The Spirit of Jim Thorpe

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January 14, 2023

Jim Thorpe was one of the greatest athletes the world has ever known — a legend in the NFL, MLB, NCAA, and in the Olympics. Today he is being celebrated by a new generation of Native Americans.

Special thanks to Robert W. Wheeler and the Smithsonian for archival audio.

Jim Thorpe on the football field, the Olympic track, and the baseball diamond.

Drawn from conversations with hip-hop artist Tall Paul, journalist Patty Loew and biographer David Maraniss, we hear stories from the NFL, from baseball, and, of course, from what made Thorpe a legend —the 1912 Olympic Games.

Drawings of Jim Thorpe

During his traditional Sac and Fox funeral in Oklahoma, Jim Thorpe's body was stolen and sold to a small Pennsylvania town. His body is still there as a trophy and tourist trap. Native American activist Suzan Shown Harjo tells the story.

Jim Thorpe and his fellow players in a snowstorm

Jim Thorpe was stripped of the Olympic gold medals awarded to him in 1912, but activists finally got them back in 2022. Today, Thorpe's legacy is about more than medals or even correcting historic wrongs — young Native Americans are looking to him for inspiration.

Jim Thorpe (left) and Tall Paul (right) on the cover of Tall Paul's latest album.

Tall Paul is an Anishinaabe and Oneida rapper enrolled on the Leech Lake reservation in Minnesota. His new album is called "The Story of Jim Thorpe." Charles Monroe-Kane spoke with him about Thorpe’s legacy, sports and hip-hop.


Show Details 📻
January 14, 2023
October 14, 2023
June 22, 2024
Full Transcript 📄

(solemn ambient music)

- I'm Anne Strainchamps and welcome

to To The Best of Our Knowledge.

Today, we celebrate an American icon.

- The greatest all-around athlete

America has ever produced.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Jim Thorpe, All-American.

(audience applauding)
(audience cheering)

- Jim Thorpe was a Native American athlete

who died 70 years ago,

and is still one of the greatest athletes

who ever lived, maybe the greatest.

A legendary pro football player,

Olympic gold medals for the US,

and a Major League Baseball
player. (baseball bat cracking)

- I thought he was a
hell of a ball player.

- MLB coach Al Schacht.

- He could hit a ball as far as anybody.

He could run as good as anybody.

He was one of the fastest
men I ever saw run the bases.

He was fast.

Man was a great athlete,
he could do anything.

- Former president Dwight D. Eisenhower

actually played against Thorpe
in college. (whistle blowing)

- He can do everything
that anybody was doing,

do it better.

And we saw him just
without the slightest form,

he'd put the football on his foot

and kick it up 60 yards in a punt,

just no trouble at all.

We were standing back there,

it was like from 75 yards, you know,

and he'd boom the ball, wasn't
spiraling or anything else,

just boom down there and saw it was good.

He could throw the ball, he could run,

he could tackle, or do anything.

- He could do anything,

except outrun racism.

As a Native American athlete,

Jim Thorpe proved over and over again

that he was better than
anyone else in the world.

(upbeat hip hop music)

Today, Jim Thorpe is having a moment.

- He's important to me as a Native man

and as a Native youth
when I was growing up,

just because that representation.

- Tall Paul is an Anishinaabe
and Oneida hip hop artist

enrolled on the Leech Lake
reservation in Minnesota.

And for him, Jim Thorpe was everything.

♪ Born in Indian territory Oklahoma ♪

♪ With his twin brother Charlie ♪

♪ Just south of Belmont's border ♪

♪ In a one-room cabin with
the wood stove aroma ♪

♪ Not too long before the revolt ♪

- As a kid I didn't see
Native men or Native women

on the big screen too often,

especially not in an athletic sense.

Like I was watching the NFL, the NBA,

never seen any Native superstar athletes.

So I got curious and
started doing some research

and found out about Jim
Thorpe in my school library.

And that inspired me,

hearing about him being an
Olympic athlete and everything.

Even though he's been gone at
this point for a long time,

I needed somebody to look
up to who was Native.

And that was important for me as a kid.

♪ Hundreds of kids and women murdered ♪

- If you don't think Jim Thorpe

is the greatest athlete of all time,

you need to watch this video.

- There's a feature
length film in the works.

There's a new bestselling biography out.

- The greatest athlete

in the world.
- One of the greatest

athletes of all time,

Jim Thorpe.
- Jim Thorpe.

- Just that much better
than everybody else.

- Wow.

- He's popping up in
Netflix documentaries,

and in Hulu's Hit series
"Reservation Dogs".

♪ On the greatest ♪

- It doesn't surprise me at
all that there are Native kids

running around with
Jim Thorpe t-shirts on.

- Patty Loew directs the
Center for Native American

and Indigenous Research at
Northwestern University,

and she's a member of The Bad River Band

of Lake Superior Ojibwe.

