The Olympic Star Who Just Wanted to Go Home
Tsökahovi Tewanima held an American record in running for decades, but his training at the infamous Carlisle school kept him from his ancestral Hopi lands
One morning in November 1906, a Hopi teenager on the Second Mesa of the Arizona reservation awoke to pandemonium. A U.S. Army officer was calling the villagers together. He said the government had reached the limit of its patience. For two decades, the tribe had refused to send its children to government-sanctioned boarding schools, as directed; now, under military compulsion, every Hopi child had to attend one. Soldiers began rounding up sleepy-eyed children and older kids, too. Mothers wailed, babies cried and fathers vowed to stand up to the Army. But the unarmed Hopi were no match for the soldiers, and their young ones were seized.
Tsökahovi Tewanima, a teenager who was 5 feet 4½ inches tall and weighed 110 pounds, was described by one soldier as “thin, emaciated and beligerent [sic].” Tewanima and ten other teens were handcuffed and marched 20 miles east to Keams Canyon, says Leigh Lomayestewa, Tewanima’s nephew. There, the Hopi youths were shackled and forced to build a road. In mid-January 1907, the soldiers marched the prisoners 110 miles east to Fort Wingate, New Mexico, where they boarded a train. About five days later, they arrived at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, roughly 2,000 miles from home.
The school was the flagship of a fleet of around 25 federally funded, off-reservation institutions for Native American children, run by religious groups and government agencies. Carlisle, founded by the Union Army veteran Col. Richard H. Pratt, aimed to “civilize” native youth by teaching them Christianity and the ways of Western society. “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” was Pratt’s motto, and, in fact, many children did die at Carlisle because of disease, starvation and physical abuse.
Tewanima coped with such cultural eradication by tapping into an ancient Hopi tradition—running. And he would become an inspirational figure: a two-time Olympian, a record-holder for more than half a century and a source of pride for his people.
I became keenly interested in Native Americans as a child, listening to the stories of my grandfather, who was born on the Cherokee Reservation. Later, when I started running half-marathons, I heard about the legendary Hopi runners. But it wasn’t until 2016, when I was invited to visit the Hopi Nation, that I learned about the remarkable Tewanima. I heard much more about him on subsequent trips. On my most recent visit, in March 2019, I stood on the edge of the cliff where he eventually met his tragic fate and found myself haunted by his life. Why, I wondered, was this international champion and teammate of the celebrated Jim Thorpe almost totally forgotten in the wider world?
In pursuit of that question, I return to January 26, 1907, when Tewanima, about 18 years old, was enrolled at Carlisle. Officials cut his thick long hair, burned his clothes and gave him a U.S. military uniform. An Army sergeant gave him a new name, which the school spelled alternately as Lewis or Louis. Forbidden to speak his language or to practice his religion, Tewanima was led into Carlisle’s barracks to meet the school’s 1,000 students from dozens of other tribes. Since they spoke different native languages, they couldn’t communicate with one another. Most kids didn’t understand the white adults who spoke English. As a result, many youngsters couldn’t follow directions; school officials punished the children with no supper, extra work or a whipping.
Tewanima’s new life was ruled by the bell, the belt and the bugle. His days were spent learning English, sewing shirts and, in winter, shoveling snow. “He was so homesick, it traumatized him,” says his nephew Ben Nuvamsa. Early on, Tewanima and two other Hopis ran away by hopping a train. They met some hobos, who taught them how to jump on and off a moving boxcar without getting hurt. After several days, the trio landed in Amarillo, Texas, where they thought they were beyond the school’s reach. They walked boldly in the street, and a man approached and offered to buy them a meal. They accepted. But the stranger turned out to be a sheriff, and the boys were jailed, Lomayestewa says. Tewanima was only 500 miles from home, but he found himself on the next train to Carlisle.
What followed was likely a punishment of hard labor and time in the school jail cell. By April, Tewanima was back in the dorm, trying to ease his heartache by running. “If you were a Hopi male, you were expected to be a runner,” Nuvamsa says. In his boyhood, living 5,700 feet above sea level, Tewanima and his friends had spent hot summer days running 65 miles to Winslow, Arizona, just to watch the trains. After the caboose rumbled past, they would run home.
Running is also a Hopi spiritual practice. In some ceremonies, young men run to far-off places in the desert to find springs. They fill their gourds with water and run home, where the water is blessed by elders and poured on the fields, symbolizing well-being for not just the Hopi but all mankind.
At Carlisle, students ran for glory. Tewanima, in broken English, asked the track coach and legendary football instructor Glenn “Pop” Warner if he could join the track team. Warner eyed the scrawny kid and said he wasn’t an athlete, but according to family lore, Tewanima insisted: “Me run fast good. All Hopi run fast good.” After clocking his time, Warner saw that Tewanima was indeed fast—and had an astonishing “kick” finish. The Indian quickly made his mark, particularly in distance events, competing against—and beating—better-heeled runners from Lafayette College and other schools.
A year later, Tewanima was picked over many veteran runners to represent the United States in the 1908 Summer Olympic Games in London. One of Tewanima’s teammates told the London papers how he could run faster “than a streak of greased lightning.” The British press clamored to see for themselves.
