Jim Thorpe is rightly remembered for his phenomenal sporting accomplishments, but not everyone knows about Thorpe's origins.

Thorpe was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, in what is now Oklahoma. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was an orphan when he was taken from his nation's reservation and sent to Carlisle Indian Industrial School.


The U.S. Army War College now stands where Carlisle once stood; the boarding school closed in 1918, six years before Indigenous Americans were even recognized as full US citizens.

The War College now celebrates Jim Thorpe Day: a day honoring both Thorpe's athletic achievements and the end of the academic year for the college's students.

Representative Deb Haaland joined the War College's students in the event this year as the keynote speaker. She spoke at length about Thorpe's life and athletic feats, as well as how the Carlisle Indian School affected her own family.



As it turns out, Haaland's great-grandfather was one of the many children pulled from his loving family to be sent to the school in the US government's plan to force assimilation of indigenous peoples into white society.

"My grandmother first told me that her father was sent to Carlisle. That was a story she told us often."

Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, revealed that her family doesn't even know her great-grandfather's true name, because it was changed while he was at the school.

"I haven't found his name yet because they changed the names. But he came back as Gaylord Steele."

This was a common practice at residential schools such as Carlisle—it's how Thorpe got his name, as well—and was just one component of the US government's plans to "kill the Indian, save the man." There are many native families who still don't know what their ancestors true names were, in their own languages.

Children were also sold or adopted to White families in further attempts to destroy Native culture, together with laws that made the languages, religions, dances and traditional clothing of the tribes illegal.

The boarding schools in both the United States and Canada have shocking histories of abuse and death among the Native students.

Children were "recruited" for intertribal residential schools like Carlisle from whole, loving families by coercion, if not taken from them outright. Others attended the mandatory boarding schools with only members of their own tribe.

"In fact, a lot of the students they took from homes were not orphans, they had families intact with the Pueblo."

The mandatory boarding school system was not abolished in the United States until the 1970s, with the final classes graduating in the 1980s.

Carlisle, in particular, did have several highly successful alumni, but the school's history of inflicting abuse and trauma on its students and their families makes this a tainted achievement, at best.

Haaland touched on this as well:

"The education at Indian boarding schools came at a hefty cost."

Jim Thorpe was one of those who went on to greatness after graduating from Carlisle. He was a spectacular athlete, winning Olympic gold in both the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912.

It was not long before he was stripped of those medals over a technicality, though. Thorpe was not considered an amateur because he had been paid (as little as $2 per game) to play minor league baseball between 1909 and 1910.

Thorpe's athletic achievements are now celebrated every year at the War College, though. A group of representatives of various native communities attended the event this year, and have since 2012 in an attempt to reconcile the past with a more unified future.

Organized by Sandra Cianciulli, a descendant of Oglala Lakota students who attended the Carlisle, the group also contains Native American veterans from various branches of the US Armed Forces.

Cianciulli said of the event:

"This used to be kind of just a military tradition, but we got invited to it a while back and loved it."

The track-and-field competition kicked off on Thursday, April 25th this year, and ran until Saturday, April 27th. Those participating in the competition held in Thorpe's honor were members of different military branches.

Representative Haaland also shared photos of her time at the event to Twitter.

One Twitter user recalled how learning Thorpe's story helped him as a child.

The competition is fierce, but the true message of the event is one of unity.


Maj. Gen. John Kem, commandant of the War College, said of the event:

"This is an event to bring us together and remind us we're all part of the same team."
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