- I think young Native
kids finding somebody

like Jim Thorpe are thinking, hey,

I'd like to be able to
do something like that

and really distinguish
myself in some awesome way,

and have people write
songs and write books

about me 70 years after my achievements.

I think almost any
person who follows sports

knows the name Jim Thorpe,

and understands that his story

is really part of a larger
narrative about America

and how we've come to
deal with race relations.

(solemn ambient guitar music)

- So, who was Jim Thorpe?

Where did he come from?

How did he achieve what he did?

Here's Shannon Henry Kleiber

with Thorpe's biographer, David Maraniss.

- What originally drew you to Thorpe?

I know you've obviously
written about politicians

and your sports biographies

of Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi.

What drew you to Jim Thorpe
at this moment in time?

- I'm always looking for
the dramatic arc of a story,

just a great story.

And then for a way to illuminate history

and sociology through that story.

Jim Thorpe is both an
incredible story of perhaps

the greatest athlete ever,

someone who did things
that were unparalleled.

No one before had won gold
medals in the decathlon

and pentathlon, been an
all-American football player,

the first President of the
National Football League,

and a Major League Baseball player.

And he was also, by the way,
a great ballroom dancer,

and could play ice hockey,

and people said he was
even good at marbles.

You know, he could do sort of anything.

So that's part of it,

but it was also most important to me

was to be able to use his life as a lens

looking at the Native American experience.

And so it was that combination
that drew me to Jim Thorpe.

- Well, yeah, let's talk more about

the Native American experience.

The name of your book is
"Path Lit by Lightning",

which is a translation of,
how do you pronounce it,

is it Wa-tho-Huk?

- Wa-tho-Huk, yes.
- Wa-tho-Huk.

- It's most commonly
shortened to bright path,

but I saw a translation
of path lit by lightning,

and I thought, that's illuminating.

(mysterious ambient music)

It's more poetic.
- Was that like a

North Star for you, his name,

as you were working on this book?

- Absolutely, it was in
so many different ways.

(thunder rumbling)

He was born in 1887 in a little cabin near

the North Canadian River in Oklahoma.

The reason he got that
name, I think was literal.

There was a thunderstorm
along the North Canadian River

the night that he and his,
by the way, he was a twin,

his twin brother Charlie and he were born.

So that's where he got the
name Path Lit by Lightning,


But I viewed it as both a
description of this incredible,

I mean, lightning reflects
sort of energy and electricity,

it also describes something
that is dangerous in a way.

And then the word path
I like so much because

the story of Jim's life is a path

of great accomplishment, difficulties,

(thunder rumbling)

and perseverance.

His mother always told him

that he was the
reincarnation of Black Hawk,

who was the greatest Sac and Fox warrior.

And so Jim sort of always
lived with that in his mind,

that he was following the
footsteps of Black Hawk.

- By the time he was growing up, though,

it was the 1890s and Native people

were living under white man's rules.

- It was very oppressive.

- Patty Loew again.

- The government had the right to tell you

where you could live,

the religions that you
could participate in,

and Native religions were not among them.

Native governments were illegal.

They had the power to tell parents where

they had to send their children.

They could arbitrarily
decide to send the children

to boarding school.

Every aspect of a Native person's life

was controlled by the
Commission on Indian Affairs,

later the Bureau of Indian Affairs,

which during this time was
located in the War Department,

which tells you something.

- Jim Thorpe was among the Native children

sent to those Indian boarding schools.

He ran away from one, and then
wound up at the most famous,

the Carlisle Indian Industrial School

in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Its founder's motto was "Kill
the Indian, Save the Man".

The mission to Americanize Native children

through a military style program

of forced cultural simulation.

Carlisle's coach, Pop Warner
spotted Jim's athletic talent,

first in track and field,
then on the football field,

and the baseball diamond.

In those days,

sports was one of the few
paths to mainstream achievement

even available to Native people.

- You know, these athletic
fields were the only place

where Native people were
free to express themselves,

to compete against themselves,
to compete against white men,

some of them the sons and grandsons of

the military leaders
that had fought against

those Native men's
parents and grandparents.

So imagine Jim Thorpe,

whose great-grandfather Black Hawk was

ruthlessly pursued by
the American military,

and now he's playing against
teams from West Point.

You know, I can't imagine
what must have been

going through his head.

He must have had some
pretty interesting thoughts

before those games.

- Whatever fueled him,

everyone who saw him agreed,
Jim Thorpe was unstoppable.

- Sometimes he would score
all the points for his team

because he was a running
back, he was a kicker,

he punted, he drop kicked
70 yard fuel goals.

It's really, really remarkable

what he was able to accomplish.

(upbeat orchestral music)

- It is July 1912,

King Gustaf of Sweden
officiates at the opening

of the newly built Olympic
Stadium in Stockholm.