Race day for the Olympic marathon, July 24, 1908, was hot—78 degrees—and humid. Tewanima joined 54 other marathoners at the starting line near Windsor Castle. For the first mile, Tewanima ran in the back of the pack, writes Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, professor and head of American Indian studies at the University of Arizona. Many men dropped out of the race from heat and exhaustion. By Mile 12, Tewanima was in the middle of the pack, accompanied by a U.S. trainer on a bicycle. But by Mile 21, the Hopi began suffering from sore feet and confusion about what his English-speaking trainer was saying. Tewanima entered the new Olympic stadium in Shepherd’s Bush to a roar of cheers. He finished in ninth place. He had “endured more agony than anyone and ran gamest,” one of his teammates recalled.
Tewanima thought that he would be allowed to go home to Arizona. Instead, he was returned to Carlisle, where he baled hay and posed in promotional pieces for the school. “Savage Hopi Indians Are Transformed Into Model Students,” one newspaper headline said above his picture.
Tewanima continued racing. In 1909, at the Pastime Athletic Club’s games at Madison Square Garden, he stunned the sports world with a sprint-finish win in the ten-mile indoor run. A month later, he won a 20-mile race in New Orleans. In May 1911, Tewanima won New York City’s 12-mile modified marathon. Fans called him the “Speedy Red Man.”
In 1912, Tewanima and another Carlisle student, Jim Thorpe, competed in the Summer Olympics in Stockholm. Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon events. Still seasick from the trans-Atlantic trip, Tewanima ran the 10,000-meter event in a blazing time of 32:06.6, though he lost to Hannes Kölehmainen of Finland. Still, Tewanima collected the silver medal and set an American record for the event—a combination that would not recur for 52 years, when Billy Mills, an Oglala Lakota Sioux, broke it in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
At Stockholm, Tewanima “gave a remarkable exhibition of grit and persistency,” marveled James E. Sullivan, secretary of the American Olympic Committee. “After Stockholm, Tewanima became a celebrity,” says Gilbert. Yet photographs of the champion that day depict an unsmiling man of about 24. Would he finally be allowed to go home now?
First, he and Thorpe had to return to school. “They were given a fantastic reception by the citizens of Carlisle, with a parade and fireworks,” Nuvamsa says. Dignitaries such as the school superintendent and Pop Warner gave speeches praising the two athletes. Thorpe addressed the crowd, saying he was grateful for the “splendid time.” Then Tewanima stood up. “Me too,” he said, and sat down. To him, the accolades rang hollow, says Lomayestewa.
Finally, after almost six years in virtual captivity, he was allowed to leave Carlisle. In September 1912, he walked into his village on Second Mesa and was soon tending cornfields, herding sheep and participating in traditional ceremonies. Tewanima married a Hopi woman named Blanche, and they had a baby, Rose, their only child. But Rose, like her father, was sent to an Indian boarding school. She eventually became ill and returned home sometime in the 1920s, where she died from an undiagnosed illness.
Tewanima never again competed in a race, running only for his religion. He refused to speak English, didn’t give many interviews despite being sought out, and became chief of one of his clan’s holy organizations, the Antelope Society. In 1954, at age 66, Tewanima returned to New York, and the Helms Athletic Foundation honored him as a member of the All-Time U.S. Track and Field Team. Three years later, he was inducted into the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame. Soon, though, the great runner was forgotten by mainstream sports historians and writers. He wasn’t a multisport all-star like Jim Thorpe. And his civic work in Hopi Nation did not make national headlines.
In his final years, Tewanima played a key role in sacred ceremonies. On January 18, 1969, he was preparing for one such event with his nephew Lomayestewa, then just 10 years old. The boy was supposed to walk his 81-year-old uncle home, but instead grew sleepy and left early. So Tewanima walked home alone in the moonless night. As best as anyone can tell, he saw lights in the distance and, believing they were from his village, headed toward them. But he miscalculated, stepped off a cliff, and plunged 70 feet to his death. All night his clan searched for him. They found his body at daybreak.
Today, more than a century after Tewanima’s unlikely Olympian feats, the Hopi hold the annual Louis Tewanima Footrace in his honor, which is open to runners from all states and nations. Since 1974, hundreds of adults and children have gathered to run the ancient trails of Hopiland. In 2020, because of Covid-19, the races went virtual; runners used the honor system to report their times.
“The thing I learned from him was, ‘Be Hopi,’” says Nuvamsa. “He was never colonized.”
Editor's Note, May 20, 2021: An earlier version of this story said that Billy Mills was the first to break Tewanima's record in the 10,000-meter event. He was the first to both break the record and earn an Olympic medal at the same time.
Louis Tewanima wasn’t the only Native athlete from North America at
the 1912 Summer games
By Gia Yetikyel
Kahanamoku grew up surfing at Waikiki Beach and later popularized the ancient Hawaiian sport across the world. As a swimmer, he won a gold and silver medal in freestyle events in the 1912 Olympics.
Sac and Fox Nation
The most famous Native athlete in U.S. history, Thorpe won two gold medals at the 1912 Olympics and had a storied career in pro football and baseball. He was also the first president of the American Professional Football Association.
After placing second in the 1912 Boston Marathon, Sockalexis placed fourth in that year’s Olympic marathon. His fiancée said she’d marry him only if he won the 1913 Boston Marathon. Though he came in second again, the two still wed.
Benjamin "Joe" Keeper
Norway House Cree Nation
Keeper, of Manitoba, placed fourth in the 10,000-meter race at the 1912 Olympics. In the Canadian Army, he served as a dispatch runner in France in World War I, earning major decorations.
Alexander Wuttunee Decoteau
Before placing sixth in the 5,000-meter race at the 1912 Olympics, Decoteau was the first Native police officer in Canada. He served in World War I and died during battle
in Belgium in 1917.