The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

June 12, 2013

Law in Jim Thorpe dispute aims to prevent Native American plunder


ALLENTOWN, Pa. — It was a sweat lodge ceremony in Texas where Jim Thorpe reached out to his grandson through a medicine man.

The shaman told John Thorpe that his grandfather’s spirit was content in the Pennsylvania town where his body has lain for six decades.

“Grandpa made contact with him and told him that he was at peace and wanted no more upset connected to him,” John Thorpe said.

That was nearly three years ago — shortly after one of Jim Thorpe’s sons, Jack, filed a lawsuit against the eastern Pennsylvania borough named after the legendary Native American athlete. The suit seeks the return of Thorpe’s remains to tribal lands in his native Oklahoma.

Since then, the case has forced Jim Thorpe residents to confront the prospect of losing their community’s namesake and widened a rift between his descendants, who disagreed on where Thorpe’s remains should rest.

“Moving him out of Jim Thorpe, a town that loves and honors and respects him and throws a birthday party for him every year, is just wrong, plain wrong,” said John Thorpe, whose mother, Charlotte, was a daughter from Thorpe’s first marriage.

In April, a federal judge sided with Thorpe’s sons William and Richard, who carried on the suit after their brother Jack’s death, and the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, the tribe to which Jim Thorpe belonged. The judge’s ruling requires the Pennsylvania borough of about 4,800 residents to begin the process of returning Thorpe’s remains.

At the center of the dispute is a federal law designed to end the plunder of Native American burial sites and give Native Americans control of their own people’s remains. Called the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, the law allowed the return of thousands of bodies and artifacts that were removed and added to museum collections beginning in the 1800s.

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