Jim Thorpe dominated the 1912 Olympics, held in Stockholm, Sweden, but he wasn’t alone. The Sac and Fox athlete swept through the pentathlon and decathlon in performances never again equaled. But 100 years later, in the centenary of the fi rst great modern Olympics, the other Native athletes on the U.S. and Canadian teams are still heroes and role models in their communities and beyond.
The names of four top runners live on in present-day competitions and monuments – in the U.S., Louis Tewanima (Hopi) and Andrew Sockalexis (Penobscot) and, in Canada, Alexander Wuttunee Decoteau (Cree) and Joe Benjamin Keeper (Cree/Métis). Native Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku is a legend throughout the world as a swimmer and apostle of surfing.
These athletes were prominent in an arena in which Natives were later under-represented. In 1912 three Native traditions converged on the Olympic team. First was the robust athletic program of the U.S. government’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Although assimilationist boarding schools are now in bad repute, Carlisle fielded outstanding track and football teams, both coached by the controversial genius Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner. Second was Native reverence of running as spiritual exercise, famously in the Southwest but also in the Northern woodlands. And third was Hawaiian beach culture. When Natives swam and rode the surf, they also preserved an identity that missionaries had tried, and failed, to suppress. Here are their stories:
Like Thorpe, Tewanima entered competitive sports by way of the Carlisle Indian School in rural Pennsylvania – 2,000 miles from his birthplace on the remote Hopi Second Mesa of Arizona. In 1907, federal authorities ordered him and other Hopi to attend the governmentrun school after a long dispute with their village over the education of its children. Tewanima arrived at Carlisle’s doorstep “virtually a prisoner of war,” the school’s superintendent Moses Friedman later put it.
At 110 pounds, Tewanima’s scrawny physique belied his natural athleticism. According to legend, Tewanima learned enough English to tell the school’s famed coach Warner, “Me run fast good.” After clocking his times, Warner needed no further convincing. Just a year later, Tewanima competed at the 1908 Olympics in London alongside Carlisle teammate Frank Mt. Pleasant. Tewanima placed ninth in the marathon. The performance caught the eye of President Theodore Roosevelt, who reportedly remarked at a reception for the team, “This is one of the originals.”
When the 1912 Olympics rolled around, Tewanima returned with yet another Carlisle teammate, Jim Thorpe. Tewanima placed 16th in the marathon, but he won the silver medal in the 10,000 meters. His time of 32:06.5 set a U.S. record that stood for more than 50 years until Oglala Lakota runner Billy Mills broke it during the 1964 Games.
Tewanima, Thorpe and Warner enjoyed a hero’s welcome upon their return to rural Pennsylvania. Thousands of fans lined the streets to watch the now world-famous athletes parade through town, followed by a speech from the Carlisle’s superintendent that was as critical of Tewanima’s culture as it was complimentary of his athletic achievements: “His people, the Hopi Tribe of Arizona, had been giving the Government much trouble and were opposed to progress and education. It was finally decided to send twelve of the head men and most influential of the tribe to Carlisle to be educated in order to win them over to American ideas,” Friedman declared, “Louis Tewanima here is the twelfth of that party. He is one of the most popular students at the school. you all know of his athletic powers – I wanted you to know of his advancement in civilization and as a man.”
But Tewanima’s athletic prowess was a direct result of his Hopi upbringing. Born in the late 1880s, Tewanima spent his childhood carrying on the ancient Hopi tradition of running as a spiritual act. For the tribe, long-distance running is a physical form of prayer that produces rain for their parched lands, good fortune for their people and a connection to their ancestors. Hopi foot races were legendary for the endurance they demonstrated, not the least because most runners ran barefoot, despite the region’s rocky, cactus-strewn landscape.
Running was also a much-needed diversion on the lonely, windswept deserts of the Southwest. During his induction into the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame in 1957, Tewanima recalled that as a child he would run nearly 50 miles with his friends just to glimpse passing trains in Winslow before embarking on the 50-mile journey home: “It was the summertime,” he explained with a shrug, “The days were long.”
