A Hopi runner and his marathon trophy

Photograph by Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert

Most people who visit the Sherman Indian Museum in Riverside, California, see this first place trophy without knowing who won it. Marathon officials did not engrave the athlete’s name on the trophy, but they did include the date and the event, which was the Vallejo Pre-Olympic National Marathon held in California on December 22, 1929.

At one point in the school’s history, the student’s at Sherman Institute knew who won this award. But as time passed, the trophy, one of the largest in the Museum’s collection, became disassociated from its owner.

The trophy belongs to Hopi runner Harry Chaca from the village of Polacca on First Mesa. He was among the great Hopi runners of the twentieth century. Chaca attended Sherman in the 1920s and early 1930s and he earned several marathon honors while a student at the school.

I wrote about Chaca and his victory of the 1929 Vallejo Pre-Olympic National Marathon in my article “Hopi Footraces and American Marathons, 1912-1930” (American Quarterly, March 2010). I note that prior to this event, Chaca had won other prestigious marathons and his reputation as a great runner spread far beyond the United States.

In Japan, for example, a runner named Yoshikio Sudsuki heard that Chaca was the best runner in America and so he traveled to the U.S. for the sole purpose of competing against the Hopi from Polacca. But at the 1929 Vallejo Pre-Olympic National Marathon, Chaca’s speed and endurance proved too much for the forty-nine year old runner from Tokyo. In my article I write that the

Hopi runner ran at a “killing pace to win” the full marathon in two hours, forty-one minutes, and twenty-five seconds, a “full second better than the performance of Alpien Stenroos” in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. One of the fifty thousand spectators of the marathon recalled that Chaca’s “victory” was “all the more noteworthy for his sensational finish. After trailing for twenty-three miles it was at that mark that he applied a final burst of speed that sent him ahead” of Hopi runner Franklin Suhu. In addition to winning the race, Chaca set a new American marathon record, which immediately confirmed his place as the top long-distance runner in the nation. [p. 91]

Shortly after Chaca’s marathon victory, school officials took his trophy and displayed it in a large cabinet located in Sherman’s administration building (now the Sherman Indian Museum). According to school administrators, all individually won trophies belonged to the school.

At times Hopi students attempted to obtain their trophy cups after their terms at Sherman had expired.  During the 1940s, for example, Hopi runner Philip Zeyouma asked the school’s superintendent if he could reclaim his trophies (pictured on the front cover of American Quarterly), but school officials refused to honor his request.

More than eighty years after Chaca won the Vallejo Pre-Olympic National Marathon, his trophy remains at the Sherman Indian Museum. Although government officials consider the award to be property of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the trophy will always belong to Harry Chaca and his family.

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert

Hopi Music Repatriation Project

The Hopi of northeastern Arizona are among the most researched indigenous people groups in North America. Over the years anthropologists, historians, psychologists, ethnographers and many others have conducted research on the Hopi Reservation.  Their scholarship has appeared in journals, books, internet websites, and even films. Some of these scholars collaborated with Hopi people, followed research protocols established by the Hopi Tribe, and sought ways to give back to the Hopi community. Others did not. But the purpose of today’s post is not for me to write about people who have exploited Hopis of their intellectual property or conducted research on the reservation without permission from the Hopi Tribe. Instead I want to introduce you to someone whom I believe has done the complete opposite.

While a graduate student in the Arts Administration program at Columbia University, Trevor Reed from the Hopi village of Hotevilla developed a research project called the “Hopi Music Repatriation Project” (HMRP). This project focuses on field recordings of Hopi songs that ethnomusicologists conducted during the 1930s and 1940s. The recordings are now archived at Columbia University’s Center for Ethnomusicology. As Reed points out on his blog Hopi Music Repatriation Project: “On one hand, these recordings are invaluable research tools for ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, and for the American public, who ideally should be educated in the indigenous heritage of the land on which they live. On the other hand, the recordings are an important link to Hopi past and identity, and contain highly sensitive material.” So what are the questions that this project seeks to answer? Again, Reed notes: “based on Hopi and U.S. concepts of intellectual property, to whom do these recordings rightfully belong and what should be done with them?”

I urge you to visit Reed’s blog and learn more about this important project. His current post, “Repatriation Initiative Receives Endorsement from Hopi Elders,” describes a recent meeting that he had with the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office and the Hopi Cultural Resources Advisory Task Team. At this meeting Reed gave a update on his project and played some of the Hopi songs that he uncovered at the University’s Center for Ethnomusicology. As Reed recalls, a highlight for him was when he played a particular song at the meeting and those in attendance joined in the singing. To visit Reed’s blog, click here.

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert