No Teno Quah...
Grace Thorpe was born in Yale, Oklahoma, on December 10, 1921. Grace’s parents, Iva Miller and Jim Thorpe, gave her a Native American name inspired by her great-grandmother, No Teno Quah. Grace explained the name refers to the power of the wind before a storm. Iva was Potawatomi, Menominee and Kickapoo and a direct descendent of Sac and Fox chief, Black Hawk. It was Black Hawk who disputed the treaty signed between the US Government and his tribe to cede all land east of the Mississippi River. This dispute resulted in the 15 week long Black Hawk War in 1832. Yes, her father was ‘that’ Jim Thorp! James Francis Thorpe was an American athlete and Olympic gold medalist. A member of the Sac and Fox Nation, Thorpe was the first Native American to win a two gold medal for the United States in the Olympics the pentathlon and decathlon. He played both baseball and football professionally. Jim and Iva met when they were students at the Carlisle Indian school in Pennsylvania.
When she was very young, Graces parents split up. One went to Chicago and the other to California. She spent time wit both of them. She attended St. Mary’s Academy and later transferred to her father’s alma mater, Haskell Indian School in Oklahoma.
When the United States became involved in World War II, in December of 1941, grace wanted to contribute the the war effort. In 1943 she was hired to work at the Ford Motor Company plant in Rouge Michigan, on an aircraft assembly line. She worked there for four months and then enlisted in the Woman’s Army Corps, WAC. She made this choice because she had no real ties or responsibilities and she noted that a woman who did, with a child or family perhaps, could not be a WAC, but could take up her job at the assembly line.
After her initial training at Ft. Oglethorp, Georgia, Grace was assigned to be a recruiter for the WACs in both Montana and Arizona. She was an instant success and the media sought her out constantly because of who her father was. There is one classic photo of her in uniform, kicking a football. I can’t help but wonder how she felt about all of that publicity just because she was Jim Thorpe’s daughter. What of her own identity, as Grace, that was still forming?
The next stop in her recruiting efforts was the Pacific. She worked in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan until the end of the war. After she was discharged she stayed in Japan rising to the status of Chief of the Recruitment Section at the Department of Army Civilians in Tokyo.
Apparently, this work suited her. During this time she met and fell in love with Lt. Fred Seely. In 1946 they were married and had two children together, Dagmar and Paul. They were divorced four years later and Grace raised her sons in Pearl River, New York. Her son, Paul, died in a tragic automobile accident at a teenager. She was grief stricken. At this juncture she decided to ease her pain by pursuing new paths. She chose education and tribal affairs.
She stayed very busy and coordinated the National Congress of American Indians Economic Development Conference, and worked with Native American Women’s Action Council. When an activist group occupied Alcatraz, in 1969, she joined the occupation for three months. They were lobbying to have this surplus federal land returned to the Native Americans. The goal was to transform this infamous island prison, into an Indian cultural center and school. She did a fantastic job running publicity for the group. She went on to become a key member of the occupy movement in similar endeavors across the country, appearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee supporting Native Peoples that did not live on reservations. Grace also served as a district court judge for the Native Peoples. She was a fiery activist and valued justice!
Grace earned a paralegal degree from Antioch School of Law in 1974.
In 1980, at 58 years old, she completed her undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee. She also worked as a part-time district court judge for the Five Tribes of Oklahoma.
Grace took up another cause, and that was to solidify her father’s athletic legacy, and restore his gold medals from the Summer Olympic of 1912. Jim Thorpe had his medals taken from him by the International Olympic Committee, just a year after his historic win. Although Jim Thorpe continued to write his legacy as an unparalleled athlete, his medals were stripped from him, after it was discovered that he had violated amateur rules by being paid to play minor league baseball in 1909 and 1910. Grace was tenacious and fought for years to have her father’s record restored. In 1982 she was informed that his record had been restored, but as co-champion as the runner up was not reassessed and that left the two of them as winners.
Grace was not to be without a cause for long. In 1996 she wrote Our Homes Are Not Dumps; Creating Nuclear-Free Zones to let the world know that Native American tribes all around the country were being excessively burdened and harmed by the nuclear industry and, specifically, the disposal and storage of nuclear waste on tribal lands, their home.
She relates in the piece, “I was a corporal, stationed in New Guinea, at the end of World War II when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. No safe method has yet been found for the disposal of such waste, the most lethal poison known in the history of humanity. It remains an orphan of the nuclear age. . . The utilities are using our names and our trust lands to bypass environmental regulations. The issue is not sovereignty. The issue is Mother Earth's preservation and survival. The issue is environmental racism.”
Grace Thorpe continued to work for the environment and justice for the rest of her life.
Visit the Grace F. Thorpe Digitized collection at the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives for more on her life and work.