But despite the insistence among Carlisle administrators that Tewanima had voluntarily exchanged his Hopi earrings, long hair and traditional lifestyle for more “civilized” ways, he returned to his hometown of Soongopavi on the Second Mesa soon after the 1912 Olympics. He remained there for the rest of his life, herding sheep and growing corn as his Hopi forefathers had before him. He died in 1969 after falling off a 70-foot cliff while walking home from a religious ceremony. At the time of his death, he was believed to be the oldest living U.S. Olympian.
Since 1974, hundreds of runners have gathered in Second Mesa for the annual Tewanima Foot Race to honor his memory. “Tewanima is a cultural hero to all Hopi,” Hopi High School track coach Rick Baker told Sports Illustrated in 1996, “But especially to young runners.”
Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku remains Hawaii’s greatest athlete. Beginning in 1912, he participated in five Olympic games, earning three gold and two silver medals and setting three world records in the 100-yard freestyle over the course of his career. He developed the now common “flutter kick,” and single-handedly popularized modern surfing.
Though Duke’s first name suggests a link to Hawaii’s 19th-century Native aristocracy, he actually inherited his name from his father, whose birth coincided with a visit of the Duke of Edinburgh to Hawaii. Born in 1890 as the eldest of nine children, Duke learned how to swim “the old-fashioned way,” as he told the audience of the popular television show This Is Your Life in 1957; at the age of four, he was thrown from a canoe by his father, who instructed him to “Save yourself or drown.” Kahanamoku would spend the better part of his childhood in the surf at Waikiki Beach not far from his home.
In 1911 he competed in his first meet, a competition sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and broke his first record. Swimming 100 yards in 55.4 seconds, Duke beat the previous record not by fractions of a second, but an astonishing 4.6 seconds. The new time stunned AAU officials on the mainland, who refused to recognize the feat, first claiming that officials in Hawaii had misread their stopwatches and later that ocean currents had aided the swimmer. Local supporters eventually raised enough money to send him to Chicago, where he swam in a pool for the first time and dominated the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events. A year later, he made his victorious debut at the 1912 Olympics, winning the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle and the silver medal in the 200-meter freestyle relay. King Gustav of Sweden crowned him with a laurel wreath that now sits in Honolulu’s Bishop Museum.
Though World War I forced the cancellation of the 1916 Games, he continued to accept invitations at swimming exhibitions all over the country, competing in Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cincinnati and St. Louis in the span of one month that year. He brought his 100-pound, 16-foot longboard with him whenever his travels took him near the ocean. Wind sliding, as surfing was once known among the Hawaiian royalty who practiced it, suddenly appeared on shores throughout the world.
During his Olympic appearance in 1924 in Paris, his younger brother Samuel joined him, winning the bronze medal in the 100-meter freestyle; Duke took silver. But his most impressive performance occurred outside the arena in 1925, when he personally rescued eight passengers from a capsized boat off the coast of Corona del Mar using nothing but his strength and his longboard.
The rescue might have come from a Hollywood movie, and that’s where Kahanamoku headed next. Over the course of his 28-year film career, the telegenic athlete appeared alongside actors John Wayne, Jack Lemmon, Henry Fonda and others in roles that emphasized – and arguably mocked – his Native Hawaiian roots. During this time he also became Hawaii’s unofficial ambassador, greeting VIPs like John F. Kennedy, Joe DiMaggio, Shirley Temple and Amelia Earhart during their visits to the islands. The popularity and respect he enjoyed in Hawaii earned him 26 years as elected sheriff.
He died in 1968 at the age of 77. A ceremony was held on Waikiki Beach and his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean as a local minister offered these departing words: “God gave him to us as a gift from the sea, and now we give him back from whence he came.”
