Led by Jim Thorpe a century ago, Native American athletes distinguished themselves at the 1912 Olympics.
On May 25 the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. remembered them with the opening of an exhibition, "Best in the World: Native Athletes in the Olympics."
The exhibition, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Olympic Games in which Native American athletes represented the U.S., honored Thorpe (Sac and Fox), Duke Kahanamoku (Native Hawaiian), Andrew Sockalexis (Penobscot) and Lewis Tewanima (Hopi).
These were not the first Native Americans to compete in the Olympics. Frank Mount Pleasant (Tuscarora) paved the way for Jim Thorpe. He was the first Carlisle Indian Industrial School athlete to go to the Olympics, representing the United States at the 1908 London Games in the triple jump and the long jump competitions, placing sixth in both events.
"I think it's great to be honoring these tremendous athletes who paved the way for the Native American athletes who will be competing this year," said Molly Stephey, Public Affairs Producer at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian regarding the 2012 London Olympics which begin July 27.
At the 1912 Games, Thorpe became the first and only competitor to win both the pentathlon and decathlon, earning the accolades of King Gustav V of Sweden, who proclaimed Thorpe to be the "greatest athlete in the world."
Thorpe's Native American teammates also triumphed. Duke Kahanamoku won the 100-meter freestyle; Andrew Sockalexis (Penobscot) placed fourth in the marathon; and Lewis Tewanima won the silver medal, setting an American record for the 10,000 meters. His record stood for more than 50 years until it was broken by Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota) in 1964.
Other Native athletes that followed the 1912 team included: 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; Sharon and Shirley Firth (Gwich'in), twin sisters who competed in the 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984 Games in cross-country skiing; Theoren Fleury (Metis/Cree), who won a gold medal in 2002 in ice hockey; and Carolyn Darbyshire-McRorie (Metis), who won a silver medal in curling in 2010.
For the 2012 London Olympics, Native Americans Alvina Begay (Navaho from Arizona), a long distance runner; and Mary Killman (Potawatomi from Oklahoma), the youngest member of the synchronized swimming team, will be following the Olympic path blazed by Thorpe.
The Smithsonian exhibition runs through Sept. 3 in the museum's Sealaska Gallery. On display will be the gold medals restored to Thorpe's family in 1983 for his victory in the 1912 decathlon and pentathlon events. Thorpe's medals can be viewed at the museum through July 9, when they will then travel to the London Summer Games.
The silver medal that Kahanamoku won in the 1912 Olympics are also on display as well as the gold medal won by Mills in the 1964 Games.
The exhibition covers all Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere, from the Inuits to the north, to the tip of South America plus Hawaii. It also features historic photographs of Native athletes competing in the Olympics, including rare images from the 1912 Games and a commemorative Wheaties box that was released in 2001 to honor Thorpe as "The World's Greatest Athlete."