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
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
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
Leo W. Banks, of Tucson, is a correspondent for The Boston Globe.