Cherokee archer Joe Thornton dies at 102
Cherokee archer Joe Thornton receives a Key to Tahlequah during “Joe Thornton Day” on Aug. 18, 1961, after winning a gold medal and setting three world records during a world archery championship in Oslo, Norway. COURTESY
Cherokee archer Joe Thornton, left, receives a framed photo from Principal Chief Bill John Baker during the April 20, 2016, groundbreaking for the “Joe Thornton Archery Range” in Tahlequah. The range opened in August 2016 and was named in honor of Thornton, who was a world champion archer in the 1960s. ARCHIVE
TAHLEQUAH – Cherokee archer Joe Tindle Thornton died Feb. 4 in Tahlequah at the age of 102. Funeral services were slated for 2 p.m. on Feb. 8 at Park Hill Baptist Church.
Thornton was born in Stilwell on Aug. 2, 1916, to William “Billy” and Ginsie (Tindle) Thornton. He attended grade school at Wauhillau before attending Seneca Indian School in Wyandotte. He later graduated from Chilocco Indian School near Ponca City where he was a boxer. After enlisting in the Army he won the welterweight boxing title while stationed at Fort Sill in Lawton.
He married Geneva Payne in 1938 and they had 23 years together with two children: Ramona Kay and Ken. During World War II, he was a radioman and worked at WWOR in Washington D.C.
In 1962, he met his second wife, Helen Marie, when she went to purchase archery supplies. They married the following year. He taught her to shoot, and she won several archery titles of her own. Joe was world champion archer. In 1972, the Thorntons qualified for the Olympic trials but narrowly missed making the American team.
In Tahlequah, he owned and operated Thornton TV where he sold and repaired televisions and other appliances and sold archery and black powder supplies. He retired in 1987.
Preceding him in death were his parents; brothers and sisters Ruby, Peggy, Leon and Kenneth; and a grandson Joe Don Thornton.
Joe is survived by his wife Helen of the home; children Ramona Kay Rutherford of Hulbert, Kenneth Joe Thornton and wife Charlene of Tahlequah, Stephen W. Brady of Broken Arrow, and Patricia LaDawn Vandiver and husband Randy of Muskogee; seven grandchildren; eight great grandchildren; and a brother, Perry A. Thornton and his wife Inge of Denver.
“The Cherokee Nation is deeply saddened today with the passing of Joe Thornton, a treasured Cherokee elder, veteran and world champion archer. Our tribe, the national archery community and, most importantly, his family, have lost an admirable man,” said Principal Chief Bill John Baker. “At 102 years of age, he is the namesake of the tribe’s archery range and served in 2014 as our Cherokee National Holiday parade marshal. He was honored at Tribal Council with a Cherokee Nation Medal of Patriotism Award for his military service during WWII. His passion and revival of archery was an inspiration to countless youth over the years. Joe was a proud and honorable Cherokee, a person our entire tribe could look to with respect. In their time of grief we are keeping the Thornton family in our thoughts and prayers.”
In August 2016, CN officials opened the “Joe Thornton Archery Range” just west of the main Tribal Complex. During the event, Joe gave the command for the launching of the initial arrows.
“This archery range is a great thing,” the then-100-year-old said. “It’s a great thing for the Cherokee people, and I hope to see some of the students who will shoot here become world champions.”
He began his archery career by hunting rabbits in the Wauhillau Community near Stilwell. In February 1997, in an interview with the Cherokee Advocate, he spoke about going to cornstalk shoots as a child in the 1920s in Wauhillau. He recalled men would compete for a turkey or a ham by shooting arrows at stacks of cornstalks.
He said he continued shooting the bow as a student at Chilocco Indian School in 1933 where he did “bear bow” shooting, meaning he didn’t use sights on the bow. However, he didn’t discover the sport of archery until the 1950s. In 1956, he said he learned that archery was an organized sport, so he bought modern archery equipment, including a fiberglass bow with sights and aluminum arrows.
“I have been asked many times if being an Indian made me a better archer,” he said. “That I do not know, but I am sure it gave me a greater desire to excel with the bow and arrow.”
By 1960, Joe was Oklahoma’s state archery champion. In 1961, he entered trials for the U.S. Archery Team that would soon be competing for the world championship in Oslo, Norway. He finished fourth in the trials, and the team was only taking the top three finishers.
When he returned home, his fellow archers in Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas were so impressed by his high scores during the trials competition that they collected the money needed to send him to Oslo to compete. In Oslo, he won the gold medal and set three world records.
The following year he won the British National Championship. Joe eventually made six trips to Europe to compete in world archery championships. He won an individual second place silver medal in 1963 and helped the U.S. team win first place in Helsinki, Finland.
“I set a lot of records back then, distance records, tournament records, world records – but they were all eventually broken because the equipment and training got better,” he said.
He added that there are a lot of factors when shooting a bow and arrow, including having a good eye, a strong steady arm and a good release hand.
In December 1978, Joe was inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame and the Chilocco Indian School Hall of Fame in 1985.
In later years he continued to compete at the Cherokee National Holiday cornstalk shoot and win archery awards in the Senior Olympics.
He said the biggest thrill he experienced as a Cherokee archer was when he competed and won and got to stand “on a victory podium in a foreign land while they raised the American flag and played the National Anthem.”
“We are comforted knowing he had a long and amazing life. He was very proud of the (CN) archery range and enjoyed seeing so many youth taking up archery,” said his granddaughter Lisa Rutherford. “He made an impact on many people.”