It is the sixth revival of
the modern Olympic Games.

It was the year Hannes
Kolehmainen of the Finland

won three gold medals in the 5,000 meters,

10,000 meters and cross-country.

But his achievement was surpassed

by an American Indian, Jim Thorpe,

who won the five event pentathlon,

and then would attempt to win

the first Olympic decathlon ever held.

- Jim started training for the Olympics

in the spring of 1912,

just a few months before the games began.

He'd always been a fast
runner, but now he added jumps,

hurdles, the shot put, pole vaulting,

javelin, discus, hammer.

He'd be competing in the
five event pentathlon

and in the first ever decathlon,

the most grueling contest
in Olympic history.

He would win them both,
outstripping every other competitor,

and despite an unexpected handicap.

(dramatic electronic music)

- So he's competing in Stockholm,

and he's doing really well.

I think it was the last day,

and Thorpe was about to do the high jump,

and his shoes are missing.

Somebody may have taken them

or somebody walked off
with them mistakenly,

but he doesn't have any shoes.

And so Pop Warner finds
two mismatched shoes.

They're not the right size,

so he's got to adjust with a
couple of extra socks on one,

and some jerry-rigged cleats,

and I think he had to wear
two socks on his left foot.

And he still performs
and he winds up winning.

(crowd cheering)

That's a pretty
extraordinary story, I think.

- There's a photo from that day,

must have been taken shortly after he won.

Jim is standing on the field
still in his track clothes,

looking directly, almost
challengingly at the camera.

You can see muscles clenched in his face,

and on his feet, sure
enough, two mismatched shoes.

There's another moment from that day,

also part of the Jim Thorpe legend,

about the moment he
stepped up to receive his

two gold medals from the King of Sweden.

David Maraniss.

- What transpired between
Thorpe and King Gustav V

during those 15 seconds would become

a defining scene of Jim's life.

The accepted story goes
that the king greeted Thorpe

in English by saying, "You sir,

"are the greatest athlete in the world."

To which Jim replied,

- "Thanks, King."

- "Thanks, King."

- Totally inappropriate to
address a royal that way,

but kind of enduring.

- But the question arises,

how is this conversation
known to have happened?

Was it a reasonable, if
slightly imprecise description

of what was said, or was it myth?

- That's the thing about iconic figures.

It can be hard to separate
the person from the myth.

But how different is a myth
really from a stereotype?

In the press, Jim could be cast as both

a heroic athlete and an ignorant rube,

brave warrior, or quote
unquote, "dumb Indian".

The romantic myth and
the derogatory stereotype

wrapped together.

He would be dogged by both
throughout his career.

- Some of the myths are small.

You know, like the myth that Jim Thorpe

hit home runs into three
different states in one game,

Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma,
while playing in Texarkana.

It's a great story, but it's
geographic impossibility.

Throughout his life,

he had to deal with
people who romanticized

and diminished him at the same time.

People who helped him rise,

and then turned away from him
at the times of his crisis.

So I would say the
largest myth I deal with

is the myth that the
white fathers know best.

(solemn ambient music)
(distant cheering)

- The legend of Jim Thorpe
was born in Stockholm.

His performance there
catapulted him to superstardom,

but the events that followed

would haunt him for the rest of his life.

He arrived back in the US a hero,

with a ticker tape parade down Broadway

and national acclaim.

Six months later,

the International Olympic Committee

stripped him of his medals.

- Could you tell that story a little bit?

Because I don't think a
lot of people know, I mean,

they know he won gold medals in Stockholm

and they were taken away, but why?

- Yes.

Well, he played bush league
baseball for two summers

in the Eastern Carolina League.

This was in 1909 and 1910,
2 years before the Olympics.

It was a period when literally hundreds

of college athletes were playing
summer baseball for money.

Most of them were doing it under aliases.

Dwight Eisenhower played
in the Kansas State League

under the name Wilson.

There were so many aliases in
the Eastern Carolina League,

that the joke was,

they called it the Pocahontas League

because everyone was named John Smith.

Or another line was, they are more aliases

in the Eastern Carolina League

than there are aliases for
gunman in New York City.

But Jim Thorpe played
under the name Jim Thorpe,

he never hid it.

His name was in the
paper in North Carolina

for two summers almost every day.

But nonetheless, after
he won his gold medals,

a story broke in the Worcester
Telegram in Massachusetts

interviewing one of Thorpe's old coaches

from the Eastern Carolina League.

And it just broke into this
huge scandal from there

when the guy said that
Jim Thorpe played for him.

All of the people who were
important to Jim's rise

lied about their knowledge
of what he was doing

to save their own reputations.

So Pop Warner, his coach at Carlisle,

knew exactly what Thorpe had done.

He had sent many of his players

down to play baseball before,

they were scouted by one of
Warner's closest friends.

