Chief Keith Horse Looking, left, and Bryan Brewer, founder of the Lakota Nation Invitational, hold a prayer ceremony on December 19, 2019, for Rick Hill, former Oneida Nation chairman and co-producer of the upcoming film "Bright Path: The Story of Jim Thorpe." Hill died suddenly on December 12, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Oneida Nation visionary Rick Hill honored at Lakota National Invitational

RAPID CITY, South Dakota – As young Native students bounced basketballs and veterans carrying flags lined up for grand entry, a documentary film crew took the court at the Lakota National Invitational tournament on Friday evening.

They stepped out onto the hardwood floor of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center to honor a member of their crew who recently died.

Rick Hill, 66, former chairman of the Oneida Nation, died suddenly December 12 at his home.

“It’s been a hard week, but we’ve been here because of all the spirit and all of the youth and all of the intelligence that you have and thank you for sharing that with us,” said Nedra Darling, a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and executive producer of “Bright Path: The Story of Jim Thorpe.”

From left: Abraham Taylor, Martin Sensmeier and Nedra Darling, co-producers of the upcoming film "Bright Path: The Story of Jim Thorpe," take part in a December 19, 2019, prayer ceremony for Rick Hill, former Oneida Nation chairman and a co-producer of "Bright Path." Hill died suddenly December 12, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Hill had served as executive producer for “Bright Path,” a motion picture film currently in production.

The film’s production crew – including executive producer Martin Sensmeier, who also will play the role of Jim Thorpe – spent much of last week at the 43rd annual Lakota Nation Invitational filming basketball games, as well as other sports and academic competitions. They plan to include their footage in a documentary about boarding schools that will be released along with “Bright Path.”

Speaking before hundreds of students, fans and educators last week, Darling described Hill’s passing as a “true loss to Indian Country, and he will be in our hearts forever.”

Hill served as an Oneida Nation councilman since 1977 and served his first term as chairman from 1990-1993. In 2008, he was again elected chairman.

During his first term, the Oneida Nation signed its first gaming compact with the state of Wisconsin, and Hill simultaneously served as chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association.

Under Hill’s leadership, NIGA became a nationally recognized voice in Washington, D.C., and successfully initiated the development of a national set of minimum regulatory standards and policies for tribal governmental gaming, according to the Oneida Nation.

After he retired from Oneida politics, Hill worked on various economic development projects, including negotiating tribal investment in the first ever off-reservation hotel in Washington, D.C. The Residence Inn by Marriot is a 13-story, 233 room, 24,000-square-foot hotel.

“He was a skilled negotiator, politician, leader and jokester. Most importantly, he was a loving brother to us all,” said the Oneida Nation. “The Oneida Nation circle of generational leadership will be greatly impacted by the passing of one of our most respected and prominent leaders.”

Hill’s latest endeavor involved telling the Jim Thorpe story in a way that honored his legacy.

The film is co-produced by actress Angelina Jolie and award-winning producer Todd Black with funds from nine different tribes. It is named for Thorpe’s Sac and Fox name, Wa-Tho-Huk, which means “Bright Path.”

Thorpe grew up on the Sac and Fox Nation reservation in Oklahoma and attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

He won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympic Summer Games held in Stockholm, Sweden, making him the first Native to win a gold medal. He was considered one of the most versatile athletes of modern sports and excelled in college and professional football, professional baseball and basketball.

He played professional sports until age 41. After retiring from sports, Thorpe struggled to earn a living and suffered from alcoholism. He lived his last years in failing health and poverty, dying in 1953.

The Associated Press named him the “greatest athlete” from the first 50 years of the 20th century.

The idea for the film came from co-producer Abraham Taylor, who said he learned about Jim Thorpe while doing research for a documentary about legendary college football coach Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, who coached Thorpe at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

“As I dug into the story, the things I was learning about the history of this country – history I was never taught – I quickly realized I couldn’t tell Pop Warner’s story,” Taylor said. “The story here was Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian football team and the kids who went there and specifically the boarding schools.”

On Thursday, Taylor and other members of the film’s crew traveled to the Pine Ridge Reservation and to the Wounded Knee Memorial. He said seeing the graves there changed everything he knows about the history of Native people.

“I went to Wounded Knee yesterday for the first time, and for the first time of my life I saw a mass grave, and that changes a person, seeing that and experiencing that,” he said.

He said he learned through research into Thorpe’s life that the boarding schools were essentially a continuation of the Indian Wars.

From left: Nedra Darling, executive producer of the upcoming film "Bright Path: The Story of Jim Thorpe," Chief Keith Horse Looking and Bryan Brewer, founder of the Lakota Nation Invitational take part in a December 19, 2019, prayer ceremony for Rick Hill, former Oneida Nation chairman and a co-producer of "Bright Path." Hill died suddenly December 12, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Nedra Darling, who recently retired as public affairs director for the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, said the film will focus heavily on Thorpe’s experience at Carlisle.

She said footage that the production team shot at the Lakota Nation Invitational will demonstrate that the boarding school experiment didn’t destroy the spirits or cultural traditions of Native people.

“Look at what happened here that they were able to do,” she said, citing competitions held last week in chess, mathematics and Native language. “The intellect that’s here is amazing.”

Taylor said many people interviewed by the film’s crew last week expressed similar messages of resilience and hope.

“The overwhelming theme in all the interviews we’ve been conducting is this idea that I’ve heard over and over again is that, ‘We’re still here,’” he said. “This story in particular changed my life, changed the way I saw the world, and I think it has the power to do that with a general audience, too.”

Said Darling: “It’s a story that needs to be told and told the right way, and we’re going to do that.”

The Oneida Nation is greatly saddened by the passing of our former Chairman, Rick Hill. We are grateful for his many...

Posted by Oneida Nation on Monday, December 16, 2019

Join the Conversation
Trending in News
More Headlines