Louis Tewanima seemed born to run. As a boy, he’d venture far beyond his village of Shungopavi on the Hopi Reservation. It is said that his feet would blaze 56 miles across the rocky Arizona desert to the town of Winslow. Louis was awed by the massive locomotives he’d see there. For fun, he’d test his stamina by running alongside the trains before watching them pass. Then he’d turn around and run the 56 miles home.
Louis was a member of the Hopi Tribe in Arizona. Like other Hopi people in the late 19th century, Louis ran for his emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. But when Louis was a young man, his running path took a detour.
Running to Compete
In the early part of the 20th century, the U.S. government forced many Native Americans to leave their homes and attend boarding schools. When U.S. troops showed up on the Hopi Reservation, Louis, a married man at that point, was arrested for resisting the government’s order to send all Hopi children to school. Staying true to the Hopi value of peace, he cooperated with authorities when they made him leave his wife, family, cornfields, and sheep.
In 1907, Louis found himself riding on one of the locomotives that had amazed him as a boy. With no knowledge of the English language, he was headed east to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
The weather in Pennsylvania was much colder than what Louis was used to. He missed his family and his way of life. He turned to something familiar—running. He’d seen the school’s track team practice, so he approached the coach, Glenn S. “Pop” Warner, and asked if he could run for him.
After watching Louis run, Warner immediately realized Louis had talent. Warner coached him on applying his stamina and strength to track and field. It wasn’t long before medals, trophies, and prizes filled Louis’s room at the Carlisle school, and he became known as one of the best distance runners in America.
Even when he was faced with obstacles, Louis prevailed. He once missed his train to a race in Harrisburg. Instead of calling it a loss, he ran 18 miles to the event, arriving on time. He proceeded to compete in the two-mile race, and he finished first!
Pop Warner knew that the U.S. Olympic Team needed runners for the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, England. Louis trained, entered his first Olympics, and placed ninth in the marathon.
Four years later, he competed in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. This time, he ran the 10,000-meter race and finished in second place. For 52 years, Louis Tewanima’s silver medal marked the best finish for the U.S. in that event at the Olympics. Billy Mills, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, won gold for the U.S. in that event at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
Shortly after the Stockholm Olympics, Louis returned to his village. He reunited with his wife and family and settled into herding sheep and growing corn. In 1954, he was named to the all-time U.S. Olympic track and field team. Despite the difficulties of his changing surroundings, Louis Tewanima proved to be a man of honor and strength, and many people recognize him as a hero to this day.
Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-09215