The Sacred Runner

May 21, 2021

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.

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