That was not Jim’s experience. Assigned to a farm near Carlisle, he was put to work mopping floors and doing laundry. He was made to eat alone in the kitchen, and paid half of what a white laborer would typically earn.
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
Beverly Slapin's review of UNDEFEATED: JIM THORPE AND THE CARLISLE INDIAN SCHOOL FOOTBALL TEAM by Steve Sheinkin
Editor's Note: Beverly Slapin submitted this review of Steve Sheinkin's Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team. It may not be used elsewhere without her written permission. All rights reserved. Copyright 2017. Slapin is currently the publisher/editor of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children. I (Debbie Reese) hope to read and review this book, too. See also the review at Reading While White.
Sheinkin, Steve, Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team. Roaring Brook Press, 2017; grades 6-9 (Potawatomi, Sac and Fox)
In “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” a chapter in American Indian Stories, , Zitkala-Sa (Dakota) writes of her experiences at White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana:
The melancholy of those black days has left so long a shadow that it darkens the path of years that have since gone by. Perhaps my Indian nature is the moaning wind which stirs them now  for their present record. But, however tempestuous this is within me, it comes out as the low voice of a curiously colored seashell , which is only for those ears that are bent with compassion to hear it.
Zitkala-Sa devoted her life to seeking justice for her people and was one of the few early Native writers who wrote without the “aid” of a white editor, interpreter or ethnographer. While her stories describe the everyday humiliations, turmoil and pain that encompassed the Indian residential school experience, she also wrote of resistance and rebellion.
It’s my firm belief that no one could or should attempt to represent what the children experienced in the Indian residential schools without listening to the stories of their descendants, and with “ears bent with compassion to hear it.” And even Zitkala-Sa is not saying that those people are entitled to voice, much less to interpret, what they have heard.
The 1951 movie, entitled “Jim Thorpe, All American” (starring Burt Lancaster as Jim Thorpe), begins with this hyperbole-laden voiceover:
“Jim Thorpe, All-American, the man of bronze who became the greatest athlete of all time, an Oklahoma Indian lad whose untamed spirit gave wings to his feet and carried him to immortality. Here in a mighty cavalcade of sport are all the giants who faced this champion among champions, each test adding new honors to his ever-growing fame. Here is the thrilling panorama of the Olympic Games, the nation’s praise for its returning hero, and behind the glory and glamour, colorful days at Carlisle University [sic]…”
Stories of heroism and singlehandedly overcoming adversity are well received in European and European American children’s literature as well, and Jim Thorpe fits into this mold. He’s larger than life, a legend, almost mythic, so many stories about him—both true and false—lend themselves to the persona we know as “Jim Thorpe.”
That’s why, especially in a biography for children, it’s important to get things right. Unfortunately, Sheinkin writes through a cultural filter that objectifies Native lives, histories, and experiences, and in doing so, misleads young readers about Jim Thorpe, the real person.
“CARLISLE INDIAN SCHOOL,” COVER AND BACK MATTER
Although Sheinkin refers to the “Carlisle Indian Industrial School” by its full name a few times, he then shortens the name to “Carlisle Indian School,” the name that’s reflected on the cover and front matter as well. Omitting the word “industrial” from Carlisle’s name—which Sheinkin does often in this book—belies the school’s purpose: to train its Indian students to be servants and other low-wage workers, rather than to educate them. (Referring to the school as the shortened version, “Carlisle,” after using its correct name is acceptable. Not acceptable is referring to “Carlisle Indian School” as its correct name.)
On the front cover flap—the first text the reader sees—there is this, in large print:
SUPER ATHLETE, OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST,
INDOMITABLE COACH, FOOTBALL MASTERMIND,
IVY LEAGUE GRAD
Here, Jim Thorpe is identified by his ethnicity, while Pop Warner is not. This introduction objectifies Jim Thorpe and sets the stage for much of what is to come.
JIM THORPE AND BLACK HAWK
A caption on page 12 reads:
Young Jim’s first hero, Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, Black Sparrow Hawk, or Black Hawk. Black Hawk was a member of the Thunder Clan of the Sac and Fox, the same clan as Jim Thorpe.