Warner met with Jim several
times during the period

when he was playing baseball
and not at Carlisle.

And yet when the story broke,

he said he didn't know anything about it.

So these people, you know,
sort of the white saviors,

people who were promoting
the purity of amateurism,

lied about Thorpe to save
their own reputations.

George S. Patton was on that Olympic team.

He was in the US Army.

He participated in the modern pentathlon,

which had five events that
were all military oriented.

And he was getting paid by
the Army to practice that

for a year before he went to the Olympics,

but he wasn't called an amateur.

The entire Swedish team was allowed

to take off from their jobs for six months

before the Olympics to just train

and still paid full-time, they weren't.

So in so many ways,

Thorpe was victimized and let
down by people around him.

- Do you think that he was targeted?

I mean, it just seems so many other people

didn't have to play by those rules,

but they wanted him to
play by those rules.

- I don't know if he was targeted,

so much as he was victimized by it

because he was an easy
scapegoat for everybody.

So that when Pop Warner, for instance,

when the scandal broke,

Warner actually wrote a letter for Thorpe

under Thorpe's name,
explaining what happened.

And the basic defense was,
well he's just a, you know,

low the poor Indian, he's
just an ignorant Native,

which was wrong in every
respect and insulting.

So it was easy to have Jim take the fall.

- But I think his story of
accomplishing the impossible,

and then having it taken
from you, as he did,

distinguishing yourself at the Olympics,

having your medals stripped from you for

transgressions that
nearly every major athlete

was doing at that time in history.

I think those are the kinds of injustices

that really resonate with people.

- It wasn't until the summer of 2022,

after years of pressure from his family,

that the International Olympics Committee

finally restored Jim Thorpe's gold medals,

110 years after he won them.

- I was happy for Thorpe's family,

and I know that there were people

in the Native American sports world

that were finally satisfied
that that had been returned.

But you know, for me
it was just a reminder

of how injustice had worked
for such a long time.

- Sometimes the best form of
resistance is remembering.

Today, a younger generation of
Native activists and artists

are rediscovering the story of Jim Thorpe.

- As I was writing this album,

there were definitely moments of anger.

- Take Tall Paul.

- Just thinking about all the stuff

that Jim Thorpe had to go through,

thinking about the boarding school history

and how they started,

and we had to get our hair chopped off,

and we had to speak, look, dress, walk,

talk like civilized
white people basically.

Yeah, yeah, there was some anger there.

And that's been the case
throughout my whole life

learning about Native history,

you know, not even just this album.

So, yeah.

(upbeat hip hop music)

- Tall Paul is a hip hop artist,

and Anishinaabe and Oneida enrolled

on the Leech Lake
reservation in Minnesota.

His new album is called
The Story of Jim Thorpe.

♪ Tone, I represent
indigenous excellence ♪

♪ Effortless, gettin' it in the kitchen ♪

♪ And I'm chefing this recipe ♪

♪ Rest in peace to
ancestors that came before ♪

♪ If you're not aiming for
the top, what you aiming for ♪

♪ Waging wars since Columbus came ashore ♪

♪ Arrowhead to your head,
nowadays we just aim the force ♪

♪ What you waiting for, I
blaze 'em all, I'm past hot ♪

♪ (bleep) you, (bleep) your
team, (bleep) your mascot ♪

♪ Trash talk, talk trash,
walk past, but don't look ♪

♪ I can tell by the vibes,
I got 'em all shook ♪

♪ They wrote books, but left
the truth out, it's all lies ♪

♪ Next summer might bring the
coupe out, it's all eyes ♪

♪ On me, T, O, N, Y, and I
been fly as eagle feathers ♪

♪ None better, red poets representin' ♪

♪ Word to Tall Paul ♪

♪ Fourth and goal, us against all y'all ♪

♪ It's indigenous excellence
when we touchdown ♪

- Coming up.

If what happened to Jim Thorpe

during his life makes you angry,

wait until you hear what
happened after he died.

It's a story you could not imagine,

not in a million years.

I'm Anne Strainchamps,

it's To the Best of Our Knowledge

from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

(solemn piano music)

From the story of his birth

to those mismatched shoes at the Olympics,

Jim Thorpe has become a legend,

and there are conflicting
stories about him,

even after his death.

- Can you take me back to
Jim Thorpe's funeral in 1953?

Can you describe what happened then?

- They were having the
fourth day of ceremonies.

- Native American
activist Suzan Shown Harjo

talking with Steve Paulson.

- The Sac and Fox have their journey

to the ancestors ceremony.

Each day stands for something.

After everything's been done
on the previous three days,

the fourth day is where

his name is returned.

So that means it can be
used by other people again.

It's a good name, can
be used by someone else.

So that ceremony was in process when

his widow, his third wife,

came in with large men and

some sort of legal paper saying

we can take him.

