When asked for the name of the greatest American athlete of the early part of the 20th century, far and away the most often named athlete is Jim Thorpe.
You may be asking, "Who was Jim Thorpe and why do I need to know who he is?"
Jim Thorpe was important not only as the most famous Native American athlete ever, but for the role he played in American history. A member of the U.S. Olympic team at the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, Sweden, Thorpe was a product of Indian boarding schools, which, while they stripped Native American children and teens of their culture, families and language, were also fertile ground at the time for developing Native American athletes.
As a student at Carlisle Indian Vocational School in Pennsylvania, Thorpe played football for a team coached by the legendary Glenn S. "Pop" Warner, whose teams regularly notched victories against some of the best football teams in the country. In one game, which Carlisle won 18-15, with Thorpe kicking four field goals, two over 40 yards (which were very uncommon at the time, given the playing conditions and the primitive equipment).
Thorpe was also a star baseball player and for two decades held the Olympic records for both the pentathlon and decathlon, which he set at the Stockholm Olympics, where King Gustav of Sweden conferred on him the title - which he wore proudly - of the "Greatest Athlete in the World."
As the Indian schools that developed so many Native American athletes fell into decline, they have produced fewer and fewer Native American athletes. The reasons are many and include both stereotypical and nonstereotypical causes as to why these athletes with such exceptional athletic skill fail to excel on University campuses and return to their reservations without completing their education. Of the few athletes who make it into professional sports today, they all attribute their success, their existence to Jim Thorpe.
As the controversy surrounding the use of Native American imagery and nicknames by sports teams continues to swirl, perhaps it is time to change the focus from what they promote, to whom. Perhaps it is time to look for ways to provide Native American athletes a chance to maintain closer ties with the families they leave behind on reservations, improve their chances of graduation, and excelling in ways that help them to return to their reservations to serve as role models and help improve their communities.
While the greatness of Jim Thorpe makes that more tragic the dearth of Native American athletes in American sports today, citing his success story might well be the best way to increase the number of such athletes and achieve positive change.
For more information on Jim Thorpe and Native Americans in Sports check out:
Bright Circle, a documentary on Jim Thorpe and Native Americans sports by Russ Bolinger and Shawn Kakuk, at
http://www.brightcircle.org/ and the ESPN documentary,"Outside The Lines: The Native American Sports Experience" at