Conner & Winters’ Indian Law Team Obtains Key Ruling in the Effort to Repatriate the Remains of Jim Thorpe
Conner & Winters’ Indian law team has successfully obtained a decision in a Pennsylvania federal court that the remains of the world-famous Sac and Fox athlete Jim Thorpe are subject to repatriation under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (“NAGPRA”).
In the litigation, Conner & Winters represents the surviving sons of Jim Thorpe, William Thorpe and Richard Thorpe, as well as the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma. The circumstances leading up to the litigation tell not only a story of one aspect of the American Indian experience and the Sac and Fox experience, but also of the reason Congress enacted NAGPRA—namely, to prevent a continuation of a legacy of the violation of Indian peoples’ right to bury their own dead in accordance with tribal customs and practices, and to prevent the improper treatment of their remains, including the use of their remains for commercial purposes.
Like many Indian people, Jim Thorpe lived in two worlds. Thorpe was born in 1887 within the Sac and Fox Indian Reservation in the Oklahoma Territory, now part of present-day Oklahoma. As a member of the Sac and Fox Thunder clan, Thorpe was given the Indian name Wa-tha-huk, meaning “the bright path the lightening makes as it goes across the sky.” To the Sac and Fox people, Thorpe was and is known not only for his athletic accomplishments but also for his work for his tribe, and on behalf of the legal rights of Indian people and tribes in general. In his later years, Thorpe repeatedly told the members of his Indian family that he wanted to be buried in Sac and Fox Indian country.
The great athlete died from a heart attack on March 28, 1953, in Lomita, California. Historians record that, at the time, Thorpe’s estranged third wife, Patricia Askew Thorpe (known as “Patsy”), was disinterested in the arrangements for his interment, and donations of money and mortuary services had to be enlisted to prepare his body for burial. At the request of Thorpe’s Indian family. his remains were returned to Shawnee, Oklahoma, near where he was born.
On Sunday, April 12, 1953, members of the Sac and Fox Thunder clan and other members of Thorpe’s Indian family gathered for the beginning of a two-day funeral conducted in accordance with Sauk burial customs and traditions. However, as the funeral ceremonies began, Patsy Thorpe, accompanied by law enforcement officers, arrived and had the casket removed. The Sauk funeral was, therefore, never completed, and this disrespect for tribal customs and practices is remembered to this day in Sac and Fox country as a serious injustice committed by the non-Indian world.
In the following days and months, historians record that Patsy Thorpe began a macabre odyssey of shopping her husband’s remains to any city or town that would best meet her demands. After learning from a television broadcast in Philadelphia about the economic development efforts of two dying Pennsylvania coal mining towns—Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk—Patsy Thorpe began negotiating with leaders of the communities to bury her husband there. Indeed, extensive plans were made to use the body of Jim Thorpe to reverse the towns’ economic fortunes. Local leaders agreed to merge the communities into a single town, to be named “Jim Thorpe.” Eventually, Thorpe was buried on Borough land at a roadside location.
Beginning immediately following the interrupted Sac and Fox burial ceremony, Jim Thorpe’s sons and other members of the family protested his re-burial outside Sac and Fox country, but their efforts were ignored. Not until the enactment of NAGPRA, did they—along with other Indian people and tribes—obtain the necessary legal tools to exercise their rights with respect to their father’s burial. Even though Jim Thorpe’s burial in the Borough pre-dated NAGPRA by more than three decades, his sons and other members of his Indian family never gave up on achieving a repatriation.
In a ruling on April 19, 2013, the Honorable A. Richard Caputo, granted a complete summary judgment in favor of Jim Thorpe’s sons and the Sac and Fox Tribe. Judge Caputo ruled that NAGPRA applies to the remains of Jim Thorpe, and that the Borough is obligated under federal law to cooperate with repatriation proceedings under the statute.
The litigation has been handled by two members of the firm’s Indian law team, Stephen R. Ward, a partner, and Daniel E. Gomez, an associate attorney. Copies of the Court’s order and of the Conner & Winters briefing on summary judgment may be accessed through the following link. Read More
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