And people picked him up in the casket

and took him out and put him in a car,

her car.

And she drove off.

Thorpe had been through
many, many ceremonies

for other people, of course.

And he wanted that ceremony for himself,

a traditional Sac and Fox ceremony.

That was his wish,

and he expressed it to all
sorts of family members,

to friends, to wives.

And that was his plan.

He was always going to go home.

She put him on ice.

She kept buying ice,

putting ice inside the
casket, draining the casket,

driving around.

She drove to Pennsylvania.

She, I guess, had in her mind that

people there would like
to pay her for his body.

They offered her money,

and she made a bargain with them

that they would change
the name to Jim Thorpe,

they would build a mausoleum for him,

and happiness would reign.

And on the side of the highway,

as you're entering Jim
Thorpe, Pennsylvania is

a mausoleum.

It's not in very fine taste,

it's a little garish,

but I'm sure it attracts
the casual tourist

who's passing by and makes
them wonder, oh, what's that?

He's a tourist trap.

(traditional Native American music)

- The appropriation, not
just of Jim Thorpe's name,

but of his actual body,
his physical remains,

is so obviously a violation,
and a sickening one.

You have to wonder how or
why people didn't see that.

♪ Look how the stars shine for you ♪

♪ My one and only ♪

- But then think about the backdrop.

Think about American sports
and the racist tradition

of derogatory Native American
mascots and team names.

I'm not gonna say them,
but you know what I mean.

Suzan Harjo, who's Cheyenne
and Hodulgee Muscogee,

has been leading the fight
against them for decades.

And she says that those names
have genocidal histories

that are often hiding in plain sight.

Like for example,

the practice of paying bounty
hunters to kill Native people

and accepting as proof of
death, their literal skin.

In the nation's very capital

the NFL team had one of those names,

and Suzan led the fight
that finally got them

to change it to the Washington Commanders,

but not until 2022.

- It was inevitable that
the name would be changed.

It was just a matter of when,
it wasn't a matter of if.

And along the way we've
changed over 2,000 of them.

- 2,000 names of mascots
of sports teams you mean,

or other kinds of
- Absolutely. names as well?

- Wow, huh.

- At the elementary junior
school, the middle school,

high school, community college level,

universities, colleges.

- Let me ask about your role in this.

You have been an activist
for more than 50 years.

Why are these changes happening
now after all these years?

- Well, because we're still here.

We were supposed to be dead,
gone, buried, forgotten.

But because we're still here,

it's kind of a burr
under everyone's saddle.

(Steve chuckling)

And at some point you just
can't ignore living human beings

who are saying, we have these treaties,

and we've kept them and you haven't.

We have been moved,
we've been pushed around,

and at some point everyone has just said,

enough's enough, we're not
going to do this anymore,

because we

have had really strong ancestors

who have given their lives

so that we could be here.

And really strong ancestors who have

made us the people we are who are here

by saying do this, don't let them do that,

be this kind of person, be
this kind of human being,

don't accept this kind of treatment.

And when you grow up with
grandparents and parents

and aunts and uncles who are
talking to you in this way,

you understand that it's on you.

(solemn acoustic jazz music)

- In this long struggle for Native rights

there is such a sense of
generations holding hands,

of messages and lessons passed down.

And you can see that happening again today

with the story of Jim Thorpe,

with the way he's reemerging
as a hero and role model

for a new generation of Native activists

and artists, like the
hip hop artist Tall Paul.

Let's go back to Charles Monroe-Kane's

conversation with him.

- Do you remember that first
time in the library where you

started reading or saw a
picture of that famous picture

of Jim Thorpe in the Olympics?

What was like the first time
you were like, oh my god,

this guy is Native American
and he's a great athlete?

- Yeah, so I was living in
this small town at the time

called Redwood Falls with my family.

And I was down in the
library in the school.

And I was doing some research,

and I was doing some digging,

and I found this book on Jim Thorpe.

And I'm like, okay, he's
a Olympic gold medalist,

NFL Hall of Famer, played
Major League Baseball.

All right, I'm gonna look
into this guy, you know?

And I started doing a lot of
research on him at that point.

But it just felt
inspiring to me, you know,

because I had never heard of him before,

nobody ever told me about him.

I just kind of had to
figure out about him myself.

And it was powerful to find
out that there was somebody

out there like that who represented us.

(mellow hip hop music)

♪ Kicked back in my time machine ♪

♪ Reminiscing everything
was so promising ♪

♪ Siblings let me win so I
would feel like I was king ♪

♪ Caught the pigskin ran it
in then I was high as he ♪

♪ Who's kneeled down when I've cried ♪

♪ And brought the sky to me ♪

♪ Like God, the gridiron
brought my highest being ♪

♪ Fell in love with the sport
when I was high as knees ♪

♪ Then I learned of Jim Thorpe
and I knew I could beast ♪

♪ Blow up and get the paper
like them Shakopee's ♪

♪ Go up to snag the ball on
y'all like Moss and flee ♪

♪ Show up or be shown up
because I've got to peace ♪

♪ That was the Jim Thorpe
effect on my philosophy ♪

♪ But somewhere down the line ♪

- I'm curious about you though,

before we kinda go
further with Jim Thorpe.

