Photobucket Greg Bauch
Jim Thorpe won Olympic gold medals for the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon, played American football (collegiate and professional), and also played professional baseball and basketball.

Son, Tribe Saddened by Supreme Court Denial of Appeal to Return Jim Thorpe's Remains Home

Harlan McKosato

The pursuit to bring legendary athlete Jim Thorpe’s remains back home to Oklahoma from Pennsylvania based on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has apparently run its course. The U.S. Supreme Court denied the Sac and Fox Nation and the Thorpe family’s appeal on Monday to return the Olympic hero to his original homelands.

“It is sad news,” said Bill Thorpe, one of Jim Thorpe’s remaining sons, who resides in Arlington, Texas. “I was very disappointed. I believe the Supreme Court should have looked at this a little bit closer and give us a reading on it. I don’t believe they did. They declined to review the [Third Circuit Court of Appeals’] decision. That’s what hurts.”

The case was filed in the Middle District of Pennsylvania in 2010 by Thorpe’s sons and the Sac and Fox Nation. The court filed a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs and found that NAGPRA was applicable to the remains of Jim Thorpe and the Borough of Jim Thorpe. The Borough appealed.

The Third Circuit reversed the trial court’s judgment last October and invoked a doctrine that said the trial court’s decision was “so shocking” that it could override NAGPRA. That decision was appealed by the tribe and the Thorpe family to SCOTUS, knowing that review by the Supreme Court was not a certainty.

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“Jim Thorpe never set foot in the Borough of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and never wanted to be buried there. He was shopped around the country in a very macabre bidding effort to bury him in a place that would provide financially for his non-Indian third wife,” said attorney Steve Ward, the trial counsel for the Sac and Fox Nation and the Thorpe brothers (Bill and Richard) in the case. “No one disputes he was buried there as part of a very grandiose tourism and economic development scheme that was never realized.”

“On behalf of the Sac and Fox Nation, I want to express our disappointment about the [Supreme Court] decision not to review the ruling of the Third Circuit in the litigation seeking to initiate a repatriation proceeding concerning the remains of Jim Thorpe,” said Kay Rhoads, Principal Chief of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma in a released statement.

“The famous Sac and Fox athlete’s remains were taken forcibly from a traditional burial ceremony in 1953 under circumstances that illustrate the lack of respect in general in our country’s history for the traditions and religious beliefs of American Indians,” said Chief Rhoads.

“Bill and Richard have sought to remedy this great injustice for most of their adult lives. They were young men at the time of their father’s funeral. They saw law enforcement show up on Sac and Fox Indian land and forcibly remove their father’s casket and they were really helpless,” said Ward.

“There was a big crowd. We were at a dinner table finishing a farewell dinner to Dad, when [Patsy] along with the police and the mortuary people took his body,” said Bill Thorpe, who is now 87 years old. “We tried to stop them but we really didn’t have the rights. We let her [Patsy] know that we were not happy with the decision she was making. We were going to put him to rest the next day.”

Ward argues that the plain language of NAGPRA provides for a repatriation process that was never completed in this case. “The Third Circuit essentially short-circuited the processes under NAGPRA. I respectfully disagree with their decision that it would be ‘absurd’ to repatriate this American Indian man as intended by the statute.

“I cannot understand why the people of [the Borough of] Jim Thorpe are not happy to work with the sons of Jim Thorpe to repatriate his remains,” said Ward, who works for the law firm of Connors & Winters, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“It is very difficult for our side to understand why it’s important that the town keep the remains. The few explanations we’ve had are really shocking and hard to believe. The mayor claims the town owns these remains. The general law is nobody owns a body. Nobody owns remains once they are buried.

“The legal tools that were given to Indian people and tribes to correct this type of injustice haven’t worked in this case,” concluded Ward. “For the moment, Sac and Fox people and Indian people in general are just going to be left with the view that the legal remedy they have was worthless. There are some other options. There’s quite a bit of interest in Indian Country in pursuing this matter. There are state disinterment laws and there are perhaps legislative fixes. I think it remains to be seen though what may happen next. This will not be forgotten.”

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GramereC's picture
Submitted by GramereC on
I live in Pennsylvania. I know it is apparent that we have NO NONE ZERO USA Federally recognized tribes, and no recognized tribes at the Pennsylvania state level. The people here are considered remnant or detribalized by the federal and state government. As an avid genealogist I know my native history. The native history in Pennsylvania is rich and cannot be extracted for the general history because the memory is intact. The majority of the historical markers placed by the state recall the native origins. I can self-identify as Chippewa from Turtle Mountain but I am identified as Caucasian. My children are able to identify as both Onondaga and Seneca-Corn Planter 3 of their 4 grandparents have native origins. We know we have cousins who end up on reservations in ND, Ontario and Kansas but many stayed. In Pennsylvania most were classified as remnant tribal until the Kinzu Damn was installed when the last tribe in Pennsylvania was pushed out in 1965 making Pennsylvania "Offically Detribalized". I give this as background. I read that the Supreme Court in Pennsylvania would not return Jim Thorpe for proper burial. It is less than a week from our elections in Pennsylvania. Of the Seven seats we have two vacant spots for Supreme Court Justices. One of the other seats (Correal S. Stevens) is an appointed seat which expires in October of 2016. Three of the remaining seats (Thomas G Saylor, J. Michael Eakin, and Max Baer) are on their final terms expiring between 2016 and 2017. The remaining seat is Debra Todd and we voted to retain her in 2007 she is up for a retention vote again in 2017. As I am inundated by unsolicited telephone calls to vote this way or that way I am exhausted. I cannot help but wonder WHY a town would want to withhold a proper burial and am even more perplexed that our Supreme Court would not even here the case. What have we become? The place now called Jim Thorpe was the end of Ye Hurry Walk or the Waling Purchase. In 1737 Edward Marshall collapsed there and this marked the new boundaries of territory. I do not know which side of that boundary Jim Thorpe is buried on but our Supreme Court of Pennsylvania boost they came into existence fifteen years earlier in 1722 more than 50 years before the Declaration of Independence. We have 7 choices for Judge this election. All seem very much woven into the cloth of politics. The Independent is the most real he has been working the law. The rest all seem to be a part of the party they are running with. Democrats for Labor and Republicans for Guns or Right to Life. Let us hope however this court ends up they have the sense they were born with and return Jim Thorpe for burial. Please keep us informed.