July 30, 2012

Another Olympic Moment
by Pastor George Van Alstine

Jim Thorpe brought America glory in the 1912 Olympic Games, hosted by Sweden. He won gold medals in both the pentathlon (five individual events) and the decathlon (ten individual events). Of the fifteen individual events, he took first place in eight. He returned a hero, cheered by thousands at a ticker-tape parade on Broadway in New York City.

For the next twenty years, Thorpe proved himself in one sport after another. Though track-and-field was his original interest, he actually played professionally at football, baseball and basketball. Everything seemed to come naturally to him, and he never bothered much with practice or conditioning. It’s no wonder that he gained acclaim as the “World’s Greatest Athlete” of his day.

Off the playing field, life did not come easy for Jim. He always had a problem with alcohol. He had two failed marriages before settling down with his third wife in his later years. He worked at a series of demeaning jobs, such as ditch-digger, construction laborer and nightclub bouncer. When he became ill with physical problems that would ultimately take his life, he had no money and his wife had to beg doctors and hospitals for charity treatment. After repeated heart attacks, Thorpe died at 64 years of age in Lomita, CA.

Oh, and there’s one more thing about Jim Thorpe: he was a Native American, raised among the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma, and his Indian name was Wa-Tho-Huk, “Bright Path.” As a young teen, he was removed from the reservation and sent to a U.S. Government run Indian boarding school. Ultimately, he spent his collegiate years at the famous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. This school was noted for transforming Indians into mainstream Americans by taking away everything “Indian” about them, their Native name, their long hair, their language, their ceremonies, their unique cultural values.

Civil War General Philip Sheridan had been quoted as saying “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Carlisle’s founder, Captain Richard H. Pratt, declared that the school’s mission would grow out of the General’s cynical observation:

“In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian, but save the man.”

So, when young Wa-Tho-Huk came to Carlisle, every teacher, administrator and house parent, every rule and regulation would be focused on killing the Indian in him, until nothing but Jim Thorpe remained. With its star athlete Carlisle beat Harvard and Army in football, and they were proud to see him off to the Olympics in Sweden. Carlisle had done its job — the Indian was dead.

But was he? There is much in the struggle of Jim Thorpe’s later years that can be seen as an unfulfilled longing to be Wa-Tho-Huk again. In killing the Indian the Carlisle school had greatly diminished the person.

As I thought about this, I discovered that Jim Thorpe’s story made me uneasy in a strange way. I realized that every time I encounter another person, there’s something in me that wants to do what Carlisle did to Wa-Tho-Huk. I’m uncomfortable with that person’s differentness. I want to know the person, but on my terms. What seems alien in them may be their race, their gender, their accent, their appearance. Whatever it is, I want to “kill” it, so that I can comfortably relate to the person. But in doing this, I make the person smaller, less real. By denying an important aspect of who they are, I’m making it impossible to truly know the person.

I believe this is the dynamic behind all the racism, parochialism, provincialism and class consciousness that fills the world with so much suspicion and strife.

Lord, help me embrace Jim Thorpe and Wa-Tho-Huk. Help me to accept fully and unconditionally each individual you cause to cross my path today.