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A LOOK BACK: Athletics Helped Improve Native American Relations

pop-and-tewanima

By Derek M. Otto

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, most Americans think of the great historic feast between the Native Americans and Pilgrims. The first Thanksgiving was probably one of the few cordial moments in America between the whites and the Native Americans.  Wars, raids broken treaties and a reservation system seemed to put a damper on the relationship.

Textbooks well into the twentieth century would label the Native American as dirty and savage.  Successes of two Native American athletes help to change attitudes toward Native Americans.  Jim Thorpe and Lewis Tewanima would bring home medals from the 1912 Olympiad.  Important to note is that they trained in Springville.   

Thorpe and Tewanima were both students of the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, PA.  The Indian School movement was an attempt to assimilate Native Americans into white culture to prevent raiding and looting to settlers traveling west, but also improve quality of life on the reservations.   Carlisle was an old Revolutionary War military post that was converted to the boarding school.  Students were removed from western reservations and sent to Pennsylvania to live a regimented life of American dress, culture and language.   The founder of the school, Major Pratt, saw that the best teachers and vocational instructors were hired.  Later, this included Glenn “Pop” Warner to be hired as the athletic director. Warner served as coach at Carlisle from 1903 until 1914.   

In the summers before the 1912 Olympiad, coach Warner brought them to his home town, Springville, to train and keep an eye on them.  Jim Thorpe famously trained with the Dygert horses on the half mile track at Elk Street.  Thorpe would run with the horses as the Dygerts ran them.

Lewis trained at the farm of Sumner Warner in Collins.  Picture the scenes from the movie Rocky IV, when Rocky trains on a farm in Russia.   

It was the natural ability of the Native Americans to compete athletically that gave them great advantage.  In 1912, Pop coordinated a track meet at Lafayette to celebrate their graduation day. Pop arrived with a squad of eight athletes to compete.   Pop Warner once recalled, “The Lafayette coach was dismayed and suggested we call off the meet.  ‘We have a squad of 50, no sense making a farce out of things’ the Lafayette coached piped.’”

Pop continued, “We’ll compete in all events except the pole vault and try to make a contest out of it.”  Pop entered Thorpe and Tewanima and another Carlisle student in the quarter mile and 440.   They finished 1-2-3.  The Lafayette squad finished first on in the pole vault.  The final score of the meet was Carlisle 71, Lafayette 41.

At the 1912 Olympiad, Tewanima would win the silver in the 10,000 meters.  Tewanima would hold the indoor record for the 10,000 many years; it wasn’t broken until 1964.

Jim Thorpe won the gold in both the Decathlon and the Pentathlon.   Thorpe had his Olympic medals taken away for playing professional baseball, but later had them reinstated in 1982.   

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