Thorpe’s memory still carries lightning

Ryan Winn

Jim Thorpe’s Sac and Fox name was Wa-tho-Huk. Although the English translations of his tribal name vary, “Path Lit by Lightning” is the most poetic way to describe the moniker given to the child born during a thunderstorm. Nearly 70 years after Thorpe’s death in 1953, his latest biographer David Maraniss employed that poetic translation as the title of his lauded new book on “the greatest athlete who ever lived.”

Maraniss knows how to recognize a good story. The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is the author of “When Pride Still Mattered,” the definitive biography of Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi that served as the basis for the famed Broadway production.

Yet, Maraniss wrote that in 2003, he balked when Oneida Nation of Wisconsin tribal member Norbert Hill Jr. told him to write a biography of Jim Thorpe. Maraniss explained that he had other books planned, but because of Hill, a seed had been planted. “Four years ago, my interest in Jim Thorpe sprouted into obsession.”

Last month, Maraniss, a Madison native, thanked Hill before a crowd of over 320 people gathered at the Rock Garden Supper Club in Green Bay. The evening’s program served as the kick-off event for the Brown County Library’s Local History Series, drawing sponsorship from Wisconsin’s own Oneida Nation and the Green Bay Packers.

Thorpe’s ties to Wisconsin predate his birth. While he was a member of the Sac and Fox tribe of Oklahoma through the paternal enrollment practices at his birth in 1887, he had a higher Native American blood quantum from his mother. Charlette Thorpe was Potawatomi, Menominee and Kickapoo, the former two being tribes who remain on a portion of their ancestral land in the Badger State.

Thorpe’s football hero was also from Wisconsin. When Thorpe was 11 years old, he attended the Haskell Institute, a boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas, where he met an Oneida Nation member who inspired him. Maraniss quotes Thorpe’s admiration: “An Indian by the name of Chauncey Archiquette on the regular Haskell squad was my football idol, and in our scrub games with the homemade football, I always tried to emulate him.”

Even though Maraniss’s text is framed by Thorpe’s success in sports, he told those who came to his lecture that Thorpe afforded him “the chance to illuminate the Native American experience through obstacles in his life.” He added that Thorpe’s alma mater, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, “is the heart of my book.”

While at Carlisle in 1912, Thorpe had what Maraniss called the greatest single year any American athlete has ever had. That summer witnessed Thorpe winning gold medals in the Olympics in the pentathlon and decathlon in Stockholm, Sweden, beating his opponents by “a larger point amount than anyone before or since.” Thorpe also served as the captain for the Carlisle football team that fall. In a time when athletes played both offense and defense, Carlisle’s team earned a 12-1-1 record, outscoring opponents 454 to 120 en route to leading the nation in scoring.

Thorpe was famously stripped of his Olympic glory after the nation’s media realized he was previously paid to play minor league baseball using his own name, thereby disqualifying him from the amateur status required to compete in the games. Maraniss explained this was an injustice as the entire Swedish Olympic team was paid, as were numerous “amateur” athletes in the minor leagues who used aliases in what was called “the Pocahontas league,” because so many people were called John Smith. Thorpe’s medals and records were posthumously restored this past July.

Thorpe went on to play for both Major League Baseball and the upstart American Professional Football Association. He served as the first president of the latter, and Maraniss noted that Thorpe lending his world-famous name was essential to the success of what was later rebranded as the National Football League.

Maraniss noted that Thorpe’s greatness was unparalleled. In 1950, he was recognized by the Associated Press as the “Greatest Athlete of the Half-Century,” with Babe Ruth coming in a distant second. In 1963, Thorpe was an inaugural member of the NFL Hall of Fame.

After the event ended, I asked Hill what he thought of Maraniss’s presentation. He responded: “There were 50 Oneidas in that room, and all of them stood up a little bit taller after hearing what he said.”

As Maraniss proved, Wa-tho-Huk’s memory still carries some lightning.

Ryan Winn teaches communications, English and theater at the College of Menominee Nation. Visit for more information about the school.