This 31-word caption goes off in several confusing directions, echoed in the text that follows it.
(1) Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak was a Sauk war leader whose name, as interpreted into English, was “Black Sparrow Hawk.”
(2) Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak was born into the Thunder Clan of the Sauk Nation. He was not a “member of the Thunder Clan of the Sac and Fox.” The Sauk and Meskwaki Nations formed a political alliance after 1732, and, although the US government referred to them as a single entity, the “Sac and Fox Confederacy,” each treaty had a separate place for Sauk and Meskwaki chiefs to sign, and the Sauk and Meskwaki remain two separate nations. As Johnathan Buffalo, Preservation Director of the Meskwaki Nation, explained to me, “We are Meskwaki. When we deal in government-to-government relations with the US, they refer to us as Sac and Fox. We’re stuck for legal reasons but not for cultural reasons.” He added, “They can terminate the Sac and Fox, but they can never terminate the Meskwaki because only our God can do that.”
A lot of people, including Jim Thorpe’s family, refer to themselves by the government name, “Sac and Fox,” or even use “Sac Fox,” and historians and biographers should note the distinction. Sheinkin did not.
(3) Since Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak was born around 1767 and Jim Thorpe was born in 1887, Thorpe’s clan citizenship was the same as that of his Sauk ancestor, not the other way around.
THE DAWES ACT
On pages 9-10, Sheinkin briefly describes the land rush that occurred after the General Allotment Act of 1887 (Dawes Severalty Act):
Three years later, twenty thousand settlers lined the edge of what had been Sac and Fox land. A government agent fired a gun, the signal for the land rush to begin, and everyone raced on horseback or in wagons, claiming open sections of land by driving stakes into the soil…. By nightfall, the plains around the Thorpes’ farm were dotted with settlers’ tents and campfires. In just a few hours, the Sac and Fox had lost nearly 80 percent of their land. [italics mine]
In the General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Severalty Act, the US government seized and split up Indian reservation lands held in common and “allocated” non-adjacent tracts of 160 acres each to individual Native families, forcing them into subsistence farming. The government then sold the “excess” 86 million acres of formerly communal lands to white settlers.
The government’s intent was to break up tribal communities, which is what they did. By seizing and “redistributing” the land, the government also destroyed the ceremony, social structure, kinship, respect for elders, and community child rearing—in short, the spiritual and material foundation of traditional Native beliefs and lives. Three years later, the government-sanctioned land grab stole almost all of the rest of the land. (Both the terms “allotment” and “severalty” euphemize what was actually theft of land and culture.)
After the US government forcibly relocated people from traditional lands to reservations, and, within a generation or two, from those communal lands to individual “allotments,” the Dawes Act became the metaphorical nail in the coffin.
When your family is abruptly cut off from land, community, and culture and surrounded by a hostile foreign environment, your life changes drastically. It’s not surprising that in this cultural vacuum—exacerbated by the easy availability of the cheap alcohol that can be likened to chemical warfare—Hiram Thorpe became a mean, abusive alcoholic, regularly threatening, beating and abandoning his several wives and many children.
Jim Francis Thorpe was one of six children (later 11) born to Hiram Thorpe and Charlotte Vieux Thorpe in 1887, the same year as the Dawes Act, and just before the massive white land grab. This was the difficult life—no, turmoil—that shaped Jim’s childhood. Land theft. Culture theft. Theft of Indian children into the government schools. A violent father. A strong, protective mother. He was not left unscarred. This is a crucial part of Thorpe’s life that Sheinkin leaves out.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Native babies and children are traditionally named in different ways and through different practices. Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down (“Sitting Bull”) was named “Slow.” His Horse Is Crazy (“Crazy Horse”) was named “Curly.” Some children are traditionally given names that encourage them to “throw away” their baby names. (I’m reminded here of Joe Bruchac’s excellent historical novel, Brothers of the Buffalo, in which identical Cheyenne twins are named “Too Tall” and “Too Short.”) And the baby name of a good friend of mine translates from the Ojibwe, “Maniigimoogibineyans,” as “little bird making mess by making poo.” (She remembers, she told me, that she tried her best to learn how to use the potty so that everyone would stop calling her “little poo butt.”) Sometimes babies are named by their parents, sometimes by a grandparent or by a spiritual leader enlisted for that purpose. Sometimes babies are given a clan name.
