The myth and reality of Jim Thorpe

David Maraniss’s biography of the legendary athlete highlights the contradiction in White America’s attitude toward Native people.

In 1887, twin boys were born in a log house on the Sac and Fox reservation near the town of Bellemont, Oklahoma. Their mother, Charlotte, a devout Roman Catholic of French and Potawatami ancestry, and their father, Hiram, a bootlegger and brawler of Irish and Sac and Fox parents, brought the babies to Sacred Heart Mission Church for baptism. One was named Charles, the other James. Charles died of typhoid fever nine years later. James was given the Indian name Wa-Tho-Huk, or Path Lit by Lightning, for the thunderstorm that accompanied his birth. Charlotte believed that her baby James was the incarnation of Black Hawk, the Sac and Fox warrior chief.

In 1833, after the defeat of his people in the territory of what is now Illinois, Black Hawk was marched through the streets of East Coast cities as a noble curiosity. In 1912, Jim Thorpe walked the streets of those same American cities, past crowds of people straining to see him. He had just won gold medals for both the pentathlon and the decathlon at the Olympic Games in Stockholm, where King Gustaf V had declared him the greatest athlete in the world.

In his ample and annotated biography, David Maraniss shows that Thorpe was not only a star athlete but also a prisoner of a United States government policy designed to drive Indians off their land and erase traditional customs from Native young people. The Dawes Act of 1887 envisioned the end of communal land use by Native people by apportioning parcels to heads of households, similar to homestead grants offered to Northern European immigrant farmers.