James Francis Thorpe was born on the Sac and Fox Nation in 1887 in Indian Territory, currently known as the state of Oklahoma. His tribal name was Wa-Tho-Huk, which means “Bright Path” in the language spoken by his people. Like many tribal youth during his era, Thorpe was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, more than 1,200 miles from his homelands. Amid Carlisle’s stated goal to strip Indian children of their identities, he excelled in sports there before competing in the Olympics in Sweden, another far-away destination. The 1912 games marked the debut of the decathlon and the pentathlon and Thorpe sailed to victory in both events. He first won the pentathlon that ran from July 7-12 in 1912, winning four of the five competitions — long jump, 200-meter dash, discus throw and 1,500-meter run. He even placed third in javelin throw, a sport he had never played until the Olympics. Next up was the decathlon, consisting of 10 competitions that ran from July 13-15 in 1912. Thorpe’s record-breaking achievements in the events were all the more impressive — by this time, his shoes had been stolen in Stockholm. According to Bright Path Strong, he achieved victory wearing a mismatched pair of shoes that he found in the garbage, a remarkable feat in and of itself. But Thorpe’s legendary status lives on with another recognition of his athletic prowess. According to news reports from the time, King Gustav V of Sweden was extremely impressed with the American’s victories. “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world,” Gustav is said told Thorpe during the presentation of the gold medals at the closing ceremony in 1912. “I would consider it an honor to shake your hand.” “Thanks, King,” Thorpe humbly replied. Bright Path Strong will continue to tell Thorpe’s story with a commercial film in his honor. Several tribal nations, along with major inter-tribal organizations, are partners in the production to ensure it accurately reflects the Olympic legend’s achievements, as well as his crowning as the world’s greatest athlete. “Son, you’re an Indian, I want you to show other races what an Indian can do,” Thorpe remembers his father telling him. The words helped inspired Thorpe to success on the national and international stages, striking back at U.S. government policy aimed at eradicating his very Indian identity. In an infamous speech, the founder of Carlisle said boarding schools like the one Wa-Tho-Huk attended were meant to “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” ”They say that historical trauma is ingrained in our DNA, and I feel like Jim felt that. He was like, ‘You know what? I gotta make something of myself,’” Juanita Toledo, a citizen of Pueblo of Jemez, said in a interview with Bright Path Strong. Despite Thorpe’s celebrated status in Indian Country, his legacy continues to be impacted by injustice. As he was about to be buried by his family on his homelands in present-day Oklahoma in 1953, his then-wife had his remains taken to Pennsylvania.
🥇 IOC to display the name of Jim Thorpe as sole Stockholm 1912 pentathlon and decathlon gold medallist.— IOC MEDIA (@iocmedia) July 15, 2022
The change comes on the day of the 110th anniversary of Thorpe’s medal in decathlon.
Read more about it 👉https://t.co/crIIXvhaNJ pic.twitter.com/oSAjEoDKnJ
But the last-minute move was not tied to Thorpe’s history at Carlisle, which had long been shuttered. Instead, his body was taken to a newly-created municipality called the Borough of Jim Thorpe, located in an entirely different part of Pennsylvania. The action was motivated partly by financial gain. Not long before his passing, his then-wife told The Associated Press that Thorpe had “spent money on his own people and has given it away.” In fact, Thorpe’s generosity and dedication to Indian people had led to him receiving a new name of Akapamata, which means “Caregiver” in the Sac and Fox language, according to Bright Path Strong. Citing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, Thorpe’s sons attempted to have their father’s remains returned to his intended resting place in Oklahoma. They achieved a win when a federal judge determined that the Borough of Jim Thorpe was required to follow the repatriation law. But the victory, which came after one of Thorpe’s son passed away, was temporary. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed course on the NAGPRA determination. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the matter, effectively keeping Thorpe in Pennsylvania.
The greatest athlete of all time.🥇#JimThorpe is now recognized as the sole champion of the decathlon & pentathlon in the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, as the International Olympic Committee has acknowledged the feat, 110 years after its achievement.— National Congress of American Indians (@NCAI1944) July 15, 2022
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