The Battle Over Jim Thorpe's Remains

The Battle Over Jim Thorpe's Remains

Jack McNeel

Jim Thorpe, the incredible athlete from the Sac and Fox Tribe in Oklahoma who was named one of the top three greatest athletes of the 20th century, had wanted to be buried in his home state of Oklahoma. He died in 1953 at the age of 64, and the story of how his body was taken away during his funeral in Shawnee, Oklahoma and ended up in Pennsylvania, still stirs strong emotions.

There is now a case in Federal Court to have his remains returned to Oklahoma, to a site selected by his two surviving sons. The basis for the suit is the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This Act requires federal agencies and institutions receiving federal funding to return American Indian cultural items, including human remains, to their respective peoples. In this case it’s asking that Jim Thorpe’s remains be repatriated to the Sac and Fox Tribe in Oklahoma. Jim had voiced his desire to be buried on his ancestral homeland and his sons desire to honor that wish.

The Birth of a Legend

Jim Thorpe was born in 1888 near Prague, Oklahoma. His dad was Sac and Fox and Irish, his mother was Potawatomi and Kickapoo. He began school at the Sac and Fox Indian Agency School near Tecumseh, Oklahoma, but at 10 was sent to Haskell Indian School in Kansas. In 1904, when he was 16, he transferred to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania to learn a trade.

In 1904, when Thorpe started at Carlisle he was a small, scrawny 16-year old,  standing at just 5-foot-5 and weighing a measly 115 lbs – too small for football. Yet coaches slowly began to realize his potential as an athlete. In 1907, at age 19, he high jumped 5’9” --- in street clothes. He was asked to join the track team and that fall he also joined the football team. He had grown into the powerful young man so many of us think of when we hear his name today.

During the summers of 1909 and 1910 he played baseball in the Eastern Caroline Association as both a pitcher and first baseman. He just received $15 a week but he needed money for school and he didn’t particularly enjoy farming, his other option.

In 1911 and 1912 the Carlisle Indians football team only lost two games and defeated perennial powers such as Harvard, Nebraska, Pittsburgh and the Cadets of Army. Many sportswriters considered Army and Carlisle the two best teams in the country, even though Carlisle was just a vocational school. Thorpe was named an All-American in 1911 and 1912.

A Global Star is Born

Thorpe was on the U.S. Olympic track and field team that went to Sweden in 1912 where he competed in the decathlon and pentathlon. The decathlon includes 10 events and he won with a record point total that stood for 20 years. He easily won the pentathlon as well.

Thorpe called the gold medal ceremony for the decathlon win the proudest moment of his life. King Gustav V of Sweden presented him with several gifts and called him, “The greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe’s response was brief and typical of his laconic style. He said, simply, “Thanks, King.”

When they returned to the U.S., the Olympic team was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City down Broadway in an era when track and field was a revered sport. The decathlon is the most difficult event in track and field of them all, so whoever won the gold medal was considered the best all around athlete in the world. In a matter of eight years, Thorpe went from skinny kid too small to play football to world renown athlete.

During that fall of 1912, Thorpe competed in a decathlon at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) All-Around Championship, in Celtic Park, N.Y. There he won seven of the events outright and set a new world record. Martin Sheridan, a five-time Olympic gold medalist who had held the record, was present that day. He said, “Even when I was in my prime I could not do what he did today. Jim Thorpe is the greatest athlete that ever lived.”

Unknown Rules

Thorpe’s reign as the world’s greatest amateur athlete didn’t last long. Six months after his triumph at the AAU meet, Thorpe acknowledged that he had been paid to play professional baseball. He had never attempted to hide the fact he played a little minor league baseball as a way to earn some money to continue school, and didn’t know it was not allowed. He played under his own name whereas other college athletes also played pro-ball but used assumed names. It was eventually discovered when a sports writer happened to see Jim’s photo on the wall of his baseball coach at Fayetteville. The AAU and the U.S. Olympic Committee declared him a professional athlete and demanded that he return his medals. His name was erased from the record books.

In 1913, Thorpe returned to baseball for the New York Giants. In a six-year career he played for the Boston Braves, New York Giants, and Cincinnati Reds. Baseball was not his best sport, yet, in his final season of 1919 he batted .327 for the Boston Braves.

