Celebrating American Indian Athletes in the 1912 Olympics
Even the most casual sports observer has heard of Jim Thorpe. The Sac and Fox athlete who swept the Pentathlon and Decathlon at the 1912 Olympics earned awards, accolades, and die-hard fans in nearly every major sport in the early 20th century: baseball, football, basketball, track and field. But he wasn’t the only Native American athlete who sealed his reputation at the Stockholm games. Thorpe was joined by three Indian brethren from the U.S. whose influence, even 100 years later, continues to reverberate throughout in Indian Country and beyond: Hopi runner Louis Tewanima, Native Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, and Penobscot runner Andrew Sockalexis.
Long-distance runner and Olympic medalist Lewis Tewanima (Hopi, 1889?-1969) after winning a marathon in New York City, May 6, 1911. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
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 mesas of Arizona. In 1907, he was ordered by federal authorities to attend the government-run school after a long dispute with the tribe over the education of its children. Tewanima arrived at the Carlisle’s doorstep “virtually a prisoner of war,” the school’s superintendent Moses Friedman later put it.
At 110 pounds, the twenty-something’s scrawny physique belied his natural athleticism. According to legend, Tewanima learned enough English to tell the school’s famed coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner, “Me run fast good.” After clocking his times, Warner needed no further convincing. Just a year later and with minimal training, Tewanima found himself competing at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London alongside fellow Carlisle Indian School teammate Frank Mt. Pleasant (Tuscarora). Competing against the world’s most rigorously trained runners, Tewanima placed 9th in the marathon with a time of 3:09:15. The performance of the virtually unknown athlete 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. Neither was required to compete in qualifying trials, such was the confidence in their abilities. Tewanima won the silver medal in the 10,000 meters with a time of 32:06.5—a U.S. record that stood for more than 50 years until Oglala Lakota runner Billy Mills broke it to win the gold medal 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 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.”
What Friedman didn’t realize (or perhaps preferred not to acknowledge) is that 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 believed to produce 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 Second Mesa, Arizona, 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.”
Known alternatively as the Bronze Duke of Waikiki, the Father of Surfing, and Hawai'i’s Ambassador of Aloha, Duke Paoa Kahanamoku remains the state’s greatest athlete. His list of achievements is a long one. Beginning with the 1912 Olympics, he participated in five Olympic games, earning three gold medals and two silver medals and setting three world records in the 100-year freestyle over the course of his career. In 1913, he earned the title of U.S. indoor champion; he became the outdoor titleholder in 1916 and repeated the achievement in 1920. He developed the now common “flutter kick” and popularized modern surfing, first appearing on the shores of Sydney, Australia, to teach eager would-be surfers how to carve their own longboards and later promoting the sport in southern California, Atlantic City, and on Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, where an avenue once bore his name.
Though Duke’s first name suggests a link to Hawai'i’s 19th-century kingdom, the Native Hawaiian actually inherited his name from his father, whose birth coincided with the Duke of Edinburgh's first visit to Hawai'i. 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: by being thrown from a canoe at the age of four by his father, who instructed him to “save yourself or drown.” Despite this intense introduction to the water, or perhaps because of it, Duke would spend the better part of his childhood in the surf at Waikiki Beach not far from his home.
In 1911 Duke swam in his very first meet, a competition sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and broke his very first record. Swimming 100 yards in 55.4 seconds, he 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 accomplishment, first claiming that officials in Hawai'i 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 4x200-meter freestyle relay. King Gustav of Sweden crowned him with a laurel wreath that now sits in the Parker Ranch Museum in Hawai'i.
Though World War I forced the cancellation of the 1916 Games, Duke Kahanamoku continued to accept invitations to 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, and bringing 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 last Olympic appearance, in 1924 in Paris, he was joined by his younger brother Samuel, who won the bronze medal in the 100-meter freestyle; Duke took silver. But his most impressive feat occurred 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.
That such an unbelievable rescue might read like the plot of a Hollywood movie is appropriate considering that that’s where Duke 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 Hawai'i’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 Hawai'i eventually led him to the Honululu Police Department, where he spent 26 years as the city’s 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 while a local reverend 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.”
Andrew Sockalexis, like Lewis Tewanima, took up running as an homage to his tribe’s ancestral customs. Born in 1892 on the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation in Maine, Sockalexis grew up hearing stories about the tribe’s legendary “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 men acted as the Penobscot’s designated hunters, literally running down prey and abstaining from liquor, tobacco, and women to stay in top physical condition. The Sockalexis clan had produced a number of pure men in the past, and athleticism still ran in the family, so to speak. Andrew's father had earned a reputation as an outstanding runner in the tribe’s traditional five-hour foot races. His cousin, Louis Sockalexis, would become the first Native American baseball player to join the major leagues when the Cleveland Spiders drafted him in 1897. (Thanks to Louis’ success, in 1915 the team officially changed its name to the Cleveland Indians.)
Andrew Sockalexis was 10 years old when his father built a track near their home and encouraged his only son to use it. Just eleven years later, Andrew made national headlines by finishing 17th at the Boston Marathon in his first official race. The performance earned him a spot on the U.S. team for the 1912 Olympics, but 90-degree heat on the day of the race took its toll. Though he was considered a favorite among the marathon’s 12 American runners, Sockalexis placed 4th. 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.
In the end, Sockalexis’ promising career would be cut short. In 1919, seven years after his Olympics debut, he succumbed to tuberculosis. He was just 27 years old. 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.”
— Molly Stephey, Public Affairs Producer, Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian
These photos are part of the museum's exhibition, "Best in the World: Native Athletes in the Olympics," on view in Washington, D.C., through September 3, 2012.