Jim Thorpe was born into the Sauk Thunder Clan, which assigned him his traditional name, Wa-tha-sko-huk, meaning “The Light After the Lightning,” a Thunder Clan name. Unfortunately, Thorpe’s birth name is often cited as “Wa-tho-huck,” and erroneously translated as “Bright Path” by his biographers. Just about all of the references to “Bright Path,” which lead back to Jim Thorpe himself, have a romantic overtone, signifying that he was destined for greatness. Here, on page 9, Sheinkin writes:
Jim would later explain that his mother, following Potawatomi custom, also gave her sons names inspired by something experienced right after childbirth. Through the window near her bed, Charlotte watched the early morning sun light the path to their cabin. She named Jim Wathohuck, translated as “Bright Path.”
In any event, both of Thorpe’s parents would have followed traditional protocol and traveled to spiritual leaders in the community who were responsible for providing names. (Potawatomi and Sauk aren’t that far apart—they’re both dialects of Anishnaabemowin.) Or they would have followed the father’s traditional protocol. Although it’s possible that some individuals might name their children in this way (and “Bright Path” could have been an endearing nickname) this “first-thing-they-saw-after-childbirth” thing is a well-worn trope. It reminds me of the movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which the great Will Sampson’s tongue-in-cheek story ends with, “But why do you ask, Two Dogs Copulating?" 
THE “OUTING” PROGRAM
One of the more infamous programs of the Carlisle experience was the summer “outing” program, in which the young students were sent to live with white farm families, who, more often than not, mentally and physically abused them. The reasons that Pratt gave for this program was for the students to experience living in the white world while being trained for regular work. The actual purposes of the outing program were to keep the students from going home for the summer and to continue to train them as domestic servants and farm laborers while they provided an equivalent of slave labor. Sheinkin does not acknowledge any of this. Rather, on pp. 100-101, he writes:
The Outing Program was a major part of life at Carlisle. The idea was for students to live with a “civilized” family, practice English, and learn how to run a farm. “When you boys and girls go out on jobs,” Pratt told students, “you don’t go as employees. You go and become part of the family.” [italics mine]
That was not Jim’s experience. Assigned to a farm near Carlisle, he was put to work mopping floors and doing laundry. He was made to eat alone in the kitchen, and paid half of what a white laborer would typically earn.
While Pratt and the school administrators had full knowledge of the rampant cruelty from the white “patrons” to their young charges, Sheinkin describes the outing program as generally beneficent.
ROW, ROW, ROW YOUR BOAT
On page 141, Sheinkin describes Gus Welch’s life with his grandmother and younger brother in the woods of northern Wisconsin:
Gus spent as much time as possible outside, hoping the cold air would keep his lungs clear. His grandmother taught the boys to paddle a birch bark canoe, to trap animals for their fur, to collect maple syrup and wild rice. Gus earned money for the family by taking furs into Duluth to sell—which is what had brought him to town the day he saw the Carlisle football poster. [italics mine]
Here, Sheinkin, in one sentence—a wildly inaccurate one at that—purports to describe everything two Indian children learned from their one grandparent. The way it’s worded, as well as what it leaves out, implies that Ojibwe (“Chippewa”) people were and are simple, primitive, nature loving, and technologically impaired. All of it absents the reasoning, the science, the skill sets, and the methods of traditional Indian education. And it absents the fact that these traditional skills—valuable pieces of Indigenous knowledge and technologies—have been handed down for thousands of years.