Major league baseball had been in existence many years and operated on a professional level whereas professional football was in its infancy. It’s start as a big time professional sport, though not close to the level of baseball, is often dated to 1915. Others date the beginning to 1920 when the American Professional Football Association was formed. The league masthead listed president as “Jim Thorpe.” That organization was later to become the National Football League.

Jim was arguably the greatest all around football player of all time as a passer, runner, kicker, not to mention being a ferocious defensive player. Most players in those years played nearly the entire game without substitutions. He signed to play with the Canton Bulldogs in 1915 and played a total of six years with them. When the “big Indian” was in town, one could count on huge crowds to watch him play. He continued to play for six different teams over the years, retiring in 1929 at the age of 41.

Thorpe had captained the Carlisle basketball team and later found time to star on a barnstorming tour of basketball players known as the “World Famous Indians of LaRue”, all of whom were American Indians. They toured for two years in the 1927-28 period, primarily in the northeast.

If that weren’t enough to impress everyone with his athletic prowess, he bowled in the 200s and shot golf in the 70s, although he didn’t do either on a regular basis, and even won the intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship in 1912.

Righting a Wrong

In 1943 the Oklahoma legislature attempted to get the AAU to restore his amateur status, but they refused.  Another attempt was made in 1952, this time by Congressman Frank Bow of Ohio. He requested the President of the U.S. Olympic Committee to return the medals to Thorpe, but was turned down. Thorpe died a year later but efforts to reclaim his medals continued.

Shortly before Thorpe’s death the Associated Press took a poll in the U.S. to determine both the greatest football player and the most outstanding male athlete of the first half of the 20th century. Thorpe won out over Bronco Nagurski and Red Grange as the greatest football player and was selected over Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey as the outstanding male athlete. In 1999, the AP ranked Thorpe as third greatest athlete of the 20th century behind Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan.

Whatever his ranking in the list of all-time great athletes, Jim Thorpe was an icon for American Indians at a crucial time. Jack Gladstone (Blackfeet), musician and historian, explains: “His story is much larger than just his life. It encompasses a certain resurrection of Native integrity and Native spirit a century ago when it was believed by many that Native Americans would no longer exist in this century. It was a critical generation for our story to pivot upon and rebound from.”

The Battle for Jim Thorpe's Remains

Jim Thorpe was just 64 when he died in 1953 of a heart attack. The U.S. lost one of its all-time greats and the Native population lost an icon. Then the Thorpe family was to lose even more in the midst of the solemn funeral ceremony in Shawnee, Oklahoma.

Bob Wheeler, an avid Jim Thorpe historian and friend of Thorpe’s family explains. “Fifty eight years ago, in the middle of a three-day Sac and Fox solemn, sacred funeral service, with the body laid out in an Indian burial lodge, the stepmother (Jim’s third wife Patricia) came in with two Oklahoma state troopers and forcibly removed the body with the stunned children and elders standing around.”

Oklahoma had created a committee to create a monument to Jim Thorpe. The governor basically double-crossed the committee at the last moment by denying the money for a monument and this angered Patricia Thorpe. She had located a couple of small towns in Pennsylvania – Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk – who were searching for a way to attract business and tourists and arranged with them to construct a monument in Jim’s memory and his body was taken there for burial. The two towns united and were renamed Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.

Bob Wheeler has spent much of his life working to amend the wrongs to Thorpe – first the loss of his Olympic and AAU medals, and then the removal of his body from his home in Oklahoma where he had wanted to remain in eternity. It was largely through Wheeler’s efforts that the IOC recognized Thorp’s records. He has been described as knowing more about Jim Thorpe than any other person and authored a book, Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete, published in 1981.

While a student at Syracuse in the mid-60’s, he hitchhiked 12,000 miles and interviewed 200 people to tell the true story of Jim Thorpe. Later he and his wife, Flo, quit their jobs and schooling to gather 3.5 million signatures on a petition to get his medals returned, meeting with people in all walks of life up to and including U.S. Presidents. “None of it did any good to persuade these arrogant moneyed people who run the Olympic movement with an iron fist,” he said. None till one fateful day in 1982.

