Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Jim Thorpe: Return of the Native


To understand the ambivalent relationship between Native Americans and white Americans, it is instructive to recall the practice of some South American tribes who, in an attempt to acquire the strength, bravery, and other martial virtues of their slain foes, ate their hearts.

“The only good Indian is a dead Indian” was a proverbial American slogan in the 1800s. For hundreds of years, white Americans had deprived native Americans of their land, their culture, and in many cases their lives, herding those who survived onto reservations. Then, at the beginning of the last century, after native Americans had been virtually vanquished, the whites began to rehabilitate the reputation of the red man. The same qualities for which Indians were formerly feared and loathed, their unflinching fierceness, gradually became a virtue. As sports began to be a major national industry in the first half of the last century, amateur, college, and professional teams proudly adopted Indian names – the Indians, the Braves, the Redskins, the Chiefs, the Warriors, the Fighting Illini, the Seminoles, etc. The image of the Indian as unregenerate savage was gradually replaced by the Indian as outstanding athlete. Having practiced a form of genocide, the whites then in an act of expiation glorified, if not deified, their vanquished foe. They ate their hearts out.

Jim Thorpe was living embodiment of the transformation of the young Indian brave from savage to star athlete. If Thorpe had not existed, he would have had to be invented, because he filled an important cultural need. From Oklahoma, where his ancestors had been driven on to reservations, which were the concentration camps of the 1800s, Thorpe came East to play for the Carlisle School for Indians, in Pennsylvania. Thorpe may have been the first minority athlete to be recruited to play collegiate sports. But Carlisle was not a college. It was a trade school founded for the purpose of not only taking the Indian off the reservation but also of taking the Indian out of the Indian. Parents on the reservation had no choice: the law forced them to give up their children to a school a thousand miles away whose aim was, in the words of its white military founder, who was speaking figuratively, of course, to “kill the Indian, save the man.” Carlisle students were forbidden to talk, to dress, to act, to sing, to dance, like Indians. At Carlisle, Thorpe excelled in football and ballroom dancing, but there is no evidence that he learned any trade, other than being an athlete.

Portsmouth, Ohio, was one of the more undistinguished stops in his career as a professional athlete, and there is irony in his coming to southern Ohio, for his Shawnee ancestors had been forced out of the area in an earlier period of American history. Thorpe was an underpaid player and manager of the Portsmouth Steel-Shoes for a season, and on the basis of that tenuous connection to the river city, he is memorialized in a Floodwall mural.

When his youth was gone and his athletic skills deteriorated, Thorpe drifted during the Great Depression into manual labor and alcoholism, although he did have a bit part as a native in the 1933 movie “King Kong.” He died broke in 1953, just a few years after the appearance of the film “Jim Thorpe: All American,” which was a Hollywood contribution to the process of cultural cannibalization of Native Americans, of which the Thorpe Floodwall mural, is a more modest and more recent example.