With the new year comes increasing anticipation for the quadrennial Olympics scheduled for Jul 26 to Aug 11, 2024 - in Paris this time around. As much as I enjoy the games, I characteristically have a somewhat unusual take on the festivities.
As a historian, a resident of a western state with a sizeable Native population (including nine recognized Indian Reservations), as the matriarch of a mixed-racial family, I am surrounded by reminders that heroes come in many different forms.
Most folks acknowledge Jim Thorpe as the greatest American athlete of the twentieth century, and a role model for Native American youth, based largely on his performance in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. And most people also understand that he was stripped of his Olympic medals (and the records that he set) on the excuse that he was a professional athlete. What you may not know is that he was forced to work while a student at Carlisle Indian School just to make ends meet, and every absence from school to play professional baseball or football, or even to work some farmer’s fields extended the time he still needed to put in at school to graduate! Both his medals and his records were restored in January of 1983, some 30 years after his death. (FYI: none of his medals were in football or baseball!)
Jim Thorpe never set foot on the Pine Ridge Reservation (75 miles from where I live). He was not a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, or any Sioux clan. (For the record, he was part Sac & Fox and part Pottawatami) Yet the athletic teams of Pine Ridge High School are named for the Native American who is widely recognized as the greatest American athlete of the twentieth century, and a role model for all Native American youth.
One of those was a man of our time: Billy Mills, the only man from the Western
Hemisphere to ever win the Olympic 10,000 meter event, setting an Olympic record of 28:24:4. This was a stunning upset, and one of the greatest underdog winners of an Olympic race in history. (He was also the only American Gold Medalist in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.)
Billy Mills was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He started running out of necessity; there were very few cars on this large tract of land, and if he needed to go someplace he hoofed it. His was also an underprivileged childhood, but he was fortunate enough to attract the attention of an up and coming track coach at Haskell Indian School in Kansas. From there he went to the University of Kansas, and on to the Marine Corps - all of which furthered his athletic development. (He was still a Marine when he won his Olympic medal.)
But Billy Mills’ story has a much happier ending. (You may remember the popular bio-pic of 1983, “Running Brave”, with Robbie Benson playing the title role.) Billy has devoted his life to bettering the life of Native youth. His non-profit organization, Running Strong, has a prominent presence on Facebook, raising funds to benefit Native youths. From his home in Sacramento (he is now retired after a successful career in insurance) he makes regular pilgrimages to Pine Ridge to supervise the distribution of his largesse (he has been known to show up with truck-loads of athletic shoes, among other things). Jim Thorpe was one of Mills’ own heroes: “To me he is still the greatest athlete who has ever lived.”
Those are the Olympians, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the extraordinarily talented high school basketball player, Su Ann Big Crow, also of Pine Ridge. She was ranked as the best basketball player in the state (male or female), and was widely believed to be destined for a stellar career in sports. But it was not to be; she was killed in car crash in 1992, her senior year and the entire state mourned.
While these heroes all happen to be athletes, there are many others, in a wide range of occupations. Throughout the twentieth century, South Dakota natives have had the example of Oglala Sioux tribal member Oscar Howe, who spent the majority of his life mentoring Native artists who yearned for the freedom to honor their ancestral traditions on canvas and other media. Oscar Howe was educated in New Mexico, earned degrees and taught at the University of South Dakota for decades. He is still honored for the many designs he executed for the Corn Palace in Mitchell, and a long list of students he championed over the years including (but not limited to) South Dakota artists, Don Montileaux and Arthur Amiotte, musician Buddy Red Bow, hoop dancers and floutists who keep Native traditions alive, our first Native SD House Representative Ben Reifel. I am also a fan of actors and writers from other states such as Chris Eyres and Sherman Alexie who promote the pride of indigenous Americans.
Henry Standing Bear, the man credited with the concept of the Crazy Horse mountain carving in South Dakota, presented his concept to the sculptor with the words, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also.” He was a Brule Lakota, cousin to Crazy Horse, graduate of Carlisle, and a lifelong proponent of education.
While that is only a representative listing of people I mostly know and admire personally, I wish to end with just a few heroes from American history in the West which, in my opinion, deserve a more prominent space in our American discourse.
There is plenty of room for more.