Native American Athletes Who Made History

Native American Athletes Who Made History

Native American Athletes

From baseball to football, Native Americans have made their marks in sports. Whether it is the Olympics or the World Series, athletes from the tribal nations brought their innate warring spirits to sports endeavors.

No other athlete symbolizes this drive and ability as Jim Thorpe, widely regarded as the greatest sportsperson of the twentieth century. Like Thorpe, many other iconic Native American sportspersons in history changed the stereotypes of the Indigenous people with their athletic prowess.

Jim Thorpe – an Athlete Who Did It All

Different sports and casino play, like the free slots listed at Slotozilla, are the favorite pastimes of the Native Americans. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find truly versatile athletes like Jim Thorpe. Growing up in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) with Sac and Fox Nation identity, Thorpe's power, speed, kicking, and versatility were evident from his college days at Carlisle Institute and Indian school in Pennsylvania.

From 1904 to 1911, he had varying degrees of success in various college sports. Thorpe became a true global star when he stunned the world out of nowhere at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. He won the pentathlon and decathlon, smashing the world record in the latter.

About a year later, he was stripped of the medals after discovering that Thorpe had previously played semi-professional baseball and was, therefore, not qualified to compete as an amateur athlete. The legend achieved more success as a top NFL and MLB player.

His Olympic medals were restored in 1983, three decades after his death.

Billy Mills – an Underdog That Inspires Generations

Running was Billy Mills' escape from the poverty and hardship of growing up in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. His passion and athletic gift soon became apparent at high school, where he broke and set several records. Those feats got him into the University of Kansas on athletic scholarships, winning NCAA All-America cross-country three times.

Billy made the US Olympic team while serving in the Marine Corps Reserve. In 1964, Billy, as an unknown athlete running at the 10,000m event, created one of the greatest moments at the Olympics. He upset and outran Ron Clarke of Australia, the then-record holder.

Billy continued his meteoric rise in the athletic world, winning the six-mile run a year later with a world record. A year later, he set an American record for the 10,000m and the 3-mile race. The movie Running Brave is based on Oglala Lakota's runner feats and life.

Chief Bender (Ojibwe) – the Innovator of the Slider

Charles Albert Bender, born in 1884, earned the nickname ‘Chief' for his Ojibwe ancestry. He spent the earliest part of his childhood at the White Earth Indian Reservation before heading to Pennsylvania’s Carlisle School in 1898. His baseball career started under the iconic Glen “Pop” Warner. Bender immediately caught the eye with his athletic talents, excelling in track, football and baseball. His ascension continued at Dickinson College.

Philadelphia Athletics' Connie Mack discovered Bender while pitching for the semi-pro Harrisburg Athletic Club in 1903. In his 12-year relationship with the A's, Bender helped the team to three championships in 1910, 1911 and 1913. He also had a year stint in the Federal League in 1915 before joining the Chicago White Sox at 44 for a last dance.

Bender's career wasn't without challenges. He had to fight through discrimination and abuse to establish his legacy as an all-time native American pitcher. Bender passed away in 1954, but he was inducted (the first Minnesotan) into the National Basketball Hall of Fame a year earlier.

Louis Tewanima – an Athlete Born to Run

Before Bill Mills achieved the unrepeatable in the 10000-meter race in 1964, Louis Tewanima held the US best achievement in the event. He won silver at the 1912 Olympics. Before then, he ran the marathon at the 1908 Olympics and came 9th. Like Thorpe, with whom he was on the same Olympic team, Louis started his journey to immortality at Carlisle Indian School.

As a Hopi Native American, Louis spent his earliest years on the reservation in Arizona. Due to the government education policy, he was forced to move to Fort Wingate, New Mexico, in 1906 and then to Carlisle Indian School a year later. Through running, the young Louis found a balance between Indian ancestry and American culture.

After his feat at the 1912 Olympics, the running legend returned to the quiet and peaceful life on the reservation till his death in 1969. Before then, Tewanima was inducted into the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame. He also made the greatest US Olympic track & field team selection.

Clarence John Abel – Legend of History-Changing Firsts

Nicknamed Taffy for loving candy, Abel is the first ice hockey player of native American origin at the Olympics. Before becoming an Olympian, Abel competed for Soo Nationals in the US Amateur Hockey Association in 1918, the first organized League in the country. He joined St. Paul Athletic in 1922 before joining US Olympic ice hockey. Abel scored 15 goals on the way to winning a silver.

Taffy then played for the Minneapolis Millers of the CHL in the 1925/1926 season and made the CHL's First All-Star team. He joined the New York Rangers for the NHL for the 1926/1927 NHL season as the first Native American feature in the League. The Chicago Black Hawks bought him right after the 1929 season, played there for another five years and won the cup in his last season. Here are some of Taffy's historic firsts.

  • The first Indigenous athletes to win an Olympic medal
  • The first native American at the Winter Olympics
  • The first Olympic flag bearer
  • The first NHL Native American Player
  • The first native American Stanley Cup winner

Taffy featured in 333 NHL games and won the Stanley Cup series twice. He was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Famer nine years after he died in 1964

Other North American Inductees to the Hall of Fame Posthumously

Here are other great American Indians posthumously inducted into the Halls of Fame.

Athlete  Sports Hall of Fame  Passed On
Joseph N. Guyon Football National Professional Football Hall of Fame (1966) 1971
Alexander Arcasa Football and Lacrosse The Inland Northwest Sports Hall of Fame (1963);

The American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame (1972)

Rueben Sanders Basketball, Shot put Native American Athletic Hall of Fame (1972);

Oregon Sports Hall of Fame (1999)

John Levi Football American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame (1972);

Oklahoma Athletic Hall of Fame (1973)

John “Chief” Meyers Baseball American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame (1972) 1971


About Paul G

Paul G is the founder, who wears many hats as a business coach, photographer, and collector of quirky shirts. Paul started in 1996 while pursuing his graduate degree. With a passion for travel, he and his family hav  traveled the world, capturing unforgettable memories and photos. When he's not coaching or clicking, he's indulging in the magic of Disney.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Find a Pow Wow
Near you

Search the US & Canada

What to expect
at your first Pow Wow

Sign Up for our Free E-newsletter