What is your story like,
what's Tall Paul's story?

How did you end up being a MC

making an album about Jim Thorpe?

What's your path?

- Yeah, so I was born and
raised in South Minneapolis.

Just a little bit of my
backstory, you know, grew up,

didn't really know my dad too much.

Seen some pictures of
me sucking on his toes

when I was like one or two years old,

but that was the extent
of my knowledge of him.

Like I didn't really know of his existence

beyond these funny pictures I seen.

Met him a little bit later in
life, about nine years old,

wasn't the greatest experience.

I do know him now and we
have a good relationship.

But just kind of preface
him with that history.

And then growing up,

bouncing all over the place
as a youth with my mom

and my brothers and sister
through foster homes,

through women's shelters,

'cause my mom had been in
some abusive relationships.

Just that was kind of my background.

I kind of grew up in a negative situation,

but I was made the most
of it with my friends.

We would get out and play
big games of football,

and I fell in love with football,

which is how I found out about Jim Thorpe.

And then as I got older,
about 14 years old,

I started rapping, you know,

I started freestyling for my friends,

started writing little raps

because I was watching MTV music videos,

106 & Park Freestyle Fridays on BET.

So I started getting some
exposure to hip hop and rap.

Had some struggles with like alcohol

for like five, six, seven years.

And then I got sober, and I
needed something to pick up.

And I had all that free time open now,

so I was like, all right, well,

I'm gonna try this rap
thing out because it's

something I considered
myself to be good at.

So I started rapping,

and I got some beats from local producers,

got some studio time.

Got into the whole hip hop thing,

and as I progressed throughout it,

I was like, well you know,

I connected back to Jim Thorpe,

and I made a song about him
back about five years ago.

And I just think it's
important to push his legacy.

If I can attach him to
something like hip hop,

it'll do a lot to make
people know about him.

♪ I just needed someone
great who looked like me ♪

♪ Jim Thorpe, you could
be my Muhammad Ali ♪

♪ Afflicted with addiction,
alcoholic like P ♪

♪ No submittin' both spittin'
up in college like G's ♪

♪ Like G's, like G's, like G's ♪

♪ All I hear about is Chiefs,
but they're all long deceased ♪

♪ Man, I wish I could have
seen you play ball on TV ♪

♪ I wish that you received
the same notoriety ♪

♪ The mass media has given
all these other athletes ♪

♪ I just needed some
great who looked like me ♪

♪ Jim Thorpe, you could
be my Muhammad Ali ♪

♪ Afflicted with addiction,
alcoholic like P ♪

♪ No submittin' spittin'
up in college like G's ♪

♪ My focus not there, we
probably both got B's ♪

♪ You're the star RB,
I'd skip to smoke trees ♪

♪ When I finally got
sober I became an MC ♪

♪ Messing up on stage 'cause
I care what people think ♪

♪ I needed your influence, I
don't care what people think ♪

♪ See for me to feel great,
man, I needed that drink ♪

♪ Graduated school and flushed
the liq down the sink ♪

♪ Now I gotta be you for
kids who wanna be me ♪

- Woo!

Damn, I mean, that's it, right?

That's what this interview
is totally about.

That's what your album is about.

I mean, "Now I gotta be you
for kids who wanna be me."

You're the legacy of Jim Thorpe.

Right, I mean that's how it works, right?

- Yeah, I think that is how it works,

you know, the so-called
passing of the torch.

And so are all of the
other people out there

in the Native community
who are doing big things.

We are the legacies of
our ancestors and elders

who did great things before us for sure.

- Coming up, the legacy of Jim Thorpe

and the legal battle to
repatriate his remains.

I'm Ann Strainchamps,

and this is To the Best of Our Knowledge

from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

(solemn ambient indtrumental music)

Our story of Jim Thorpe continues,

the story of Olympic
gold medals won and lost,

of an incredible career
in professional baseball

and football, which
inevitably came to an end.

In his later years, Jim
Thorpe struggled to find work.

Coaching jobs he dreamed of
somehow never materialized.

He had stints as a bouncer,
security guard and ditch digger,

and he finally wound up in Hollywood

mostly playing American
Indian chiefs in westerns.

He did get to see a
biopic made of his life

starring Burt Lancaster.

- Think you can do it, Bright Path?

- Just give me that ball.

Working, sweating, training
to go to the Olympics.

For what?
(glass shattering)

- But by then he had
slipped into alcoholism,

and he died destitute in 1953.

