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Museum Goes Gold

The U.S. synchronized swimming team headed to London for the 2012 Summer Olympics features a very American pair in the duet competition — Russian-born immigrant Mariya Koroleva, who moved to the United States at the age of 9, and Mary Killman, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

A century ago, another Native American, Jim Thorpe, was a star at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. Killman calls Thorpe one of her inspirations.

But Killman’s Olympic adventure will be a far cry from what Thorpe and other Native Americans have experienced over the years.

The exhibit “Best in the World: Native Athletes in the Olympics,” which runs through Sept. 3 at the National Museum of the American Indian, honors the accomplishments of and the hardships endured by Native Americans at the Olympic Games.

One suggested title for the exhibit was “Overcoming.” Although curator James Adams wrote it off as “too much of a downer,” the title is apt. In the past century, Native American Olympians have had to overcome financial barriers, a lack of infrastructure on reservations and racial prejudice to compete on the international stage. 

But Native American athletes have gained worldwide prominence despite these challenges. 

This year will mark the centennial of the 1912 Olympics, when the United States sent two of its most legendary Native American athletes — Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox) and Duke Paoa Kahanamoku (Native Hawaiian), whose medals are on display in the exhibit — to Sweden.

The rigorous physical education program at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the Native American “tradition of running as a spiritual exercise” and the beach culture of Hawaii, which bred formidable swimmers and surfers, all helped the 1912 American team to medal. 

In the exhibit, success stories such as Thorpe’s gold medal performances in the decathlon and pentathlon are paired with darker moments.

In 1904, the U.S. team featured Native American athletes who competed and, in many cases, excelled. However, game officials also forced untrained Native Americans from the St. Louis World’s Fair to compete as a display of their “savagery.”

Lewis Tewanima (Hopi), who won a  silver medal in the 10,000 meters in 1912, was forced against his and his family’s wishes to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. A superintendent at the school called him “virtually a prisoner of war.”

In one of the great travesties in sports history, Thorpe had his medals revoked in 1913 after the revelation that he had played minor league baseball. His medals were not restored to his family until 1983, three decades after Thorpe’s death.

In Hawaii, the beach tradition was more than a demonstration of athleticism. It was an expression of identity at a time when Native Hawaiian culture was being repressed, making Kahanamoku’s silver medal all the more poignant. 

While the exhibit concentrates on the 1912 team, visitors will also learn about Native American athletes who competed in other Olympic Games, including the second Native American to win a gold medal, Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota Sioux), who won the 10,000 meters in Tokyo in 1964.

Mills is still the only American ever to win the event. No American has medaled since.

Adams said that, at its core, the exhibit is directed toward the modern generation of Native American youths. 

He hopes to encourage sportsmanship as “an alternative to all the problems that still exist on the reservation.”

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