I can still remember my amazement the first time I heard of Jim Thorpe, considered to be one of the greatest American athletes of the 20th century.
I was a child when I watched his story being told in a television special about Olympic heroes. The Sac and Fox Indian from Oklahoma blew away the competition at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm to win gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon contests. In the grainy images, I saw something I never imagined: someone who resembled my people, representing the U.S.A., symbolizing great athleticism on a global stage.
More than a century after his Olympic victories, I am amazed once again, but for a different reason.
A legal battle has ensued over Thorpe’s final resting place. A federal judge last year sided with Thorpe’s two surviving sons, who say they want to honor their father’s wishes to be buried among his people. The borough of Jim Thorpe, Pa., — where Thorpe’s widow had her husband laid to rest in 1954 — has appealed.
Federal judge Richard Caputo ruled last April that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which governs the return of tribal artifacts and human remains, applies in this case.
It appears the family has no complaints about how their father’s gravesite has been maintained. In a story that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in October, William Thorpe said the town has done a “wonderful job” of caring for the grave, but that “it’s time for my dad to come home.”
I can understand that. As Native Americans, we belong to our people. Our homelands are sacred, and they mark the sites where our traditions and ceremonies have endured for generations. The land is part of us, and we honor it when we place the remains of our people next to the graves of our ancestors.
In Jim Thorpe, Pa., the only real connection the townspeople have to the Sac and Fox tribal member is his name.
What’s most amazing to me is the way in which Thorpe’s body reportedly was taken. The Los Angeles Times article states that Thorpe’s son, William, recalled how his father’s funeral ceremony came to an abrupt halt in the Sac and Fox lodge. Thorpe’s widow, Patsy Thorpe, accompanied by state troopers, took the body away and later had her husband interred in Pennsylvania, where she had made arrangements with two merged towns to build a memorial in exchange for the remains.
A fund has been started by Native American journalist Harlan McKosato, a Sac and Fox and Ioway, and filmmaker Gary Robinson, Choctaw and Creek, to raise $5,000 to help publicize the struggle and draw attention to the repatriation act, known across Indian Country as NAGPRA. Click here to learn more about the fund.
Thorpe’s accomplishments are many, and they are lost in this legal fight. I still marvel at the fact that he played college and professional football as well as pro baseball and basketball. He served as president of the American Professional Football Association, which became the National Football Association. In 1999, the Associated Press placed him third on its list of the top athletes of the century, behind Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan.
It’s unfortunate that Thorpe’s legacy is colored by this dispute over his remains. My hope is that it will be resolved in a dignified matter that someone of his stature deserves.
Follow on me on Twitter @karenmichel.