At which point, as we heard,

his third wife shows up at the funeral,

kidnaps his body, and
sells it to a small town

in Pennsylvania for use
as a tourist attraction.

There just aren't words.

Jim's children and the Sac and Fox Nation

took the town to court

and demanded his body be
returned to his homeland

for a traditional burial,
as he'd requested.

- How did the town of Jim
Thorpe, Pennsylvania respond?

- This is Suzan Harjo again.

- Like stuck pigs.

- We have no intentions of letting him go.

There's no reason for it.

- They really did not
respond graciously at all.

They said he is ours, we
bought him fair and square.

- And has the town made money off of this,

as far as you know,
after all these decades?

- I do not know.

I would imagine they
have because they fought

tooth and nail to keep him there.

He's their trophy.

This is a time dishonored
practice in America,

taking Native body parts and bodies

and capturing them and
somehow parading them.

But I know that after
a lot of our massacres

and our people were mutilated,

and we're still recovering parts of

our relatives, our ancestors,
from this kind of practice.

- You said this is a big deal,
this whole story of the push,

the move, the campaign to
return Jim Thorpe's remains

to tribal lands in Oklahoma.

Why is this such a big deal,
about Jim Thorpe in particular?

- Until 1989,

when we got the repatriation laws

that we started working on
in 1967, by the way, (laughs)

we were considered under law
the archeological resources

of the United States of America.

And we wanted to change that,

we wanted to humanize ourselves
like the rest of the world.

We've had the horrors of grave robbing,

and of people being
taken out of their graves

after being freshly
buried and being beheaded,

and then their bodies just left there.

I mean, that happened
under the color of law,

under the Indian cranial study

of the US Army Surgeon
General of the late 1800s.

I mean, there's a whole raft
of Army officer reports,

written reports in the National
Anthropological Archives.

One of them said, "I waited
until the cover of darkness

"till the grieving family
left the graveside,

"exhumed the body and decapitated it."

Now what they would do is take the head,

measure the skull, weigh the brain,

and then dip the whole thing in lye.

- Wow.

- Note the measurements,

and send it as freight to Washington

to the Army Surgeon General,

or depending on what year it was,

the Army Medical Museum
and the Smithsonian.

Imagine the people coming back

to that graveside the next day

and finding their beheaded,

headless loved one outside the grave.

I mean, what would you think?

- No, I mean, it's so horrible,
you can't even imagine that.

- It's like a scene from a horror movie,

except it really happened.

America's genocidal war
against indigenous people

is one of history's worst atrocities,

on a scale so massive it's
hard to wrap your mind,

let alone your heart, around.

That's why David Maraniss wanted

to write Jim Thorpe's biography,

because, as he told Shannon,

"Sometimes it's the
small details of history

"that can open up a bigger truth

"and help you take it in."

For example.
- I knew that he went to

the Carlisle Indian Industrial School,

but I didn't really know the story

of what those boarding schools did.

The first set of Native Americans

who went there were Lakota Sioux.

These kids thought they
were going there to die,

to show their bravery, and
many of them did in fact die.

And when I'm doing a
book I'm always looking

for those moments that sort
history washes over me.

And that happened at Carlisle when I went

to what is still the cemetery there

for those Indian children,

and there are 186 of them still there.

- Wow.

So the cemetery is there,

and you can read their names on the.

- Absolutely.

You know, sometimes it's the name

that the school gave them,

and sometimes it's their Native name.

Only in the last several
years have some of those

children been repatriated
to their homelands.

It's run by the US military
now, it's the Army War College.

And for decades the War
College was not allowing that.

But now finally,

some repatriation is going
on and some of the children

are being repatriated to their homelands.

(solemn acoustic guitar music)

- Which is all Jim Thorpe's
family is asking for

for him, for his body.

- The public, the world had
Jim Thorpe all his life,

he was a public figure.

And the family just had one role,

and that was at the end
to carry out his wishes,

and to do it in the way
that he would've been proud

to have done for someone else.

- The battle to reclaim Jim Thorpe's body

has a long legal history.

His family won the right
to get his body back

in a US District Court,

but a Federal Appeals
Court sided with the town

and reversed the decision.

The Thorpe family petitioned
the US Supreme Court,

but it refused to hear the case.

And so now the only way Jim Thorpe's body

will ever be returned to his homeland

is if the town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania

does so voluntarily.

- What do you think will happen?

I mean, do you think Jim Thorpe's remains

will eventually return to
Sac and Fox tribal lands?

- I do.

I do because great things can't happen

in that spot.

- You're talking about the people

in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania?

- I am.

I think at some point the
younger people are going to say,

I don't know what our
parents and grandparents

and their parents were thinking,

but we can still be Jim
Thorpe, Pennsylvania,

but we don't have to
hold onto his remains.

Why do we have to

hold him like he's a
prisoner of war or a trophy?

