By Heide Brandes
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Native American in Oklahoma started a campaign on Wednesday for the return of the body of sports legend Jim Thorpe, whose remains are buried in a Pennsylvania hamlet named for the famed American Indian athlete and Olympic champion.
The Sac and Fox Nation, which lost a court case last year on the return of the remains, told a news conference they were taking their campaign to the U.S. Supreme Court and the public, arguing Thorpe’s body should rest in his tribal lands after a sacred burial ceremony.
“For years we were disregarded, our graves were looted, and we are still fighting for the right of a man to decide how to be buried,” said Sandra Massey, historical preservation director for the Sac and Fox Nation.
“He didn’t want to be sold, which is what happened,” she said of Thorpe, who died at age 64 in 1953.
One of the 20th century’s greatest athletes, Thorpe won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, and later played professional baseball and football.
Following Thorpe’s death, his third wife, Patricia Thorpe, arranged for his burial in what became the Borough of Jim Thorpe in Pennsylvania after learning the struggling towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk wanted to merge under a new name. Jim Thorpe was interred there in 1957.
Thorpe’s two surviving sons, Richard and William Thorpe, have said that Patricia Thorpe, who is now dead, removed the remains in a hearse from a sacred ceremony in Oklahoma in 1953 so that she could offer them up to the highest bidder.
Jack Thorpe, one of Jim’s sons, sued in 2010 to reclaim his father’s remains. He died the next year and his brothers Richard and William became plaintiffs. Two grandsons, Mike Koehler and John Thorpe, wanted Jim Thorpe’s remains left alone.
In April 2013, U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo in Scranton, Pennsylvania, found that the Borough of Jim Thorpe was a “museum” under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a 1990 federal law meant to stop the plundering of burial grounds.
As such, it was required to return Thorpe’s remains if a lineal descendant asked for them.
In October 2014, a federal appeals court said a lower court judge was wrong to order that Thorpe’s remains be turned over to the Sac and Fox Nation.
(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Trott)