Jim Thorpe’s remains can be removed from a Pennsylvania mausoleum in the town of Jim Thorpe and buried on American Indian land in Oklahoma, in accordance with the wishes of his two surviving sons. US District Judge Richard Caputo made the ruling Friday, after the sons brought the case under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
That clears the way for their lawyer Stephen Ward to begin the legal process that will end having their father — once voted the Greatest Athlete of the Twentieth Century — buried on Sac and Fox land in recognition of his American Indian heritage. Of mixed Sac and Fox and Causacian ancestry, Thorpe was raised as an American Indian.
Jim Thorpe was the rare athlete who played both professional baseball and football — at the same time. As a track and field star, he took two gold medals for the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics held in Stockholm, Sweden.
He was later stripped of both medals for violating the rules that only amateurs could play in the Olympics. Although he was an amateur track and field athlete, he had been paid for two seasons of minor league baseball. Many commentators of the time felt that he was really attacked because of the widespread racism of the era, not because he was violating the spirit of the rule.
The Olympic medals were reinstated in 1982, years after Jim Thorpe’s death in 1953, when the International Olympics Committee determined that he had been wrongfully denied the titles. Evidence dating back to 1912 showed that the disqualification had occurred after the legal 30-day time limit.
The record he set for the decathlon stood for 20 years and was still strong enough to have earned him a silver medal as late as 1948.
Jim Thorpe’s remains were originally placed in the Pennsylvania mausoleum after his surviving third wife, Patricia Thorpe, made a deal with two towns to merge and name themselves after her husband, in exchange for having him buried there. While recognizing that his decision Friday might seem contrary to modern contract law, Judge Caputo noted that the US Congress prohibits exploiting the remains of Native Americans for commercial purposes.
According to the Associated Press, it’s likely that Jim Thorpe never even visited the town named after him.
His sons believe that Jim Thorpe’s record of activism speaks for itself. After he retired from sports, Thorpe is known to have appeared in at least 70 films. He became a powerful advocate for Hollywood to use genuine Native Americans in movie roles.
The process of moving his body can now get started, but it isn’t yet clear exactly when Jim Thorpe’s remains will be reburied in Oklahoma.
[Jim Thorpe shaking hands with admirers photo courtesy US National Archives and Records Administration]