Like Louis Tewanima, Andrew Sockalexis took up running as an homage to his tribe’s ancestral customs. Born in 1892 on the Penobscot Nation’s Indian Island Reservation in Old Town, Maine, Sockalexis grew up hearing about the tribe’s “pure men,” an elevated status attained only by the community’s most agile youth. Before the tribe lost its hunting grounds to European settlers, these “pure men” acted as designated hunters, literally running down prey. They abstained from liquor, tobacco and women to maintain top physical condition.
The Sockalexis clan had produced a number of pure men in the past, and athleticism still ran in his family. His father had earned a reputation as an outstanding runner in the tribe’s traditional five-hour foot races and his cousin, Louis Sockalexis, became the first American Indian baseball player in the major leagues when the Cleveland Spiders drafted him in 1897. (See, “The Real Indians of Baseball,” page 34.)
Sockalexis was 10 when his father built a track near their home and encouraged his only son to use it. Just nine years later, he finished 17th at the 1911 Boston Marathon in his first official race. The next year, he finished second, earning a spot on the U.S. team for the 1912 Olympics. In Stockholm the oppressive 90-degree heat took its toll on the runners. Though Sockalexis was considered the favorite among the marathon’s 12 American runners, he placed fourth. He later explained that his strategy of holding back to conserve energy had backfired. He had waited too long to gain on the marathon’s frontrunners and couldn’t catch up in time. He fared far better than a Portuguese competitor, though, who collapsed of heat stroke during the marathon and died the next morning.
In the end, Sockalexis’ promising career would also be cut short. In 1919, seven years after his Olympics debut, he succumbed to tuberculosis. He was just 27. On the 90th anniversary of his death, the Maine State Legislature officially recognized him among the ranks of the state’s greatest runners of all time, declaring that he “brought much pride to the Penobscot Nation and to all the people of Maine.”
The Canadian Runners: Alexander Wuttunee Decoteau and Joe Benjamin Keeper
The two Olympians from Canada’s First Nations dominated distance running back home and had good reason to be proud of their showing in Stockholm. Alexander Wuttunee Decoteau (Cree) placed eighth in the 5,000-meter race, in spite of leg cramps. Joe Benjamin Keeper (Cree) raced in both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter events. In the latter, running right behind Tewanima, he finished fourth, the highest a Canadian runner has ever placed in that race.
Decoteau was born in 1887 on the Red Pheasant Indian Reserve in Saskatchewan. He attended the Battleford Industrial School and then moved to Edmonton. He joined the Edmonton City Police in 1909, becoming Canada’s first policeman of aboriginal background. From 1909 to 1916, he was the repeat winner of western Canada’s main distance races, taking the five-mile Cross Challenge Cup race five times and the 10-mile race at Fort Saskatchewan three consecutive years.
In 1916, Decoteau enlisted for World War I with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Arriving in France in 1917, he took part in the Canadian assault on Passchendaele, one of the bloodiest battles of the war, and was killed by a sniper on October 30. He is buried in Ypres, Belgium, but his family performed a ceremony in Edmonton in 1985 to make up for his lack of a Cree burial and to “bring his spirit home.”
Joe Keeper was born in 1886 in Manitoba, a member of the Norway House Cree First Nation. In high school at the Brandon Indian Residential School, he developed his talent for long-distance running. He moved to Winnipeg in 1910 and began to compete in road races for the North End Amateur Athletic Club. In 1911, he set a new Canadian record for the 10-mile run and became a leading candidate for the Canadian Olympic team.
In 1916, like DeCoteau, he enlisted in the Great War. He served two years in France as a dispatch runner, along with the famed marathoner Tom Longboat (a competitor in the 1908 Olympics) and several other First Nations longdistance runners. During the war, Keeper and Longboat led a Canadian team to first place in an inter-Allied cross-country championship. After the war, Keeper settled in northern Manitoba, working for the Hudson Bay Company and raising a large family. He died in 1971.
His granddaughter Tina Keeper is a wellknown actress, who played the role of Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer Michelle Kenidi in the long-running television drama North of 60. She was also elected to a term in the Canadian Federal Parliament.
The Manitoba Runners’ Association and the Norway House Cree Nation both have held annual runs in Keeper’s honor.