Native Voice: Art Coulson on Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Army

Learn more about Art Coulson

By Traci Sorell 

I’m delighted to feature author and former journalist Art Coulson today on Cynsations.

Fellow Cherokee Nation citizen and newcomer to the field of children’s literature like myself, Art has been busy writing and getting books published. Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Army, illustrated by Nick Hardcastle (Capstone, 2018) is his first picture book.

What was your initial inspiration for writing about Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle football team in Unstoppable?

Capstone actually came to me with the idea.

Because I had written a previous middle grade book about sports, The Creator’s Game: A Story of Baaga’adowe/Lacrosse, (illustrated by Robert DesJarlait (Minnesota Historical Society, 2013)), which explored the deep cultural roots of the sport of lacrosse in American Indian communities, Capstone asked me to tackle the Jim Thorpe book (ha! See what I did there? Tackle. Jim Thorpe. I crack myself up.).

At a Twin Cities signing for The Creator’s Game

Capstone wanted to focus on one particular college football game – Carlisle Indian School vs. West Point in 1912. This was a game that the press built up as a rematch of the Battle of Little Big Horn. Major newspapers, such as the New York Times, sent correspondents to cover the game.

Playing for Army that day were four future generals, one of them, Dwight Eisenhower, a future U.S. president.

Coaching the Carlisle Indians was the one and only Glenn “Pop” Warner. And the game came just after Jim Thorpe had won two gold medals at the 1912 Olympic Games in Sweden, where the Swedish king declared him “the greatest athlete in the world.”

Even though Carlisle was considered to have one of the top offenses in the country, they still came into the game against West Point as heavy underdogs – they only had 12 players suit up to play all offensive and defensive positions, the players were much smaller and their equipment was old and worn. But they had heart, intelligence and the greatest athlete in the world as their running back.

Spoiler alert: Carlisle creamed Army that day.

As an American Indian, I had a pretty good understanding of the importance of Jim Thorpe and knew the broad outlines of his story. I saw this book as a chance to learn more about him and about the other players on that Carlisle Indian School football team, many of them from tribal communities in my adopted home of Minnesota.

The other members of the Carlisle team went on to become pro athletes, war heroes, attorneys and leaders in their communities.

Yes, I have to say that I loved reading this story. And the back matter! Learning what the players did after they left Carlisle was a special treat I didn’t expect. 

But given the import of the game and the phenomenal athlete and person that was Jim Thorpe, can you share some of the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) you encountered in bringing the text to life? 

Art at one of his first newspaper jobs
in suburban Washington, D.C.

Although I was a daily journalist for more than 20 years, I primarily write fiction these days.

Tackling a nonfiction project requires much more focused and detailed research (at least for me) than writing fiction.

That’s not to say that I don’t do research for my fictional works – only that having to provide sources and citations to Capstone’s fact-checkers for every fact and conversation in Unstoppable was challenging.

Thankfully, finding primary sources as I researched life at Carlisle, its football team and the game itself was made easier by the internet. Digitized archives of the Carlisle school newspaper offered a wealth of information and detail.

Another issue I faced was the amount of incorrect information available on the web, about Jim Thorpe, the Carlisle team and the game itself. Again, the primary sources were invaluable here.

It’s a cautionary tale for writers who rely on quick internet searches for research. Just because it’s on Wikipedia or someone’s blog doesn’t mean it’s actually true or correct.

Another challenge I faced in telling this story for young readers was finding a balance between the horror and immorality of the Indian boarding school system and the cases, like Jim Thorpe’s, in which a family chose to send a child to Haskell or Carlisle, perhaps seeing it as the only option for education available to them at the time.

That said, I did not want to minimize the atrocities at the boarding schools – thousands of our children were abused, maltreated and many died at these institutions, far from their homes and families.

You definitely had your work cut out for you because the boarding school experience for Native children is not like what most children think about boarding schools a’ la Hogwarts or some prep school in New England. Beyond this story, what is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community? 

