The U.S. Army War College kicked off the annual Jim Thorpe Sports Days on Thursday evening, an athletic celebration honoring the end of the academic year for military students as well as Thorpe’s legacy.
This year’s opening ceremony also continued the trend of the last few years in increasing the involvement of Native Americans, with U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe in New Mexico, as the keynote speaker.
“Today, we celebrate the legacy of excellence Jim Thorpe displayed on and off the field,” Haaland told the crowd. “He is a story of true strength overcoming so many obstacles and adversity that should inspire us all to work harder and be proud of where we came from.”
But Haaland also came to Carlisle this week with another mission: searching the records of the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School for information on her great-grandfather, who like Thorpe and thousands of other Native Americans, had gone through the school.
“My grandmother first told me that her father was sent to Carlisle,” Haaland said. “That was a story she told us often. I haven’t found his name yet because they changed the names. But he came back as Gaylord Steele.”
Like Thorpe and the others, Haaland’s great-grandfather was assigned a European name at the school, and many of their descendants are still uncertain of what their forebearers’ actual native names were.
This was just one of many ways in which the U.S. government tried to forcibly assimilate Native American children at the school, which was established in 1879 and soon spawned a network of boarding schools run by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Children were typically recruited from native communities on reservations or on land recently taken over by the U.S. military during the wars against native tribes in the West. Students were often subjected to harsh punishment for displaying native behaviors and not properly assimilating in the eyes of the schools’ staff. The motto at the time was “kill the Indian, save the man,” Haaland noted.
The Carlisle school did produce a number of highly accomplished people. Thorpe would famously win gold medals in both the pentathalon and decathalon at the 1912 Olympic games, and later went on to professional football, basketball and baseball, making him widely regarded as the most versatile elite athlete of all time.
But the trauma inflicted by the school gives it a distinctively mixed legacy. As Haaland put it, “the education at Indian boarding schools came at a hefty cost.”
Thorpe was an orphan when he was sent from a reservation in Oklahoma to Carlisle in 1904. Haaland’s great-grandfather, as best she can tell, was not.
“In fact, a lot of the students they took from homes were not orphans, they had families intact with the Pueblo,” Haaland said.
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“In New Mexico, a lot of our Pueblo tribal members ended up in Carlisle,” she said. “The boarding school era is something that people remember in New Mexico because it happened to a lot of folks there.”
In many cases, students who went through the boarding school system ended up finding themselves even more alienated from white society than they were before. Despite the U.S. government’s overtures toward assimilation, Native Americans weren’t even granted full U.S. citizenship until 1924, six years after the school closed.
Haaland’s great-grandfather, after finishing at Carlisle, simply returned to New Mexico.
“After being here he came back to New Mexico and resumed his life as a Pueblo man. He had sheep. He built my grandmother a house at our village where she lived until she died,” Haaland said.
Thursday’s opening ceremony was also attended by a number of other Native American representatives, as well as military veterans of Native American descent.
The contingent was organized by Sandra Cianciulli, who serves on the board of the Circle Legacy Center and is president of the Carlisle Indian School Project. Cianciulli is descended from Ogala Sioux students of the boarding school.
“This used to be kind of just a military tradition, but we got invited to it a while back and loved it,” Cianciulli said of Jim Thorpe Sports Days.
Cianciulli and her group have attended the event for the past seven years, and have worked on further collaboration efforts between the Native American community and the War College, which sits on the grounds where the boarding school stood.
Cianciulli, Haaland, and the Native American contingent cheered in unison with War College students’ families and military staff on Thursday night as the soldiers competed in track-and-field events in Thorpe’s honor.
The games will run until Saturday afternoon, when the winning team is awarded the Commandant’s Cup. While different branches of the military compete intensely against each other during the events, the message is one of unity.
“This is an event to bring us together and remind us we’re all part of the same team,” said Maj. Gen. John Kem, commandant of the U.S. Army War College.