The Spirit of Jim Thorpe

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Original Air Date: 
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.

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.

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Full Transcript 📄

(peaceful music)

- I'm Anne Strainchamps

and welcome to, To The
Best of Our Knowledge.


we celebrate an American icon.

- The greatest all around athlete
America has ever produced.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Jim Thorpe, All-American.

(crowd 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.

(bat smacking ball)

- 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

in him on running 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
and anybody was doing,

he can do it better.

And we saw him, just
without the size of horn it,

put the football on his foot

and kick it up 60 yards in punt.

Just no trouble at all.

We were standing back there,

it was like from 75 yards, you know,

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

just boom down there.

That's all there was to it.

He could throw the ball, he could run,

he could tackle, he could 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 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 of Oklahoma ♪

♪ with his twin brother Charlie ♪

♪ just south of Belmont border ♪

♪ in a one room cabin with
the wood stove aroma ♪

- 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 some, somebody to
look up to who was native,

and that was important for me as a kid.

♪ Symbolize the arrival
of a different shift ♪

- 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 produced by Angelina Jolie.

There's a new best selling biography out.

- The greatest athlete of-

- 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.

♪ One 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.

(peaceful 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 his 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 as
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 by Lightning

and I thought, that's illuminating.

- Yeah.
- You know that it's-

- Was that like a North
Star for you, his name?

- Yes.

- As you were working on this book?

- Yes, absolutely.

It was in so many different ways.

(peaceful thunder sounding)

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,

(peaceful thunder sounding)

and perseverance.

(peaceful thunder sounding)

His mother always told him

that he was the
reincarnation of Black Hawk,

who was the greatest Sauk 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.

- Patti 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 could,

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 assimilation.

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.

(crowd noises)

- 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,

who's 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.

It must have been,

he must have had some
pretty interesting thoughts

before those games.

- Whatever fueled him,

everyone who saw him agreed,

Jim Thorpe was unstoppable.

(crowd applauding)

- Sometimes he would score all the points

for his team because
he was a running back,

he was a kicker, he punted,

he dropped kicked 70 yard field goals.

It's really,

really remarkable what he
was able to accomplish.

(patriotic music)

- It is July, 1912,

King Gustav of Sweden
officiates at the opening

of the newly built Olympic
Stadium in Stockholm.

(patriotic music)

It is the sixth revival of
the modern Olympic Games.

It was the year Hannes Kolehmainen

in the Finland won three gold medals

in the 5,000 meters, 10,000
meters and cross country.

(patriotic music)

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.

(crowd applauding)

- 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.

(upbeat 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 jury 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.

(upbeat music)

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 the fifth

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?

(patriotic music)

- 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.

- Well, you know,

there are a lot of myths

of any figure who rises
to that form of acclaim.

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.

But he did hit three
home runs in that game.

So that's the sort of
small myths that happen.

And then there are sort of
larger myths about Jim Thorpe

because 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.

(peaceful music)

- 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,

a national acclaim.

Six months later,

the International Olympic
Committee stripped him

of his medals.

- Could you tell that story

a little bit?
- Sure.

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,

two 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're 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.
- Right,

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,

while he's just a, you
know, low and poor Indian,

he's just an ignorant native,

which was wrong in every
respect and insulting.

So he was, 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 music)

- Tall Paul is a hip-hop artist,

Anishinaabe and Oneida enrolled

on the Leech Lake
reservation in Minnesota.

His new album is called
The Story of Jim Thorpe.

♪ So I represent Indigenous excellence ♪

♪ Effortless getting it in the kitchen ♪

♪ And I'm cheffing this ♪

♪ Recipe rest in peace to ancestors ♪

♪ That came before if you're
not aiming for the top ♪

♪ What you aiming for ♪

♪ Waging war since
Columbus came on shore ♪

♪ Arrowhead to your head
nowadays we just aim the four ♪

♪ What you waiting for ♪

♪ I blaze them all I'm past hot ♪

♪ (beep) you, (beep) your
team, (beep) 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 representer
word to Tall Paul ♪

♪ Fourth and goal us
against all of you all ♪

♪ It's indigenous excellence
when we touchdown ♪

♪ Passing the- ♪

- 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 P-R-X.

(upbeat music)

(peaceful music)

- 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.

(slow music)

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 rain.

And on the side of the highway,

as you're entering Jim
Thorpe, Pennsylvania

is a mausoleum

and it's not in very fine taste,

it's 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.

(nature sounds)

(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.

(Native American music)

♪ They call a star will shine for you ♪

♪ My one and only you ♪

- 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.

- Yeah.

- And along the way we've
changed over 2000 of them.

- 2000 names of mascots,
of sports teams, you mean?

- Yes.

- Or other kinds of names as well. Wow.


- 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 burned
under everyone's saddle.

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.

(peaceful 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?"

(peaceful music)

- Yeah,

so I was living in this small town

at the time called Red
Bull 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
Olympic gold medalist,

N-F-L 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.

(upbeat 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 the Jim Thorpe ♪

♪ And I knew why 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 kind of 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've 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 free styling for my friends,

started writing little raps

because I was watching M-T-V music videos,

106 and Park Freestyle Fridays on B-E-T.

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

Had some struggles with like alcohol

for like 5, 6, 7 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
that I've always been,

something I considered
myself to be good at.

So I started rapping and I got some beats

from local producers,
got some studio time.

- Um-hm.

- Got into the old 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 look like me ♪

♪ Jim Thorpe you could
be my Muhammad Ali ♪

♪ Afflicted with addiction
alcoholic like P ♪

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

(upbeat music)

♪ All I hear about is chiefs ♪

♪ But they're all long deceased ♪

♪ Man I wish I could've
seen you play ball on TV ♪

♪ I wish that you'd receive
the same notoriety ♪

♪ The mass media has given
these other athletes ♪

♪ I just needed some great
look like me, Jim Thorpe ♪

♪ You could be my Muhammad Ali ♪

♪ Afflicted with addiction
alcoholic like P ♪

♪ No submitting both 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 you 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 a 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.


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.

(peaceful music)

- Coming up,

the legacy of Jim Thorpe

and the legal battle to
repatriate his remains.

I'm Anne Strainchamps,

and this is To the Best of Our Knowledge

from Wisconsin Public Radio and P-R-X.

(upbeat 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 stents 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.

- You think you can do it Bright path?

- Just gimme that ball.

Working, sweat, train
to go to the Olympics

for what- (glass breaking)

- 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 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's 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.

(both laughing)

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, it's absolutely,

I mean, it's just, it's so horrible.

It's, 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 of wash over,
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 cemeteries 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.

(peaceful 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 cited 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 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 kind of hopeless.

And I guess I sort of
wonder, you know, where,

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.

(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 this a tragedy?

And I decided that there
were tragic elements to it,

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

♪ Hey, yo ♪

♪ Hey, yo ♪

- 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.

(upbeat 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,

Chris 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 Burt 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 in 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.

(peaceful music)

- 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)

(upbeat music)

♪ Never, never, never again ♪

♪ Never, never, never again ♪

- I'm Anne Strainchamps,

and this Is To the Best of Our Knowledge.

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

♪ Never again ♪

- 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 Suzanne 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 Audio Rez out.

Steve Paulson is our Executive Producer.

And I'm Ann 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.

♪ And never see the families again ♪

♪ Never again ♪

♪ Never, never, never again ♪

♪ Never, never, never again ♪

♪ Never, never, never again ♪

♪ The story's bigger than
Jim, bigger than him ♪

♪ Never again ♪

(uplifting tones)

- P-R-X.

Last modified: 
January 20, 2023