In terms of canoe building, maintenance and management, many stories were traditionally used as instructive mnemonic devices. My friend and colleague, Lois Beardslee, told me that children were taught everything about the physics of that canoe and all mathematical things to know about a vessel: construction, ratios of length to width, use and repair, how and where loads should be balanced. They were taught hydrodynamics (the equivalent of aerodynamics), how each of the materials the vessel is made of reacts with its environment. For instance, they were taught how and why to weigh down a canoe and store it in the water. They were taught that bark and wood fibers need humidity to swell so that they hold together; that opposing tensions hold these materials together and the caulking is spruce or pine-pitch with fat, using ash as filler. They were taught that a canoe needs the coolness of the water.
Lessons about how to trap animals for their fur were traditionally accompanied by stories about how trapping assists in keeping animal communities healthy through population control, how animals give themselves to humans and how they are to be respected, how they are thanked and quickly killed, and how the pelts are cleaned and dried and prepared. If there were any meat, it would certainly not have been wasted. (My friend, Barbara Wall, commented: “Yum—muskrat and beaver…beaver feast in midwinter!”)
Maple syrup is not collected. People obtain maple sap from the sugarbush and again, there are stories and mnemonic devices for children to understand how things are done in a certain way. Children were and are taught that, as Lois told me, “When we make the syrup, the sap is transformed. It’s all about chemistry; it happens very fast. When the first crystals are formed at a certain temperature, they are the catalyst for a massive rapid series of crystal formation. Our language describes this chemistry accurately. Outsiders could not, because they didn’t have the scientific language to describe it.”
“It takes ten gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup and six gallons of syrup to make one gallon of sugar,” Lois continued. “Earlier, we made maple sap into sugar cakes; it wasn’t until the 1950s that glass jars were affordable in the Indian community and we started making syrup instead of sugar. We’re always a generation behind, financially.”
Manoomin (“wild rice”) is not “collected,” nor is it “wild.” Anishnaabe families have harvested and processed the rice, and seeded, cared for, and protected the rice beds for thousands of years.
On page 154, Sheinkin writes:
The Carlisle School was supposed to sever these young men from their heritage, to “Kill the Indian in them,” as Pratt had so famously said. But fans and sportswriters never let the players forget they were Indians—and there’s no evidence they wanted to forget. They did not call themselves the Carlisle Cardinals or the Carlisle Wildcats. They were the Carlisle Indians.
It was Pratt who named the team, “Carlisle Indians,” and the place they practiced, “Indian Field.” These names were certainly not the choice of the Carlisle students. The racist scorecards and the heavily altered “before-and-after” portraits that depict the students’ so-called journey from “savagery to civilization” were made into postcards and sold as souvenirs. And the stereotypic headlines (“Indians Scalp Army”) and articles (“With racial savagery and ferocity the Carlisle Indian eleven grabbed Penn’s football scalp and dragged their victim up and down Franklin field”) were written by Carlisle publicists to rake in money for the school, from which the Carlisle students did not benefit. Rather, there was an athletic slush fund diverting money from the Indian students. Although Sheinkin quotes from this material, he neither analyzes nor even questions it.
Sheinkin also fails to follow the money trail regarding letters from the Carlisle students. “Dear old Carlisle” is a phrase that shows up in virtually every student’s letters—because these were also used as fundraisers. There were many letters addressed to parents that were never sent, and there is clear evidence that students were required to turn letters over to the “outing” parents rather than sending them home. These letters were heavily censored; especially heartbreaking are the letters to “Dear old Carlisle” from students who had left, requesting the return of their belongings and the balances in their bank accounts.
In terms of what Jim Thorpe actually wrote, fact-checking material whose research is entirely based on hype is impossible; what’s available is inherently problematic and fundamentally wrong. Nothing is real or true. Jim Thorpe was encouraged to market his life, so everything he publicly said and wrote has to be viewed in this way. In searching out the truths of the Indian residential school era, it would have been necessary—and it would have been Sheinkin’s responsibility—to dig deeper. Rather, he chooses to represent “stereotypes as stereotypes” without question.
