WW2 Service and Working for Native American Rights--No Teno Quah / Grace Thorpe--An Inspiring Woman
Updated: Apr 20, 2022
INSPIRATION FROM NO TENO QUAH’S LIFE
Stretch Yourself In All That You Do + Help Others =
A Fulfilling Life
Welcome Back to Our Weekly Blog Featuring Amazing Woman
Last week, we looked at the inspiration from Rosie the Riveter and the figures who influenced that iconic figure. This week, we have another woman who served in WW2 and who spent the rest of her life contributing to Native American causes. Her name? You may have heard of Grace Thorpe. Her Indian name is No Teno Quah.
Two Names, Two Cultures
Holding her sleeping baby in her arms. she looked up at Jim. “I know we agreed to call her Grace Frances if we had a girl,” said Iva. “But I want to honor your grandmother by giving our daughter the additional name No Teno Quah. “Sure,” Jim said. “That’s only fitting. Her life, like ours, will be split between two cultures.”
Grace was born in Yale, Oklahoma in 1921, the youngest of Iva Miller and Jim Thorpe’s children. Her mother was part-Cherokee/part-European; her father was Sac and Fox plus Irish. Grace was a direct descendent of the famous Chief Black Hawk.
Grace’s mother, Iva Margaret Miller met James Francis Thorpe at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. The two married in 1913, shortly after graduation. A few years later, in 1917, they returned to Oklahoma and purchased a home in Yale. (My mother lived in Yale as a child and knew many of the Jim Thorpe stories. — Matilda) The Thorpe family lived there until 1923 and had four children during that time: Gale Margaret, James Francis (later died of polio), Charlotte Marie, and Grace Frances.
Although her parents divorced in 1925, when Grace was just four, she remained close to her father and lived with one parent or the other at various times.
A Name, A Meaning…
Years later, Grace revealed that her name meant the “power of the wind before a storm.” And Grace’s life was indeed like the power of the wind before a storm. She was a strong determined woman who served her country, her American Indian heritage, and her family.
…and Turning Toward Art
Finally, in retirement, Grace returned to art, the one activity that got her through the tragic death of her son when he was just 16. She eventually became a potter and a master basket weaver using the ancient techniques of the Sac and Fox tribe, techniques no longer practiced. Although she found a woman to teach her how to make baskets, she could find no one who still knew how to gather and strip the necessary materials such as wisteria, Virginia creeper, honeysuckle, and grapevine. For this knowledge, she turned to books and then to her own experiments.
She sold her pottery pieces, but her baskets were never sold—only given. The entire process from gathering materials to preparing the materials to weaving them into a beautiful free form basket often took about a week for a large piece.
How Grace Stretched Herself
Set goals for herself that went beyond the usual roles for women;
Became a Rosie the Riveter early in WW2;
Joined the army in WW2 (in the Women’s Army Corps-WAC), after realizing she could leave her riveting job to other women who had family commitments and needed to stay local;
Served in New Guinea during the war;
Worked in Tokyo for several years after the end of WW2;
Raised two children and when the grief of the loss of her son seemed to overwhelm her, she found ways to help others while continuing to improve her life through more education (received her BA when she was 58) and service;
Worked to protect the lands of American Indians from becoming a nuclear waste dump site;
(Click on the image of our Grace Thorpe ornament to see this new handmade cloth figure in our Etsy store)
When World War II began Grace was with her father in Dearborn, Michigan where he worked at Ford Motor Company.
Grace, eager to serve her country, hired on at Ford’s Rouge factory to become a riveter working on final assemblies in their aircraft building. She left four months later to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). She was ready for adventure and had nothing to tie her to one particular place. She knew other women had children and needed to have employment in factories such as where she worked.
By 1944, she was in New Guinea where one of the longest war campaigns raged from 1942-1945. Grace reached the rank of corporal and was awarded a Bronze Star while there.
When the war ended, she worked in General Douglas MacArthur’s Tokyo headquarters, rising to Chief of the Recruitment Section at the Department of Army Civilians. She returned to the US in 1950. By then, she was divorced and was the mother of a daughter and a son.
“Okay, kids,” Grace said, “you’ll like it here, but it is different.” Grace, with her son and daughter, relocated to New York from Japan. There she began a series of business experiences enhancing the leadership skills she had acquired working for the Army.
Serving American Indians
After her son died in a car wreck, Grace was devastated. Any parent would be. But it may have been even harder for Grace because it brought back the sadness she felt when her brother, James Francis, died of polio years before. In any event, she felt the need to change her life.
