The two surviving children of sports great Jim Thorpe won a critical ruling Friday in federal court that could clear the way for his remains to be removed from a mausoleum in the Pennsylvania town that bears his name and reinterred on American Indian land in Oklahoma.
U.S. District Judge Richard Caputo ruled in favor of sons Bill and Richard Thorpe and against Jim Thorpe borough in northeastern Pennsylvania, saying the town itself amounts to a museum under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The men’s lawyer, Stephen R. Ward of Tulsa, Okla., said they will now pursue the legal process to have their father, who won the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics, returned to Sac and Fox land in central Oklahoma.
Messages seeking comment from lawyers for the borough, and top borough officials, were not immediately returned. They could appeal Caputo’s decision.
Ward said the brothers were pleased with the decision.
"They and their brothers and other members of the family have wanted this and have worked for this for a long time," he said. "They well remember how the wishes of the Indian members of the family were not respected concerning their father’s burial."
After Jim Thorpe died without a will in 1953 at age 64, third wife Patricia Thorpe made a deal with two merging towns in the Poconos, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, to have the new town named for him. His remains have been kept for the past six decades in a borough-owned roadside memorial along the Lehigh River.
Caputo wrote that the result may seem at odds with notions of commercial or contract law.
"Congress, however, recognized larger and different concerns in such circumstances, namely, the sanctity of the Native American culture’s treatment of the remains of those of Native American ancestry," the judge said. "It did so against a history of exploitation of Native American artifacts and remains for commercial purposes."
Ward said Bill Thorpe, who lives in Oklahoma, and Richard, a resident of the Dallas area, have not decided whether to bury their father alongside their paternal grandfather in a cemetery in Shawnee, Okla., or at another spot in the area.
Ward said the brothers are not seeking to have the town change its name, and the judge said any concerns about the borough’s identity were misplaced.
Thorpe was born in Oklahoma and became a professional football and baseball player, as well as a Hollywood actor. The town that bears his name – which he likely never visited – has become a popular tourist destination, replete with trendy shops, historic architecture and outdoor activities connected to the mountainous region.
Ward said any tourist benefit that Thorpe’s remains may have once provided has long become nonexistent