) was born in California where he learned judo from Japanese friends, and he said the sport kept him out of trouble. He served in the Air Force during the Korean War, kept studying judo from Korean instructors and earned a brown belt. He won a gold medal at the Pan American Games in 1963 and then became captain of the U.S. Olympic Judo team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He went on to become to become a U.S. Representative for Colorado in the 1980’s and then a Senator for Colorado in the 1990’s.
Rickie Fowler (Navajo)
Rickie Fowler is one of four American golfers at the Rio Olympics this year, where golf has returned as an Olympic sport after 112 years. Fowler won the Abu Dhabi Championship in January and was ranked as high as #4 worldwide. He was the number one ranked amateur for several months in 2007-2008. Some American golfers dropped out but Fowler (Navajo-Japanese-American) was definitely going and is happy to be in Rio with Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed and Matt Kuchar. He actually crossed over from dirt-biking and at age 27 with $25 million in earnings he thinks pushing the limits has helped him.
Ashton Locklear – (Lumbee)
Born in 1998, Ashton Locklear brings us to the present tense as she is serving as an alternate for the U.S. Women’s Gymnastic Team which won gold for the Team Competition in Rio on August 9. Her first championship was a state-level competition at age 5 and she started training seriously at age 11. Locklear was on the U.S. Team which won gold at the 2014 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. She has competed at a high level, helping her U.S. Teams win gold at several international competitions where her speciality is the uneven parallel bars. Locklear was injured in 2013 and 2015, but returned back to form to earn a place on the 2016 Olympic team as an alternate. She was a one misstep away from being on the U.S. Gymnastics team which repeated its domination in Rio. The U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team has won two consecutive Olympic Golds and World Championships in 2011, 2014 and 2015.