Bringing Jim Thorpe Home

In the iconic tradition of ticker tape parades in New York City, it is a rare occurrence that women have been honored with a trip through the Canyon of Heroes, a path more typically reserved for male figures (state leaders, athletes, adventurers, and politicians). Few women have been buoyed by the cheers of the multitudes who congregate on the ground and applaud from windows of buildings many stories above, showering them with approval and appreciation, ticker tape replacing the ancient symbol of flowers for the victors. That changed on Friday, July 10, when the U.S. Women's Soccer team, fresh off a victorious run in the Women's World Cup that drew record-breaking television audiences, made its appearance. The names of Carli Lloyd, Abby Wambach and Hope Solo are now linked to the long line of athletes who have preceded them on that journey through the City including the U.S. Olympic team of 1912, who counted among their ranks the great Sac and Fox athlete, Jim Thorpe.

It is difficult to know what the future holds for the U.S. women who took that triumphal journey through New York City. Like others before them, many will carry that moment of joy and pride in accomplishment with them for the rest of their lives, paying back and paying forward the debts owed to those who urged them on and inspired them to strive. Some, perhaps, may encounter adversity or tragedy. In the script of life, their journeys will be as circuitous most likely as the path of the parade they have just traveled. What none of those athletes will ever contemplate, however, is the prospect that upon their death their corpse will be bid upon by a remote mountain town, put on display thousands of miles from the place of their birth, and used as an object for the purported purpose of drawing tourism and business to boost a wavering economy. As inconceivable as that might be to ponder for Lloyd, or Wambach, or Solo, that is what happened to Jim Thorpe.

For more than six decades, several of Thorpe's sons have tried to bring their father home to Oklahoma for a proper burial on tribal lands and the assurance that his spirit will finally be at peace. Diplomatic efforts between the family and officials in the Borough of Jim Thorpe in Pennsylvania have failed due to the Borough's assertion of a right of possession, in effect, the claim that they own the remains of Jim Thorpe. In 2010, Thorpe's son Jack along with the Sac and Fox nation sought relief in federal court under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which provides for the return of remains and sacred objects of Native American to their descendants and tribes.

NAGPRA recognizes the historical legacy of the mistreatment of Native Americans in the United States that led to the acquisition of Indian bodies and property that were part of the practices of oppression and genocide. The dynamics enacted around the body of Jim Thorpe are stark reminders of imbedded racial perspectives that live on and influence the treatment of Native Americans in the present.

The brokering of Jim Thorpe's body as a means of marketing a mining community that had tapped its natural resources to the point of exhaustion and was relying on tourism to save its economy was an extension of a mindset of Native exploitation. Museums put Indians on display as exemplars of "vanishing peoples". World Fair exhibitions depicted them as "savages" and "uncivilized". Indians lent the "wild" to storylines that sold Wild West Shows. Sport teams relied, and continue to rely, on "chiefs" and "Indians" and "braves" and "warriors" to promote their teams. The arrangement that led to the former boroughs of Mauk Chunk and East Mauk Chunk merging and using the name of Jim Thorpe, resulted in what reporter Jim Quinn in a 1982 Inquirer magazine article described as "a remarkable contract in which the only real property was a corpse".

In the end, the plans to build a thriving hub of tourist activity around the celebrity and reputation and physical presence of Jim Thorpe never materialized. A promise by then-NFL commissioner Bert Bell to bring the Pro Football Hall of Fame to the site did not come to fruition any more than did the envisioned Olympic Stadium or cancer center. The outrage felt by local Chunk citizens at the failed experiment was taken out on the physical site of Thorpe's burial. Townspeople took a hammer to the crypt, delivering 123 blows. Revealing the logic contained in the bargain, a city official lamented that despite the lofty talk that accompanied the grand plan for the revitalization of the town, all they got instead was "a dead Indian".

After an initial favorable ruling by U.S. District Judge Joseph Caputo that would have permitted Thorpe's reinternment to Oklahoma under NAGPRA in 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed the decision using a rarely referenced doctrine of absurdity to justify its opinion. Petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to review this case just a few weeks ago, Jeffrey Fisher, Co-Director of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic at Stanford University said:

"The Third Circuit overstepped its authority in refusing to enforce NAGPRA in this case, and we urge the U.S. Supreme Court to correct this mistake and restore validity to that important, 25-year-old civil rights law. This case has tremendous bearing on the future civil rights of 5 million Native Americans in the United States. Congress recognized the injustices that occurred when Native American remains were not given proper burials and instead were exploited for curiosity, profit or worse. The Court should ensure that Congress' will is enforced and recognize the rights of Native Americans in this country."

Even in death, Jim Thorpe is called upon to serve as an interpreter for his own people, for their traditions, cultural perspectives, and religious beliefs to a non-Native society. Surely the people of the borough for whom Thorpe is named and its leaders, if invested in knowing who Jim Thorpe was, would feel a moral and ethical duty to see the barrier they have set up by blocking his return. What purpose does it serve to assert a claim over the remains of Jim Thorpe as a human being whose loved ones wish for him to come home? What purpose does it serve to deny Thorpe's family, members of the Thunder Clan and of the Sac and Fox nation, the comfort that would come from knowing that the funeral rites that had been interrupted at the time of his abduction from Oklahoma in 1953 could finally be completed?

Jim Thorpe is not yet home and he deserves the peace that will come from allowing his journey to be completed in a manner that he, his sons Bill and Richard, and the Sac and Fox people have valued for so long. For those interested in finding out more about the Campaign to Bring Jim Thorpe Home, go to #BringJimThorpeHome.