If most people were asked to name some famous Native American athletes, it would probably be a list of one, Jim Thorpe. A few might come up with later Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills. Anyone else? Why so few?
I discovered Jim Thorpe when I was a boy as a story in the popular kid's book, Champions All The Way (1960) published by Whitman. It's a inspirational anthology of athletes who overcame adversity and handicaps--worth getting for upper elementary and middle school collections. And yes, I later saw the Burt Lancaster movie, Jim Thorpe: All American.
For most libraries, the standard "Thorpe" biography has always been the readable 1975 biography by Robert W. Wheeler, Jim Thorpe: World's Greatest Athlete. Prior to this review, I asked a number of ACHS students if they knew who Jim Thorpe was? None of them did. After winning both gold medals for the decathlon and Pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics, the international Olympic committee later stripped him of his medals and records because he had played summer baseball for a few bucks years earlier thus technically violating the "amateur status" rule. Unlike many other athletes of the day, his mistake was that he used his real name. Being so athletically superior to everyone else and an Indian didn't help his case.
Because of this travesty, continual competitive pressure, the injuries, the alcohol, the notoriety, being a pro football and baseball player, and being an Indian in the early 20th century America, his life was hardly a bowl of cherries or the American dream. As he himself said, "I went to play baseball in North Carolina for a couple of summers and paid for it for the rest of my life."
Fortunately, in just the last few years, Jim Thorpe's triumphant and tragic life has been updated and reexamined by two superb, readable, objective, and more definitive biographies. In 1950 sportswriters voted him the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century and many still consider Jim Thorpe the best ever all-around athlete. Although I would recommend libraries acquire both: All American: The Rise And Fall Of Jim Thorpe (2005) by Bill Crawford and Native American Son: The Life And sporting Legend Of Jim Thorpe (2010) by Kate Buford, the latter is broader in scope not only fleshing out his life, but portraying the culture and times Jim Thorpe lived in. I can't see how any future biography will be more revealing or representative.
Jim Thorpe became a national sports star while attending the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. He was coached by the great Pop Warner. Consequently, Carlisle became a athletic powerhouse in both football and track--"Where's your team?" asks the meet director. Coach Warner replies, "This is Louis Tewanima. He runs middle and long distances. The other guy is Jim Thorpe. He does everything else." Readers further interested in "Thorpe" lore or either Football or American history will enjoy The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed A Game, a People, A Nation (2007) by Sally Jenkins and Carlisle vs. Army: Jim Thorpe, Dwight Eisenhower, Pop Warner, And The Forgotten story Of Football's Greatest Battle (2007) by Lars Anderson.
Speaking of Indian schools, I can't forget Linda Peavy's and Ursula Smith's 2008 Full-Court Quest: The Girls From Fort Shaw Indian School Basketball Champions Of The World. It is a unique and compelling book about what a group of remarkable young Native American women experienced in the early 1900s including playing at the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904.
On second thought, If a avid baseball aficionado was quizzed, he might have heard of Charles Albert "Chief" Bender, the baseball pitcher and hall of Famer. Any decent Native American or biography collection should include Tom Swift's Chief Bender's Burden: The Silent Struggle Of A Baseball Star (2008) and Money Pitcher: Chief Bender and The Tragedy Of Indian Assimilation (2006) by William C. Kashatus.
Hopefully, increased awareness because of such books and libraries and the lessening of media and societal bias, the list of recognizable native Americans in sports will get longer. As Ms Buford states, "...American Indians make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population but account for only 0.4 percent of scholarship athletes at the major college level. ...Indians find the transition to the top level of sports difficult. The immediate reasons: ignorance or indifference on the part of recruiting coaches and reluctance of young athletes to leave the reservation. The deeper reasons: lack of self-confidence out in the white world and fear of becoming no longer an Indian."
While writing about Indian athletic prowess, I've been thinking of the Sioux, basketball player and middle distance runner, Johnny Jones. He was a local childhood friend. Unfortunately, he dropped out of high school and, as often happens, one loses track. I wonder whatever happened to him? 479 pages. Recommended by Robert L. Hicks, High School Librarian, Arkansas City, KS 67005 USA