Updated: Nov 10, 2021
By Aaren Herron
Discussions about influential U.S. sports figures seldom include the names of Native Americans. Yet there have been numerous Native athletes who broke records while also breaking social barriers. Here, we look at six who made a major impact on their individual sport and on the world.
James Francis Thorpe (May 28, 1888– March 28, 1953), was an All-American athlete and the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal. He actually won two gold medals at the 1912 Olympics, taking top honors while also setting records in both the Decathlon and classic pentathlon.
Born in the Sac and Fox Nation in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), Thorpe was signed by the New York Giants in 1913 and played for various MLB teams until 1919. The slugger simultaneously played for the Canton Bulldogs American Football team, bringing them three professional championships in the process. In the early 1920s, Thorpe would help create the National Football League we know today. He is considered to be one of the greatest athletes of all time, and was named Athlete of the [20th] Century by ABC World Wide of Sports in 2001.
William Mervin Mills (b. June 30,1938), a.k.a., Tamakoce Te'Hila, was born and raised in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, as a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Mills received an athletic scholarship to the University of Kansas, where he went on to become a three-time NCAA All-American cross-country runner as well as individual champion at the 1960 Big Eight cross-country championship.
Competing as a largely unknown runner in the 1964 Olympic Games, Mills took home the gold in the 10,000-meter race while setting a record of 28:24:4 – the first non-European winner and only winner from the Americas to ever do so. He would go on to reset the U.S. records for both the 10,000-meter and the three-mile run. Inducted into the U.S. National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1976, Mills was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984 – the same year he carried the Olympic flag during the Games. Later in life, he co-founded the nonprofit organization Running Strong for American Indian Youth.
Despite growing up in poverty, Ellison Meyers Brown (September 22,1913 - August 23,1975), was a direct descendant of the last acknowledged royal family of the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island. Perhaps it was this noble heritage that drove him to become one of the greatest long-distance runners in U.S. history. In 1936, Brown became the second-ever Native American to win the Boston Marathon; that same year, Brown competed in the Olympic Games and won the Port Chester (New York) marathon as well as (the very next day) a second marathon in Manchester, New Hampshire. Three years later, Brown became the first runner to break the 2:30 mark during the Boston Marathon, bringing him his second win.
Rodney Dean Curl (born January 9, 1943) is the first full-blooded Native American golfer to win a PGA tour event. A member of the Wintu Indian tribe, Curl joined the PGA circuit in 1969; over the next decade, he also racked up 42 top-ten finishes – including a half dozen in the top three.
John T. “Chief” Meyers (July 29, 1880 – July 25, 1971) was a Major League Baseball player and member of the Cahuilla tribe on the Santa Rosa Reservation in Riverside, California.
Drafted by the New York Giants, Meyers would play in four different World Series – three in a row with the New York Giants (1911-1913) and one with the Brooklyn Robins in 1916. In 1933, Meyers was appointed chief of the Mission Indian Agency of Southern California, where he worked until he retired.
Joe “The Boss” Hipp (born December 7, 1962) is a member of the Blackfeet Tribe and a retired professional heavyweight boxer. On August 19,1995, Hipp became the first Native American to challenge for – and win – a world heavyweight boxing championship. He ended his career with a 43-7 record.