I have many friends who are writers or illustrators, both here in the thriving Twin Cities literary community, and all across the nation. I participate in a group for male writers of color and American Indians who meet occasionally to discuss our roles in ending toxic masculinity in our communities.

Art, Marcie Rendon, Debbie Reese and Traci at Returning the Gift

Locally, I collaborate with a good friend, Marcie Rendon – we’re writing a book together! – and with noted writer and artist Robert DesJarlait, who illustrated The Creator’s Game (he’s the Lennon to my McCartney, to throw in an Eric Gansworth-worthy reference).

I also follow many other fellow writers on Twitter and Facebook so that I can support their work and keep up with trends in children’s and YA literature.

Art, Joe Bruchac and Tim Tingle at Returning the Gift.

Plus, I can’t fail to mention the many friends I made this year – my first – at the Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference in New York. That’s a great opportunity to meet other writers and to network with editors, publishers and agents in an intimate setting, allowing real conversation and connection.

As a Cherokee Nation citizen writing for children, what did your background and perspective bring to the story? 

I came into the story with more than a passing knowledge of boarding schools, Carlisle in particular, and Jim Thorpe.

I also had personal experience with government-forced relocation. During the Termination era, my grandmother was taken by the government from her own family at a young age, with my infant mother on her lap, and moved to California, along with several of her brothers and sisters.

So I came into this book knowing firsthand the disruption and disconnection that results from having your family moved far from your extended family and your tribe.

Art teaching writing to American Indian Youth

As my grandmother often told me about her stories: “It doesn’t matter when it happened – it matters where it happened.”

Tearing us away from where our stories came to life was devastating.

Of course we made new stories, but we always mourned the ones we were forced to leave behind.

I think my experience early in life, living among Native people from many different nations in California, broadened my thinking on what it means to be American Indian and how much we share culturally as Native people. I also learned to recognize, appreciate and respect the differences between people of different nations.

What will we see next from you?

Like most writers, I’m working on a million different things at the moment. I already mentioned the book I’m working on with Marcie (a Native American romance!).

My next book, The Reluctant Storyteller, is due out in fall 2019 from Benchmark. It’s a middle grade book I’m really proud of. It’s about a young Cherokee boy, Chooch Tenkiller, who lives in the Twin Cities. His uncles and grandmother are renowned storytellers and travel the country to schools and festivals. Everyone assumes that he’s going to go into the “family business” of storytelling. But that’s not what Chooch wants (He wants to be a chef – like the guy on the ravioli can).

Right now, I’m working on a follow-up to that one – a chapter book about Chooch and his uncles, who get tangled up with a rival group of bigfoot hunters while on a storytelling trip to a college in the mountains of western North Carolina. That one doesn’t have a publisher yet (hint, hint if any publishers are reading this).

I’m also excited to be writing a short story for an upcoming anthology being edited by our very own Cynthia Leitich Smith. Word has it that Chooch and his uncles, Dynamite and Jack, will be making an appearance in that one as well. They do so love to travel.

Art Coulson at Cherokee National Holiday
Men’s Stickball Game

Cynsational Notes

Art Coulson is Cherokee from Oklahoma and comes from a family of storytellers.

Some of his earliest memories were of listening to stories and reading books on his grandmother’s lap. He has been a writer his whole life and published his first two books when he was in elementary school (he was a self-publishing early adopter).

A Navy brat, Art attended 14 different schools on three continents before he graduated high school.

Before writing children’s books, Art was a journalist at magazines and newspapers all over the United States.

After his newspaper career, Art served as the first executive director of The Wilma Mankiller Foundation in Oklahoma.

Now, Art lives in Minneapolis with his family, but still plays traditional Cherokee stickball, an original version of lacrosse, when he is visiting friends and relatives in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma several times a year.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018) is her first nonfiction picture book, an Orbis Pictus Honor Book and a 2018 Junior Library Guild Selection.

The story, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.