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The Native Canadian Distance Runners at the 1912 Olympic Games

The Native Canadian distance-runners at the 1912 Olympic Games 


At least four athletes of North American Native origin competed at the 1912 Olympic Games, and the best known of them is Jim Thorpe, the dominant pentathlon and decathlon winner who was later deprived of his titles for having previously played professional baseball, and then in the fullness of time reinstated. One of his US team-mates was Lewis Tewanima (sometimes spelled “Tewanina”), who was the silver-medallist at 10,000 metres, and two of the other distance-runners at those Games were Alex Decouteau and Joe Keeper, of Canada, who were both Cree Indians by birth. Decouteau's name, like Tewanima's, was subject to other interpretation, sometimes spelled “DeCouteau” or changed to “Decoteau” and apparently pronounced “Dakota”.


The lives of Decouteau and Keeper followed similar directions. Decouteau's Olympic achievements were more modest than those of Thorpe or Tewanima as he was 8th in the 5000 metres final, but Keeper was 4th at 10,000 metres, and both men were genuinely accomplished runners who for various reasons have interesting places in history, be it sporting or sociological. Decouteau became the first Canadian law-enforcement officer of Indian upbringing when he joined the police force in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1909, and he was later the first Canadian motor-cycle policeman. Like a number of other Olympic athletes of 1912, he was to lose his life during World War I. Keeper survived the war, in which he was decorated for bravery, and one of his sons, also named Joseph, and a grand-daughter, Tina Keeper, have both become renowned activists in native affairs.   


Alexander Wuttunee Decouteau had been born on either 19 November or 20 December 1887 at the Red Pheasant Nation reservation near North Battleford, Saskatchewan, in Western Canada, as the second of five children of Peter and Mary Decouteau. Peter Decouteau was murdered when the youngster was only three years old and three of the children, including Alexander, were sent to the local Indian Industrial School, where he developed a talent for athletics, cricket and football. After leaving school he worked as a farm-hand and then moved to Edmonton to live with his sister and brother-in-law and work in the latter's business, described as a blacksmith's or a machine-shop.


Decouteau began his competitive running career at much the same time as he,was accepted into the city police force, having his first races in May of 1909 and promptly winning at one mile and five miles, setting a Western Canadian record for the latter distance. Very few of the times which he achieved leading up to the 1912 Olympics have been reported, though he did record 26:34 for five miles in Edmonton. In 1910 he won the Alberta titles at 880 yards, one miles, two miles and five miles, and it was said of him that “between 1909 and 1916 there was hardly a major middle-distance or long-distance race in Western Canada that Decouteau did not win”. A regular success was in the annual Fort Saskatchewan 10 miles road event, and in 1912 he is supposed to have covered the first five miles in 25 minutes, though this seems improbable in view of the fact that his winning time was reported as 59:59.


There is a further mystery regarding his achievements at the Stockholm Olympics, for which he was given special leave of absence by his police superiors. Certainly, he ran capably enough at 5000 metres, finishing 2nd in his heat on 9 July to George Bonhag, of the USA, in a time of 15:24.2, and his untimed 8th place in the next day's final was achieved ahead of his fellow-countryman, Joe Keeper, and two Britons, Fred Hibbins and Cyril Porter, while four of the 15 starters failed to finish. A Canadian sports historian, William M. McLellan, writing in 1983, claims that Decouteau also ran in the 10,000 metres and “dropped out to save himself for the 5000 metres races”, but Decouteau's name does not figure in the official results for either the heats of that event, on 7 July, or the final, on 8 July.


Whatever the circumstances in Stockholm, Decouteau continued «over the next four years to win almost every race he entered.  These successes included beating his own provincial record for the mile and winning the annual “Calgary Herald”' five miles road race in 1914 and 1915. At the national championships in Vancouver in September of 1913 he was 2nd in the mile while his cousin, Gilbert Wuttunee, who he coached, was 3rd at five miles.  


Promoted to the rank of Sergeant in the Edmonton police, Decouteau then enlisted in the Canadian army in 1916 and apparently won several races after his arrival in England. On one of these occasions it is said that King George V was in attendance and presented Decouteau with his own gold pocket-watch as a memento. Decouteau served as a dispatch-carrier in the battle zones of Northern France and sadly was to be one of the 16,000 Canadian casualties at the Battle of Passchendaele, dying from a sniper's bullet on 30 October 1917. There is a particular poignancy to this tragic end to his life because the war had offered Decouteau a chance to achieve the same status of honoured warrior amongst the Cree community as his father had done when he had fought against the Canadian militia in 1885.


Decouteau was buried in the military cemetery at Ypres as just one among many thousands whose remains had been engulfed in the mud of the Flanders battle-fields, and in 1985 – exactly a century after his father's own deeds of valour – a memorial solemn ceremony was performed by the Cree community in Canada to release Decouteau's spirit, as custom required.


Joseph Benjamin Keeper was almost two years Decouteau's senior, born at Walker Lake, in Northern Manitoba, on 17 January 1886, and had attended the Brandon Indian Industrial School from 1899 to 1909. As was the case with Decouteau, Keeper showed an immediate aptitude for athletics, winning an indoor mile race in the last of those years and then beating 40 others in a seven-mile road race in May of 1910. By then he was living in Winnipeg and had joined the North End Amateur Athletics Club, soon making his mark nationally by setting a Canadian 10 miles record of 54:50 at Fort William, Ontario, in 1911.


His performances in Stockholm were a remarkable tribute to his durability: 7 July - 2nd in his 10,000 metres heat in 33:58.8, within 10 seconds of the champion-to-be, Hannes Kolehmainen, of Finland ; 8 July - 4th in the 10,000 metres final in 32:36.2 behind Kolehmainen (31:20.8) ; 9 July - 2nd in his 5000 metres heat in 15:28.9 ; 10 July – 9th, no time given, in the 5000 metres final.


He, too, joined the Canadian army in 1916, also serving as a dispatch-carrier, and was awarded the Military Medal for bravery at Cambrai . In 1917 he formed a team with the renowned professional distance-runner, Tom Longboat, and two other Canadian Indians named A. Jamieson and John  Nackaway to win an Inter-Allies' cross-country competition. After the war he worked as a carpenter and joined the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1926 he was married to Christina McLeod and they had four sons and three daughters. He retired from work in 1951 and died at the age of 85 on 29 September 1971. An annual race organised by the Manitoba Runners' Association was set up in his memory and his name is now linked in its title with that of another outstanding Native Canadian runner, Angela Chalmers, winner of three Commonwealth titles at 1500 and 3000 metres in 1990 and 1994.        







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