Title: Wa-Tho-Huk: portrait of Jim Thorpe
Material: Oil on wood
I guess you would call it that mythic place – that river ultimately—that is within all of us which is not tapped as often with the general public as it used to be in cultures which had living oral traditions and very vital heroes and heroines. In our time it’s trapped by the artists. – Joy Harjo
(Bill Moyers, The Language of Life)
The Sac and the Fox Indians formed the Mesquakie Nation, and the Mesquakie Nation produced the athletic genius savant, Jim Thorpe. The “C” on his uniform could stand for his professional football team the Canton Bulldogs, or for the same town’s Football Hall of Fame, of which he is an inductee, or it might stand for his alma mater, the Carlyle Indian boarding school.
Some years ago, I visited the Army’s ‘Carlyle Barracks’, in the hope of learning more about the Indian School, but there was no trace of it other than a baseball uniform in a tiny museum in the former brig. Given more space in the museum was a life-size diorama showing a mannequin of a doughboy waking up in jail cell with a black eye and a hangover. I asked if there was more on the Indian school somewhere else, and they referred me to someone in town who they believed might give a shit, and offered me a look at a real Sherman tank and a tour of the Omar Bradley Museum. I didn’t have the time or the interest. In fact I was outraged, but you know outrage alone won’t solve the world’s problems.
That is how this painting drew me in the Boarding School direction, resulting in a youthful Thorpe with his bad boarding-school haircut, Indian ledger paper drawing, and Western-art style tree that appears also Asian in its flatness. Maybe it arrived via the Land-bridge, too.
Carlyle had a great football team. They had an unstoppable play that was eventually outlawed, in which a Carlyle running back would carry the ball hidden in a pouch sewn onto the back of his uniform. The defense never knew who had the ball. Sounds fair to me.