NMAI’s <em>Best in the World: Native Athletes in the Olympics</em>
The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm in which Native athletes put on a stunning performance with the upcoming exhibit “Best in the World: Native Athletes in the Olympics” which opened on Friday, May 25 through September 3.
Curator James Adams told us that the exhibit will showcase Native athletes throughout the olympics, with special focus on the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, and their considerable contributions to the world of sport.
“Native athletes have several obstacles standing in their way; a lack of resources to train properly, the economic back ground…there was also a racist attitude towards Native athletes that [Jim] Thorpe and his colleagues exploded at the 1912 Olympics. They turned in such brilliant performances at those games.”
Brilliant performances indeed. Jim Thorpe, Sac and Fox, dominated the games, sweeping both the pentathlon and decathlon, becoming the first and only Olympian to do so. King Gustav V of Sweden famously called Thorpe “the greatest athlete in the world.”
Duke Kahanamoku, a Native Hawaiian, took to the pool and won the 100-meter freestyle in Stockholm. Andrew Sockalexis, Penobscot, placed fourth in the marathon. Lewis Tewanima, Hopi, won a silver medal and set the American record for the 10,000 meters until another American Indian, Billy Mills, Oglala Lakota, won the gold medal at the 1964 Games in Tokyo and bested Tewanima’s mark in one of the most thrilling races in Olympic history.
The global spotlight the 1912 Olympic Games provided for Thorpe, Kahanamoku, Sockalexis and Tewanima helped inspire Native athletes for generations after. The NMAI’s exhibit celebrates the legacy of 1912, and highlights the Native athletes who made their presence felt in the Olympics thereafter.
“The exhibit is not only about how great of athletes these guys were, but how much they had to overcome to achieve their greatness,” Adams says.
The exhibit looks at athletes like Clarence “Taffy” Abel, Ojibwe, who won a silver medal as part of the 1924 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team and later became the first U.S.-born player in the National Hockey League; Ellison Myers Brown, Narragansett, who ran the marathon at the 1936 Olympics; twin sisters Sharon and Shirley Firth, Gwich’in, who competed in the 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984 Games in cross-country skiing; Theoren Fleury, Métis/Cree, who won a gold medal in 2002 in ice hockey, and Carolyn Darbyshire-McRorie, Métis, who won a silver medal in curling in 2010, among others.
What You Will See
The exhibition will be on view in the museum’s Sealaska Gallery. It will feature the gold medals restored to Thorpe’s family in 1983 for his victory in the 1912 decathlon and pentathlon events. Thorpe’s medals will be on view at the museum through July 9, at which point they will travel to the London 2012 Summer Olympics Games, where they will be celebrated and displayed in front of millions of spectators. The exhibit will also feature the silver medal that Kahanamoku won in the 1912 Olympics, as well as the gold medal won by Mills in the 1964 Games.
There will be a bevy of extremely rare photos, including a shot of Frank Pierce, Seneca, the first American Indian to make it to the Olympic finals in the marathon.
“We have a clear photo of him leading the pack at the start of the marathon,” Adams says of Pierce. This took place in 1904, at the Olympics in St. Louis at Francis Field, a stadium that still stands at Washington University and is used by the school’s track and field, cross country, football and soccer teams.
Adams called the photo selection process “sort of heartbreaking,” having to decide between photos in which there are very few uninteresting shots. The photos came from all over the world, including from the Cumberland Historical Society in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and archives housed in Sweden.
“The first stage is to find the archives and see what they have,” Adams says. “Second stage is to make a bunch of selections from the archives, usually about four times as many as we could possibly use, and look at their quality and winnow down from there.”
We asked Adams about some of the tough calls he had to make, and he recounted the shot of Jim Thorpe training on the S.S. Finland, a photo that dispelled the myth that Thorpe never trained on the ship.
But that wasn’t even the most interesting thing about the photo—what made it really hard for Adams to ultimately not include it in the exhibit (it will likely find a home in a future exhibit or in a magazine, Adams says) was the revelation of who took the photo—Thorpe nemesis and fellow pentathlon competitor Avery Brundage.
“Brundage competed in the pentathlon against Thorpe and got wiped out. He was runner up as the all-around athlete, behind Thorpe. When Thorpe was removed of his medals [for having played semi-professional baseball in the United States] it was Brundage who was the face of the Olympic committee, the bureaucracy adamant against restoring the Medals to Thorpe. He was very curt, very arrogant in his reactions to the petitions to restore Thorpe’s medals.”
Other historic photographs of Native athletes competing in the Olympics, including rare images from the 1912 Games taken by legendary football coach Pop Warner, and a commemorative Wheaties box that was released in 2001 to honor Thorpe as “The World’s Greatest Athlete” will be on display. Smithsonian Magazine selected this object as its “National Treasure” in their June/July 2012 issue.
There will also be free public programs related to the exhibition that will be offered throughout the exhibition’s run, including a presentation by Mills on Saturday, July 14, and his wife, Pat.
“Billy Mills will give a two-part inspirational talk, discussing the impact of his gold medal on his life, and his wife, Pat, will unveil a painting for the Olympic Musem in Lausanne, Switzerland,” Adams says. The painting, of her husband, was inspired when Pat toured the museum and saw no representations of American Indian athletes.
There will also be a meet-and-greet with Hawaiian surfer and craftsman Tom “Pohaku” Stone on Friday, May 25. The museum will also host Stone as an artist-in-residence from Sunday, May 20, through Friday, May 25, where he will share his knowledge of ancient Hawaiian sports while also carving a traditional Hawaiian surfboard (Papahe’enalu) and sled (Papah?lua) in the Potomac Atrium during regular museum hours.
“This is something we hope will be inspirational to the Native Youth,” Adams says of the exhibit, a hope that seems to be, like Thorpe in 1912, a sure bet. For more information, visit their site here.