MELIKA AND HIS BROTHER TCHUCHI:
THE LONG-DISTANCE RUNNER REVISITED
By Ernie Bulow
I don’t believe I have ever yet had the last word on any subject I have written about. Once a piece sees print, another juicy, interesting, sometimes-bizarre fact comes to light and the author wishes he had a rewrite. I recently came across a wonderful photograph of the Zuni runners, Melika and his brother Tchuchi, and I just can’t ignore it.
In the first quarter of the last century, Indian runners captured the imagination of the American public. They didn’t look or act like the familiar Anglo athlete, yet they consistently won races. Their skin was swarthy, their stature short and stocky, their stride usually described as “choppy” but effective. Short legs probably account for the odd gate.
What bothered the Anglo fans the most, though, was their apparent aloofness and lack of emotion. The “stoic” Indian, stone-faced and silent, is one of the oldest clichés. On the other hand, reporters jumped at opportunities to poke a little fun at their lack of social graces and poor English language skills.
In 1927-1928, the years of the Redwood Empire Indian Marathon races, a Zuni named Melika got the brunt of their so-called humor. (Why call a 480-mile run a marathon?) When they discovered he only spoke about ten words of English they couldn’t resist having a little fun.
Melika loved strawberries – really loved them. The race followed the coast of California in the month of June, prime berry season. The whites coached him to say, “Give me some strawberries.” He practiced the phrase diligently. The next time they passed a fruit stand he walked up and said, “Give me some squaw bellies.” Don’t know if that story is true or not.
One of the most curious things about this sixty-year-old runner was his penchant for chain smoking. He got the nickname “Cigarette” because of it. One reporter said, “He smokes them by the handful, though never when he is actually running.”
In 1912 Jim Thorpe became one of the first high-profile Indian athletes when he took part in the Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Thorpe’s biography has been pretty well documented, except that new things come to light from time to time. Most people don’t know that the same year he was triumphant in Stockholm he won the intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship.
For his Carlisle teammate Lewis Tewanima, it was his second Olympic appearance since he had run in 1908 in London. Tewanima, a Hopi from Arizona, was 5-feet 3-inches tall, which would seem to be a serious handicap in long distance running.
Patasoni Amesoli was barely five feet tall, weighed less than 100 pounds and was only 18 when he was picked for the Brussels Olympics in 1920. Unfortunately he badly injured his ankle on the way over and could not compete. Soon after another Zuni runner came to prominence nationally and internationally. Andrew Chimoni and two of his friends, Lutse and Leekity, qualified for the 1928 Olympics.
A runner did not make it onto the Olympic team without a lot of contests under his belt. The controversial Gallup trader Mike Kirk made that possible for a lot of Hopis, Navajos, and Zunis. He hauled them from meet to meet covering the whole country from coast to coast. His Hopis and Zunis were consistent winners.
In May of 1927 Kirk took a group of runners to run in the New York Marathon. Chief Quanowahu, usually described in the press as “a Hopi snake dancer from the desert country of Arizona” easily won the race, breaking the American record, and garnered national publicity. Unfortunately he so damaged his feet on the unfamiliar hot pavement he had to turn down several invitations to take part in other races like the Boston Marathon.
It isn’t clear who organized the 480-mile run from San Francisco to Grants Pass, Oregon, but Mike’s boys would be in the thick of it. In the end he trained and sponsored three Zunis: Jamon, 32, Melika, 55, and Melika’s brother Chochee [Tchuchi], 48. Both Melika and Tchuchi wore their hair long and tied in a Navajo-style bun. They would be running against men half their age or less. The rest of the competitors that year were from California tribes.
By strange coincidence the three “inspectors” of the race were members of the Improved Order of Red Men from Ukiah. That is the oldest fraternal organization in America, dating back to the Revolution as the Sons of Liberty. Those were the guys who sponsored the Boston Tea Party. I suppose “inspectors” were like umpires, making sure everyone behaved.
Ernest Jamon (in print the Zunis never have first names) was first into San Rafael, which qualified him for an extra $100 prize. This was the start of the 480-mile run known as the Redwood Empire Indian Marathon. The wire services, UPI and Associated Press carried the story nationally and it appeared in small papers from Georgia to North Dakota.
On June 19 the headline ran, “Young Karook Out Ahead of ‘Cigarette’ Melika in Shuffle Handicap.” The rules were pretty loose. The runner had to stay on his own feet and on the road. When and where and how long he rested was up to the contestant. They had to finish the race in fifteen days, though it took much less than that.
The field thinned quickly and in the end Mad Bull of the Karuk tribe took first, his mate Flying Cloud second, and Melika third. Mike Kirk immediately began planning for the 1928 race.
REO automobile company introduced its state-of-the-art car, the Flying Cloud, in 1927. This brand name, designed by an Italian and produced by Ransom E. Olds, would have been recognizable to everyone. The Oldsmobile would anchor what became the GM line of cars.
The original announcement in the newspapers touted a first prize of $5,000. It was really $1,000, but still plenty to get excited about at the time. Second place was $500 and there were other cash prizes. Most of the towns the racers passed through put up special prizes like $100 for the first runner to enter town.
In 1928 there were twenty-eight entrants from fourteen tribes, including four Hopis sponsored by Lorenzo Hubbell who had a trading post at Oraibi. Mike Kirk entered five Zunis: “Jamon, Lutci, Chochee, Melika, and Andrew Chimoney, champion of Zunis and Southwestern tribes,” though half the time they called him a Hopi. Spelling was obviously not very important.
A sixth Zuni, relative newcomer Sheka, was sponsored by the Golden Gate Ferry Company and some touted him as the probable winner or at least a strong contender. This was probably Oscar Sheka, the oldest of several running brothers.
There was also a lone Navajo entrant, Frank Chavez. The only runners allowed to keep their own names, more or less, were the Zunis. All the others got rechristened in Anglo style. Mr. Chavez must have been embarrassed when they named him Red Robin. The 1927 winner, Mad Bull, went around in the world as John Wesley Southard, so maybe Mad Bull was appropriate.
Some other names were Running Water, Chief Geyser, Falcon, Sweet Eagle (one of my favorites), Big White Deer, Fighting Stag, White Horse and many more. Lots of Chiefs in the crowd and a Princess or two in the cheering section.
On June 18 Ernest Jamon was clipped by a car, which injured his leg and put him out of the race.
The wire services, probably tipped off by Mike Kirk, picked up the story of the Zunis’ morning prayer and offering to the spirits. That was just the sort of thing the newspapers loved. Another “weird” custom of the Redman.
The stoic Indian thing came up again and on June 18 stringer Joe Custer wrote for The San Mateo Times, “The smile isn’t one of happiness. It is the ‘politeness’ smile: an acknowledgement to the white man. It is a crack in the face of the stone, muscle-set red man.”
If asked, I’m sure Mr. Custer would point out that the Native Americans had no sense of humor, but Melika would continue to be the butt of jokes in the daily articles following the progress of the race.
When Melika came in second in 1928 he became an instant hero. Mad Bull – John Wesley – 1927 winner was out of the running. Flying Cloud was first to cross the finish line. The town of Willits, California, threw a big party for Melika, putting him on the local fire engine and touring him through town with the siren blaring. They said he seemed to enjoy the honor.
There has been a lot of criticism of Mike Kirk for his many enterprises involving Indians in the Gallup area, even including his role in starting the Inter-Tribal Ceremonial. Some people think he made a lot of money off his wards. But family members remember Melika’s triumphant return to Zuni.
He was on the seat of a brand new wagon with a new team of horses wearing fancy new harness. He was very proud of that wagon and team.