- The thing that I find so, I don't know,

remarkable about this history
that you're describing is

you've been working on these
issues for years, for decades.

You keep going, you don't give up,

even when things probably
look kinda hopeless.

And I guess I sort of wonder, you know,

how do you manage to
carry on and keep fighting

to restore your rights, and
the good name, and all of that?

- Well, it's my job to be optimistic.

I'm Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee,

and for the Cheyenne people

an instruction was provided
to the people as a whole

that the nation shall be strong

so long as the hearts of the
women are not on the ground.

And what that means is that we
have a job to be optimistic.

We have a job to do a
job, to get things done,

and to believe that it
will be done eventually

because we're going to work to make it so.

(experimental Native American music)

♪ I hope you know ♪

♪ I never wanna see you go ♪

♪ I hope you know ♪

♪ You've always been the one ♪

♪ I hope you know ♪

- I think in a larger sense,

the issue that I dealt
with as a biographer is,

is this a tragedy?

And I decided that there
were tragic elements to it,

but that it wasn't, it was
a story of perseverance.

You know, how do you judge a life,

how do you view a life?

My late brother used to say

that life is a series of sensations.

And I sort of understand that.

And Thorpe had some fabulous
sensations throughout his life.

So that's not tragic.

(pleasant ambient music)

I mean, you just think
about all the people

he encountered in his life,

starting with playing football
against Dwight Eisenhower,

with Omar Bradley on the bench,

going to the Olympics
with George S. Patton,

playing baseball with Christy Matthewson,

traveling the world with Hall of Famers

Tris Speaker and Sam Crawford,

going out to Hollywood
and acting with Bob Hope

and being in a movie
directed by Michael Curtiz,

who directed Casablanca,

and having Bert Lancaster play him.

I mean, you know, I think he
had a lot of amazing sensations

in his life and also some
very difficult periods.

And he did struggle with alcohol.

He had seven children, three wives,

often didn't see his children

as he was traveling around the country.

So there were some
elements of tragedy to it,

and also some amazing
unparalleled sensations.

- Jim Thorpe means to me that phrase

we call indigenous excellence,

embodying the human
spirit and all our flaws,

but still being legendary and great,

and not allowing all the things
that go against us in life

to tear us down and stop us from being

our greatest version of ourselves.

That's what Jim Thorpe represents to me.

- I think for such a long time

Native people and Native communities

have been defined by our deficiencies.

We're poor.

You know, if you look at
educational attainment,

we're at the bottom of the list.

There's always somebody
trying to take our land

or our children, or it's
always what's wrong with us.

And over the past 20 years,

I think as treaty rights
have been asserted

successfully in courts,

and there's been this renewal
of culture and language,

especially in Native America,

I think people

are starting to understand that,

yeah, we've got generational trauma,

but generational trauma
didn't help us survive.

We survived because of
generational joy and ingenuity

and innovation and achievement.

And I think there's
probably nobody that better

describes that than Jim Thorpe.

(crowd cheering)
(whistle blowing)

(emotional hip hop music)

♪ Never, never, never again ♪

♪ Never, never, never again ♪

- I'm Anne Strainchamps,

and this is To the Best of Our Knowledge.

♪ The story is bigger than
Jim, bigger than him ♪

- I'd like to thank our guests today

for sharing their
knowledge and their hearts.

Rapper Tall Paul's album is
called The Story of Jim Thorpe.

Go to Spotify and check it out.

Tall Paul is an Anishinaabe
and Oneida hip hop artist

enrolled in the Leech Lake
reservation in Minnesota.

Biographer David Maraniss,

author of "A Path Lit by
Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe".

Activist Suzan Shown
Harjo is the recipient

of a 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

She's Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee.

And Professor Patty Loew,

Director of the Center for Native American

and Indigenous Research at
Northwestern University.

She's a member of the Bad River Band

of Lake Superior Ojibwe. To
the Best of Our Knowledge comes

to you from Wisconsin Public Radio.

Charles Monroe-Kane produced this hour

with help from Angelo Bautista,

Shannon Henry Kleiber, and Mark Riechers.

Our technical director and
sound designer is Joe Hardtke

with help from Sarah Hopeful.

Additional music this
week comes from Tall Paul,

Randy Wood, Superman,
Katza, and Audiorezout.

Archival audio from Robert W.
Wheeler and the Smithsonian.

Steve Paulson is our Executive Producer,

and I'm Anne Strainchamps.

If you heard anything in today's
show that mattered to you,

I hope you'll share it.

Be well, and thanks for listening.

♪ Never, never, never again ♪

♪ Never, never, never again ♪

♪ Never, never, never again ♪

♪ The story is bigger than
Jim, bigger than him ♪

♪ Never again ♪

(upbeat electronic music)

- PRX.

Last modified: 
June 21, 2024