And that is the main problem with this book. Among the questions neither asked nor answered: Why is there a children’s cemetery on the school grounds with 192 headstones? Why were children sent home to die so as not to taint Carlisle’s statistics? Why was there a children’s jail on the school grounds? Why did twice as many children run away as were graduated?
Why did Sheinkin not interview descendants of the Carlisle students and especially, Jim Thorpe’s descendants? And why—when the sheer brutality that Pratt and his surrogates inflicted on his young Indian students, mentally and physically, has left generations of Indian people scarred and traumatized—does Sheinkin insist on finding “balance” in Pratt’s intentionality?
What does this say about Richard Henry Pratt and his life’s work? Was he a man who cared about the future of Native Americans at a time few other white leaders did? Was he a man who put down his rifle only to use his school as a weapon against the very people he was claiming to save? Can there be truth in both of the above? (p. 227)
The children who were in the clutches of the Carlisle teachers and administrators were parroting what they were expected to say. This is all clear from the school records—none of them document what the children actually experienced at the school. However, many first-person and descendants’ stories that relate the truths about Pratt’s “noble experiment” at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School have been passed down for future generations to know. But despite the copious research that Sheinkin conducted for this book (including 25 pages of source notes and six pages of works cited), his cultural filter as an outsider impedes his ability to tell the real story.
The purpose of this review is not to compare Undefeated with the countless other books and materials about Jim Thorpe, but it invites the questions: What if anything does Sheinkin offer here that is authentic, fresh or innovative? Is this an exceptional work?
“Nothing” and “no.” Just like the others, Sheinkin’s story only adds to the vast collection of what a friend calls “manifest mythology.” It’s no lie that Jim Thorpe was a remarkable human being. But praising only the achievements of one or two or a few Native individuals while all but ignoring the hundreds of Indian children whose lives and spirits were stolen from them in that same place is an injustice to the Carlisle students and their descendants and to both Indian and non-Indian readers as well. The forced removals and brainwashing of children, after forced relocation, after forced land theft—those are the stories whose importance is buried in the children’s cemetery, and in Sheinkin’s book. The greater win is empathy and compassion, and accomplishments and rebellions collectively shared. Whispering encouragement in Lakota to frightened younger children. Protecting little ones from being beaten for not knowing what is expected of them. Sneaking out in the middle of the night to give food to runaways. Secretly turning the children’s jail into a bonfire. Burying medicine bundles to save them from being destroyed. Pouring salt into a pot of mush or mashing the turnips with such fury that it breaks the jar. Many such stories have been told and many more are waiting to be told.
Sheinkin’s Undefeated is yet another addition to the cult of individual exception. It’s one person’s “bright path” superimposed over everyone else’s dirt road. Our Indian children deserve better.
‘Chi miigwech to my dear friend, Barbara Wall (Citizen Potawatomi), whose grandfather was a student at Carlisle, and whose great-great grandmother on her father’s side was Jim Thorpe’s mother’s sister. You have strong shoulders and a good heart. And to my friend and colleague, Barb Landis, whose life’s work has been devoted to documenting the Indian students’ lives at “Dear Old Carlisle.” And to my friend and colleague, educator and poet Lois Beardslee (Anishnaabe), who ceaselessly speaks truth about power. And to my dear friend, Dovie Thomason (Lakota, Kiowa-Apache), for her brilliant and compassionate stream-of-consciousness telephone conversations and unwavering support.
 Hayworth Publishing House, 1921
 Here, Zitkala-Sa is referring to her teachers at White’s Manual Labor Institute.
 Here, Zitkala-Sa, who was born of mixed parentage, describes herself as “a curiously colored seashell.”
 I substituted “copulating” for the actual word.
 These “before-and-after” portraits were made for two purposes: (1) as fundraisers for the school, and (2) as propaganda. The children’s complexions were often darkened in the “before” photos and lightened in the “after” photos. As well, children in the “before” photos were often “costumed” with props that were not theirs. For instance, on page 33, Wounded Yellow Robe and Chauncy Yellow Robe are wearing eagle feathers in their hair, standing straight up. These feathers were props.
Posted by Debbie Reese at 6:20 PM