The Summer Games Are the Native Games
Exactly 100 years to the day the London Summer Olympic Games opened, on July 27, the Stockholm Games closed in 1912. Those Swedish Games are of course famous for the heroics of the “World’s Greatest Athlete,” Jim Thorpe, Sac & Fox, who swept both the decathlon and the pentathlon, taking golds and setting world records. But there were three other Native American athletes with Thorpe there whose influence, in the words of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, “even 100 years later, continues to reverberate throughout Indian Country and beyond.” Here ICTMN profiles those three, Hopi runner Louis Tewanima; Native Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku; and Penobscot runner Andrew Sockalexis.
Thorpe may be the world’s greatest athlete, but Kahanamoku remains Hawaii’s best; one doesn’t earn nicknames like the Bronze Duke of Waikiki, the Father of Surfing, and Hawaii's Ambassador of Aloha without being a champ. An all-around athletic phenom, Kahanamoku invented the “flutter kick” swimming technique, commonly practiced today, and popularized modern surfing.
In 1957 Kahanamoku told the audience of This Is Your Life that he learned to swim the “old-fashioned way”: At the age of four his father threw him out of a canoe and told him to “save yourself or drown.” Lucky for Indian Country, but not so much his competition, he saved himself and became a world-beating swimmer.
At the 1912 Games, Kahanamoku won the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle and the silver medal in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay. Overall, 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.
He died in 1968 at the age of 77. According to the National Museum of the American Indian, 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."
Some swear Sockalexis was born running, and they just might be right. He 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," notes the National Museum of the American Indian, 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.
And the Sockalexis clan had produced a great number of these pure men in the past, and Andrew would join them. His father was renowned for being an outstanding runner, always excelling in the tribe’s traditional five-hour foot races. At age 10 Sockalexis’s father built him a racetrack, and he was encouraged to use it early and often. Within eleven years, Sockalexis shocked the nation by finishing 17th in the Boston Marathon, his first official race. That performance earned him a spot on the U.S. national marathon team at the 1912 Olympics.
Faulting a failed race strategy, Sockalexis finished fourth at the Games. He had been a favorite among the 12 Team USA marathon runners.
Tragically, Sockalexis died far too young, at age 27, in 1919, of tuberculosis. With the 1916 Olympics cancelled because of World War I, the 1912 Games would be the only time he’d compete on the world’s greatest stage.
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."
Of the four Native Americans who competed in 1912, only Tewanima had been at the 1908 Games in London (London is the only city to have hosted the Olympics three times in the modern era, having also staged the Games in 1948). With minimal training, Tewanima somehow managed to finish 9th in the marathon in 1908, a truly stunning result. Not only did this demonstrate his astonishing natural athleticism, it presaged future greatness. The performance of the virtually unknown athlete caught the eye of President Theodore Roosevelt, according to the National Museum of the American Indian, who reportedly remarked at a reception for the team, "This is one of the originals."
The Smithsonian says 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.”
In 1912, Tewanima joined his Carlisle Industrial School teammate Thorpe in Stockholm. Neither of the two was required to compete in qualifying trials to earn a spot on the U.S. team, 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.
Soon after the 1912 Olympics. he returned to his ancestral home of the Hopi Second Mesa in Arizona, 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.