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The Spirits Moved Him
Leo W. Banks
September 16, 1996
Louis Tewanima ran like the wind and is still a hero to young Hopi racers
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September 16, 1996

The Spirits Moved Him

Louis Tewanima ran like the wind and is still a hero to young Hopi racers

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At dawn, when Hopi runners take to the rocky trails that twist up and down the mesas of Arizona, they carry with them a tradition in which running is seen as a spiritual act, a prayer to help with everything from growing corn to keeping tribal members strong.

But Hopi athletes are also accompanied by the spirit of Louis Tewanima, who was the greatest runner in the history of the tribe. "Tewanima is a cultural hero to all Hopi but especially to young runners," says Hopi High School track coach Rick Baker, whose best runner, senior Juwan Nuvayokva, has won the state cross-country title the past two years.

Tewanima's running career began in 1906, when U.S. troops arrested a band of supposedly hostile Hopi in northeastern Arizona in a dispute over a federal decree that they send their children to government-run schools. When traditionalists resisted, soldiers shipped the male resisters to stockades in Arizona, New Mexico and California.

Tewanima, from the Second Mesa, was sent to Fort Wingate, N.Mex., and in 1907 to the Carlisle (Pa.) Indian Industrial School. He spent five years at Carlisle when he was in his 20s and earned a reputation there as an excellent distance runner with an astonishing finishing kick. He teamed with Indian Hall of Famers Frank Mt. Pleasant and Jim Thorpe on a three-man squad (coached by Pop Warner) that defeated then powerhouse schools like Lafayette, which fielded 40-man teams.

In 1908 Tewanima ran for the U.S. at the Olympics in London, finishing ninth in the marathon. Four years later, at the Stockholm Games, Thorpe won gold in the decathlon and the pentathlon, and Tewanima won a silver medal in the 10,000 meters.

Tewanima's time of 32:06.6 set a U.S. record that stood for 52 years. It was broken at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics by the gold medalist in the 10,000, Billy Mills, a Native American from South Dakota.

Carlisle's heroes were celebrated when they came home, but Tewanima's moment in the limelight was brief. He soon returned to the Second Mesa and a life of herding sheep and growing corn, melons and beans. Though he rarely ventured off the reservation, Tewanima flew to New York City in 1954 for a ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel honoring members of the alltime U.S. Olympic track and field team. It was his first trip on an airplane, but Tewanima was unperturbed by the experience. While a fellow passenger, a more experienced traveler, suffered air sickness, the 66-year-old Tewanima sat calmly puffing a big cigar. At a preceremony press conference, photographers scrambled to shoot pictures of Bob Mathias, the 1952 Olympic decathlon champion, in his Marine Corps uniform, next to Tewanima, decked out in his Hopi finery—a velveteen shirt, buckskin leggings and moccasins, headband and turquoise necklace, belt, rings and earrings.

Three years later, when Tewanima traveled to Phoenix for induction into the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame, he recalled how he and other boys used to run 50 miles to Winslow just to see the trains go by. When the caboose rumbled past, they would turn around and run home. Tewanima dismissed his 100-mile jogs with a shrug. "It was summertime, the days were long," he said.

Tewanima died on Jan. 18, 1969. His obituary in The New York Times said he had attended a religious ceremony and was heading home when he got lost and walked off a 70-foot cliff.

But for the Hopi, he lives on. Every Labor Day the Louis Tewanima Memorial Footrace is held, attracting hundreds of runners. Nuvayokva won this year's 10K race. "When we recall Tewanima, we're reemphasizing running as part of our identity," says former tribal chairman Ivan Sydney. "It's a source of pride, and it provides a sense of unity. We can't afford to forget."