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.
“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.”