- By Levi Rickert
Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox, Potawatomi) was born in Indian Territory in Potawattomie County, in present-day Oklahoma, about 30 years before the territory gained statehood.
Raised as a Sac and Fox, Thorpe was given his Indian name, Wa-Tho-Huk, which means “Bright Path.”
Thorpe’s life was filled with triumph and tragedy.
The winner of two Olympic gold medals at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm in the decathlon and pentathlon, when King Gustav of Sweden awarded Thorpe the medals, the king said to him, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”
Thorpe won his two gold medals against incredibly difficult odds.
He was orphaned as a child and placed in the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, an Indian boarding school, which he attended from 1904 to 1913. He represented the United States at the Olympic games 12 years before American Indians gained U.S. citizenship. On the transatlantic trip to Stockholm, Thorpe and a Jewish teammate were forced to travel in the bottom of the ship, while the white American Olympic athletes received first-class accommodations.
Even in Stockholm, Thorpe had to contend with obstacles. On the morning of his competitions, his shoes were stolen shortly before his first event. Wearing shoes found in a trash can (one too big, the other too small) Thorpe won the gold in the decathlon–with a 25-yard lead.
One year later, Thorpe was stripped of the gold medals by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) after it was discovered he had been compensated—payment amounted to the costs of his room and board—for playing minor league baseball prior to participating in the 1912 Olympics.
The IOC erased his records from the Olympic record books. To those concerned with Thorpe’s legacy and historical accuracy, his medals and records were stolen from him.
Attempts to have the medals returned were not rewarded until 1982, almost 30 years after Thorpe's death (1953), when replicas were delivered to his family. Even though the gold medals were reinstated, the IOC did not restore Thorpe’s records in Olympic history.
His athletic talents afforded him skills to play both professional football and baseball.
Thorpe died in 1953 at the age of 64.
Even in death, Thorpe’s wishes were never fulfilled. Instead of being buried in Oklahoma, where Thorpe wanted to be buried, his third wife, Patricia Thorpe, had other plans for his body: She sold it.
In 2013, in a telephone interview, one of Thorpe’s sons, Bill Thorpe, told me the story of how his father’s body was taken during a traditional ceremony near Shawnee, Okla. He said after his father was given a Catholic funeral, his coffin was brought to a private home where there was a traditional Sac and Fox ceremony. During a meal break from the ceremony, Thorpe’s wife arrived with law enforcement, who took the body while the traditional ceremony participants took a break to have a meal.
Without his children’s permission, Patricia Thorpe literally sold his remains to two small towns in Pennsylvania that merged and became Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Thorpe, who never set foot in the town, is interred there to this day. The town erected a memorial in Thorpe’s honor. In essence, the town made a tourist attraction out of Thorpe.
It seems non-Native people often try to figure out a way to make money off Native Americans, our names and images. It is done in sports and with Jim Thorpe’s legacy.
This spring, a new brewery will open in Jim Thorpe, Penn., called Bright Path Brewing.
Given the connotation that goes with alcohol and Native Americans, it is appalling anyone would imagine it to be okay to name a brewery after any Native American, let alone Jim Thorpe.
A&D Brewing, LLC, owners of Bright Path Brewing, are even selling annual memberships online that will give drinkers of their brew discounts.
The owners should take note of how People’s Brewing Company, brewery in Indiana, reacted when Native Americans expressed opposition of the company using Mound Builder IPA, which used an image with a caricature of a brown Indigenous man dressed with hops in his headdress and around his neck, with streaks of blue paint on his cheeks, holding a glass of beer. After hearing of the opposition of a local American Indian Movement chapter, People’s Brewing Company agreed to drop the usage of the name.
Owners of Bright Path Brewery should do the same. The name of their brewery is not an honor to the iconic hero to Native Americans and non-Natives alike.
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