They were at the Library of Congress searching through “hundreds if not a thousand Indian references and Olympic references and finding nothing,” he commented. “Then we consider it divine intervention because inexplicably Flo got down on one knee and reached behind the metal stacks where the books were and felt with her fingers some paper on the floor, pulled it out, and it gave the rules for the 1912 Olympics.” These were rules the IOC said did not exist.

“Rule #13 said that unless you bring a person up on charges, a competitor, within 30 days and paying 20 Swedish Kroner, cannot prosecute a competitor,” Wheeler recalls. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had waited seven months, well beyond the 30 days. Wheeler then went to one of the top attorneys in D.C. who told him, “You can win this case.” The Wheelers formed the Jim Thorpe Foundation and gained the support of Congress. With that support and the 1912 rules, the Wheelers again went to the president of the US Olympic Committee (USOC) and finally got their support. The USOC and IOC met and agreed Jim was deserving. Thorpe’s records from the 1912 Olympics were restored and two of Jim’s children, Gale and Bill, were presented with commemorative medals because the original medals had been lost and never recovered.

One major injustice still stands. Jim Thorpe’s remains are still buried in Pennsylvania. His children have made appeals to have them returned to Oklahoma for reburial on Native grounds, but with no success. Jim’s surviving children have no problems with what Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania has done and is continuing to do. The mausoleum and monument are apparently serving the purpose of attracting visitors. Everything is well maintained and in good condition. Jim’s sons, and the Sac and Fox Tribe, simply want his remains returned to his ancestral grounds as was his wish.

There is now a case in Federal Court filed by attorneys with the Sac and Fox Tribe and the two surviving sons, asking that Jim Thorpe’s remains be moved back to Oklahoma. The basis of the suit is NAGPRA, which requires cultural items, including human remains, to be repatriated to their respective peoples, in this case the Sac and Fox Tribe in Oklahoma.

The Federal Judge has listed three specific things he must see before ruling on the case. The first two are that each of Jim’s two surviving sons would agree to have their father’s remains moved to Oklahoma – which they have. The third requirement is that the Sac and Fox Tribe would also agree with the claim that Jim had wanted an Indian burial – which it has. A final decision by the judge could come at any time.

Jim’s two surviving sons, Richard and Bill, are now both in their 80s and their health, particularly in the case of Richard, is not good. Bob Wheeler spent time with them in December, looking at different locations in search of a good burial site for their father. “They looked and looked and found a spot they thought would be a very beautiful resting place for their dad. It was a very powerful scene,” Wheeler said. It’s located near Stroud, Oklahoma on Sac and Fox ground.

Persons wanting to comment are advised to contact the website created by Bob Wheeler’s son, Rob. The website is “My son’s hero is Bill Thorpe, Bob says. “He’s been like a grandfather for the past 20 years.”

The website to secure signatures is essentially a modern upgrade from what Bob did years earlier with the petition drive. Rob’s idea was to make a website to get the word out very clean and very cheaply. It’s simply a way to show support, and something the tribal attorney has also recommended. Although the court case hasn’t required any signatures, the attorneys involved think it could be good leverage in getting Thorpe’s remains repatriated in Oklahoma.

The website also contains testimonials from family members and has a section called Show your Support where you can comment. “The response has been amazingly beautiful, but quantity is what we need now,” Rob says. Recent weeks have seen the volume swell considerably and responses from people of 59 tribes have been received in support, in addition to individuals from around the globe, including 14 different countries, and also including the Borough of Jim Thorpe.

Wayne Newton, of Algonquin lineage, has responded, saying “For as long as I can remember, Jim Thorpe has been my hero. For the citizens of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, we applaud your town for honoring this great man with your town’s name. That respect can be furthered by honoring Jim Thorpe’s request to be buried in his native land, with his native people.”

Both Bob and Rob Wheeler stress the idea of trying to avoid a win/lose situation and wish the case could be settled out of court. “One of the things dad and I have been trying to make clear is the town can use this to their advantage to gain more positive publicity,” Rob said. “They would look like the heroes if they gave the body back so his spiritual beliefs could be satisfied.”

Jim Thorpe was the greatest all-around athlete of all time. He was an icon that provided all of Indian country with a champion and beacon of light at a very low point in American Indian history, those early years of the 20th century. His remains have now been buried in Pennsylvania for six decades, in a town he likely never visited and used as a tourist attraction. It’s time he was returned home to Oklahoma. It’s the moral and proper thing to do.

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