The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal by a Native American nation and legendary athlete Jim Thorpe’s surviving sons to have his remains moved from Pennsylvania to tribal lands in his home state of Oklahoma.
Richard and William Thorpe, along with the Sac and Fox Nation, claimed the remains were stolen from an ancestral grave during a burial ceremony and taken illegally to Pennsylvania by Thorpe’s wife at the time, who was seeking to profit from the move.
The Supreme Court did not elaborate on its decision.
“Very few other Americans have experienced the forced removal of their parent’s casket from a funeral ceremony being conducted according to their family’s beliefs — something most would find shocking, to say the least,” Thorpe’s sons said in a joint statement.
The two have said that wife Patricia Thorpe, who was the legendary athlete’s third wife and is now deceased, removed the remains in a hearse with the help of law enforcement from a sacred ceremony in Oklahoma in 1953. She wanted to offer them up to the highest bidder, they added.
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. He died in 1953 at age 64 after suffering a heart attack.
Attorneys for and members of the Sac and Fox Nation said Thorpe’s remains fall under the 1990 Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a civil rights law that protects Native American cultural and religious traditions and sacred objects.
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. The borough has maintained the remains are rightfully interred and give proper respect.
In April 2013, U.S. District Judge Richard Caputo in Scranton, Pennsylvania, found that the Borough of Jim Thorpe was a “museum” under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
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 the lower court judge was wrong to order that Thorpe’s remains be turned over to the Sac and Fox Nation.
“This outcome will not change Indian people’s desire and demand to have their beliefs and customs respected like those of the greater American society,” the plaintiffs said.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Alan Crosby)