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In the centennial year of Jim Thorpe’s 1912 Olympic triumphs, the homecoming motif continues to be definitive in the life—and afterlife—of a singular Oklahoma athlete.
By Eddie Chuculate
Published September/October 2012
If getting Thorpe’s medals reinstated was a long-haul battle, no one could have predicted the decades-long, ongoing tug-of-war over his remains.
After Thorpe retired from athletics in 1928, he held a variety of jobs, landed bit parts in Hollywood movies, joined the Merchant Marine, and worked for the Chicago Park District as a recreation staffer. He also lobbied on behalf of Indian legislation and was the first president of the NFL.
Thorpe’s athletic success failed to provide long-term financial security. When he was hospitalized for lip cancer in 1951 and it became known that he couldn’t afford treatment, donors from across the country helped pay his medical bills. He died at age sixty-five of a heart attack at home in Lomita, California, on March 28, 1953.
According to the April 14, 1953, Shawnee News-Star, “The Monday rites followed the ancient Sac and Fox tribal funeral ceremonies held Sunday night at the Ed Mack farm northeast of Shawnee. There, members of the Thunderbird clan gathered to pay their last tribute to Thorpe, who brought the name of their tribe to the attention of the world during his lifetime.”
Services had been held the day before at St. Benedict’s Roman Catholic Church in Shawnee. Thorpe’s body was interred in the mausoleum at nearby Fairview Cemetery, awaiting a state-funded memorial where the body was to be laid to rest. But when Governor Johnston Murray vetoed the measure in June, Thorpe’s widow had his body removed and trucked to Tulsa, where she tried to convince that city to fund a memorial. It declined, so she continued to look for potential sites. Carlisle, Pennsylvania, turned her down because she wanted too much money, a city official told Sports Illustrated magazine in 1983.
While in Philadelphia in September 1953, Patricia heard that the villages of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk in eastern Pennsylvania were looking for ways to bolster finances. She approached town leaders about buying Thorpe’s body, despite the fact that he had no ties to the community and had never been there. The towns agreed, brokering a deal in which Patricia would turn over Thorpe’s remains in exchange for an undisclosed amount of money and the formation of Jim Thorpe Borough.
The new borough built a tomb off a highway leading into town and commissioned a statue. City leaders envisioned a spur to the local economy, tourist attractions, maybe even the then-unbuilt Pro Football Hall of Fame. None of those goals was accomplished.
Jack Thorpe, who lived in Shawnee, began inquiries about bringing his father’s body home as early as the 1960s but was emphatically rejected. Complicating matters, his half-sister Grace vacillated between supporting the Pennsylvania deal and criticizing it. Her daughter, Dagmar, even sanctified the Pennsylvania site in a religious rite in 1999.
Jack Thorpe filed a federal lawsuit in 2010, which has since been taken up by the Sac and Fox Nation and his sons William and Richard Thorpe.
“The bones of my father do not make or break your town,” Jack Thorpe, who was principal chief of the Sac and Fox Nation for seven years in the 1980s, said in 2010. “I resent using my father as a tourist attraction.”
Jack told reporters in 2009 that he felt he would see the body repatriated in his lifetime. But he died of cancer on February 22, 2011, and is buried in the Garden Grove cemetery about a mile from the old cabin along with other members of the Thorpe family.
Jack said he waited until the last of his half-sisters died to avoid family conflict in pursuing the lawsuit. Grace Thorpe died at age eighty-six in 2008.
The lawsuit cited the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which forces museums and art galleries to return known human remains to their point of origin. In August 2010, the borough moved to have the lawsuit thrown out on grounds that it wasn’t a museum. But on November 23, 2011, U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo of the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled that the borough is indeed operating as such pursuant to NAGPRA and determined that the lawsuit can proceed.
“[Pennsylvania] people don’t realize that these are people who just want their dad back. Not Jim Thorpe the legend, Jim Thorpe their dad,” says Sac and Fox Nation historic preservation officer and tribal member Sandra Massey. “I lost my dad, too, and I can go visit him anytime I want without hopping on a plane.”
Massey says the tribe has previously repatriated Sac and Fox remains using NAGPRA. If Thorpe had been buried rather than entombed aboveground in Pennsylvania, the Sac and Fox would not repatriate.
“Once a body is in the ground, in our tribal way, we don’t disturb it,” Massey says.
The parties to the lawsuit are awaiting mediation. If a settlement is not reached, Massey says, the lawsuit and trial will continue and likely not be resolved until 2013 at the earliest.
Space has been set aside at the Sac and Fox tribal complex in Stroud for a Jim Thorpe memorial and burial site.
“We’re going to make it real nice for people to come and visit,” William says. “But one thing we’re not going to do is have anything commercial, anything for sale. It’ll be a place to just come and say hi.”
With only two of Thorpe’s children still living, repatriation can’t come fast enough.
“Dad said he wanted to be buried on tribal grounds,” William says. “It would please me to no end to see that happen.”
By now, more Olympics have been staged and other men crowned champions. They can thank Jim Thorpe. More than one hundred years ago, the greatest athlete in Oklahoma history set ultramodern goals for future Olympians to meet or break.
Meanwhile, his family and home state eagerly await his return.
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The Jim Thorpe Historical Home, where he lived with his first wife, Iva, is located at 706 East Boston Avenue in Yale. (918) 387-2815 or jimthorpehome.com. Jim Thorpe Park is off State Highway 51 on the east side of Yale. (918) 387-2406 or yaleok.org. A monument to Jim Thorpe is on the Prague Historical Museum grounds at 1008 North Jim Thorpe Boulevard near his birthplace. (405) 567-4750 or pragueok.org.
Eddie Chuculate is a Muskogee native. A longtime Oklahoma sportswriter, he was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award in 2011. His essay, “Red Moon Rising,” appeared in Oklahoma Today’s May/June 2011 issue. .