Relatives of famed American Indian athlete Jim Thorpe plan to go to federal court in Philadelphia in their long-running effort to win the return of his body from the Pennsylvania town that changed its name to provide him a final resting place--even though he never set foot there.
Family members have spent a quarter-century trying to persuade the eastern Pennsylvania borough, Jim Thorpe, Pa., to return the remains of the Sac and Fox Indian for reburial near Shawnee, Okla., where his father and other relatives are buried.
“According to Sac and Fox tradition, Dad's soul will never be at peace until his body is laid to rest, after an appropriate ceremony, back here in his home,” said Jack Thorpe, the youngest son. “Until then, his soul is doomed to wander. We must have him back.”
Attorney Sean W. Pickett, of Kansas City, Mo., said the suit to be filed this month will argue that the borough must hand over the remains under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act that requires federal agencies and institutions that get federal funding to return American Indian cultural items and human remains to their peoples.
“We are going to argue that because Jim Thorpe Borough receives federal funding for housing, community development, and education, they are subject to the requirements” of the act, Pickett said.
Jim Thorpe Mayor Ronald Confer calls the idea “incredible.”
“It's been more than 50 years,” he said. “It's too late. No one in this town is going to be for that.”
Thorpe, born in 1887, attended the federal Indian Institute at Carlisle, Pa., where he led the school's football team to victories in 1911 and 1912 over established college teams. At the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, he became the only athlete ever to win gold medals in both the pentathlon and decathlon. He played for baseball's New York Giants and then for several teams in what would become the National Football League, which named its Most Valuable Player award after him.
After his death, his third wife, Patricia, said she did not have enough money to give him the burial she thought he deserved. After Oklahoma's governor declined to spend money for a monument, she sought another place to honor her late husband.
In the Poconos community 70 miles north of Philadelphia, civic leaders promised to build a monument and also pledged to merge the boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk under the name Jim Thorpe, which they did in 1954. Leaders hoped the plan would make the town a tourist attraction and even attract a football hall of fame, which ended up in Ohio.
Although the promised economic benefits never materialized, the former dying coal town today attracts visitors for other reasons, such as riding a scenic railroad. And Don Hugos, president of the Jim Thorpe Chamber of Commerce, says the name change started the restoration of the town.
“The grave site is a contemplative place,” said Hugos, a photographer with a local gallery. “It's not what attracts people here, but we're not going to give up Jim Thorpe's remains. We have honored his name, and every year on May 28 we still have a celebration of his birthday.
Jack Thorpe said the family believed the town had acted in good faith in honoring his father and relatives still want to work with them on the issue.
“The town is already a great success, and they don't need the bones of my father” he said. “I don't think the people of Jim Thorpe understand Indian culture and how important it is that our father be properly laid to rest.”
John McGuire, president of the borough council, said he understands the family's point of view and doesn't want a legal battle.
“But Jim Thorpe is the heart and soul of this town,” he said. “He's such a part of us that we could never consider losing him.”