The change? She moved to Arizona in 1967 where she became involved with American Indian tribes, serving as Economic Development Conference Coordinator for the National Congress of American Indians’ 1968 and 1969 conferences. But that was tame compared to what she did next.
Grace on Alcatraz
For three months in 1969, Grace lived on Alcatraz Island, becoming an effective publicist for the American Indian Movement’s sit-in. Using the leadership skills she had acquired in the military and in business, she persuaded Jane Fonda, Dick Gregory and other celebrities to show their support by visiting Alcatraz. She was also responsible for getting Creedence Clearwater Revival to donate $15,000 for a boat to provide transport to and from Alcatraz. She often was the one using that boat to bring blockaded supplies necessary to keep the occupation alive.
Continuing her work on behalf of American Indians, Grace served as Legislative Assistant to the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs and a Task Force Program and Planning Analyst for the American Indian Policy Review Commission. She lobbied before the Senate Appropriations Committee to support the use of surplus Federal land by American Indians who did not live on reservations. Eventually Grace became a tribal district court judge.
In the following years, Grace Thorpe dedicated her time to protecting the Native American community from the government’s intent to store nuclear waste on their lands. In 1996, Grace published the article: "Our Homes are not Dumps: Creating Nuclear Free Zones" that highlighted environmental injustices on American Indian lands.
Grace Stretched Herself. How Will You?
Grace’s inspiration is to remind us to do more — to stretch ourselves in ways that we have never thought possible or that fulfill childhood dreams. Feel empowered and help others.
We hope you will make a list of ways you can stretch yourself — go beyond your current situation.
Take just five minutes to write down three ways you can
Stretch yourself—do more than you currently think possible.
FROM NO TENO QUAH’s LIFE to CARRY WITH YOU.
Stretch Yourself in All that You Do.
WAIT! There’s More to Grace Thorpe’s Story
Grace’s life is an inspiring story with a second story linked to her determination and strength. As you read about Grace, did her father’s name—Jim Thorpe—sound familiar? He was (and is) a sports legend. In 1912, he was the first American
Indian to win an Olympic gold. And no person has ever broken his record of winning two Olympic gold medals in pentathlon and decathlon in the same Olympics.
But that’s not the point of this addendum to Grace Thorpe’s inspirational life story...
The two gold medals were taken from Jim Thorpe in 1913 when the International Olympic Committee learned that Jim had received money to play summer baseball in 1909 and 1910. He had been paid $2 a game to cover the expenses of playing on a minor-league, semi-professional baseball team.
Not surprisingly, many others (whites) did the same thing. It was the only way they could play sports and get a little money. But others lied in order to still qualify as amateur athletes once they had the opportunity to be on Olympic teams. Jim didn’t.
Grace to the Rescue
Although her father’s name was struck from the record books, Grace Thorpe saw the injustice of this. She saw how it affected his life. She knew the medals didn’t represent a fluke in his life. He continued in sports and spent much of his life as an amazing athlete. Jim Thorpe is considered one of the most accomplished all-around athletes in history. In 1950, American Sportswriters and Broadcasters voted Thorpe as the “greatest American athlete” and the greatest professional football player of the first half of the 20th century. For years, he played both professional football and professional baseball every year—switching from one sport to the next each season.
Grace campaigned to restore his name and record. Finally, the International Olympic Committee returned his medals in 1983, 30 years after his death.
Thank you Grace Thorpe for your persistence.
And Here’s a Fun Fact about Jim Thorpe’s Olympic Event
On the second day of the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe's shoes were missing. Who took them? No one knows but likely a competitor who hoped to disadvantage Jim. His coach, “Pop” Warner or Thorpe himself (the story isn’t clear) found two mismatched shoes in a garbage can. One was too big and so Thorpe wore 2 pairs of socks on that foot. Wearing these cast-off shoes, Jim Thorpe won the high jump.
Post Script…A Final Word…About Indian Schools
Jim Thorpe attended two Indian Schools—the Haskell Indian School in Kansas and later the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. In the 21st century, we are slowly beginning to understand the trauma suffered by students in these Federally operated institutions that sought to strip American Indians of their cultural history. Carlisle, for example, opened in 1879 and closed in 1918. During those 30 years, the operating philosophy as stated by Richard Henry Pratt was to “kill the Indian in him and save the man.”
We hope the future will bring more understanding of the ways white America disadvantaged American Indians.
And We Hope...
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—Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett