Monday, January 3, 2011

Life as an American "other . . ."

The late Ollie Branham was my husband Charlie's neighbor when he and I first met twenty-some years ago.

At the time, Ollie was about 80, straight as an oak, strong, calm and wise. He'd lived in Amherst County, Virginia, his whole life, but had been a recognized (by the Commonwealth of Virginia) member of the Monacan Indian Nation only since February 14, 1989.

Before that, Ollie had been an "other," a  mongrel unaccepted by either blacks or whites in the carefully racist structure of the first three-quarters of last-century Virginia. The only time I ever saw Ollie Branham close to angry was when he took out his identity card, pointed at the word "Monacan" and shouted something like that's who I am, and that's who I've always been, and now can't no one say otherwise!

Author (and WMRA member) Kate Buford has just published the first complete biography of perhaps our country's most famous Native American "other," Olympian Jim Thorpe.  Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe doesn't need me to describe it as the exhaustively researched, well-written biography it is. For that, read reviews in the likes of The New York Times and Powell's. All I'll add by way of straight assessment is that, if you enjoy a biography that ranges across the early, chaotic days of professional sports, read this book! For me, it would have been worth reading just for the portrait it gives of that glorious self-promoter, Pop Warner -- whom I'd always before assumed was a sports saint.

I do, however, have a couple of things to say about Native American Son as a social history.

Jim Thorpe throws the discus in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm 

Jim Thorpe competed for the United States in the 1912 Olympics (long before our country accepted him as its citizen). He won gold medals in both the pentathlon and decathlon, and then lost them, because he'd gotten paid to play summer baseball -- which was a common practice back then among white amateur athletes who got to keep their medals..   

Although he went on to be one of the Founding Fathers of American professional sports, Jim Thorpe (as Ms. Buford details) remained the restless and rootless creature America had made him by doing almost everything wrong in its treatment of Native Americans. He was, like my friend Ollie Branham, constantly told what he wasn't, rather than being left alone to discover what he was.

Sure Jim Thorpe was a drunk and a bit feckless and a bad parent. But who knows what this man -- arguably the best American athlete of his century -- might have become had his society not beat up on him (and exploited him) every chance it got. 

I'm a firm believer that we can walk around in other people's shoes only by listening to their stories. Kate's telling of Jim Thorpe's story details the dark underbelly of 20th Century American social history. It's a tale which we have every right to be ashamed of and every need to remember.

To me the greater question Kate Buford's fine biography asks is: Are we Americans as a society ever going to learn how to function without designating and denigrating "others?"

I'd suggest reading Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe if you feel any need to give your social conscience a call to action for 2011.


  1. Ms. Woodroof:

    I enjoyed your review of the Jim Thorpe biography and it reminds me to share that I also really enjoyed your Lives: Hank's Road as it appeared in the N.Y. Times Magazine some months ago.

    Frank Merlino
    Plano, Texas

  2. Thanks, Frank. I enjoyed writing both of those pieces very much. Glad you liked them.