A federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled Friday that proceedings should begin to return the body of Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe to Oklahoma, a major step in a decades-long battle that Thorpe’s sons and his Native American tribe have waged to return his body to the place where he grew up.
Thorpe is buried in Jim Thorpe, Pa., a small town that renamed itself to convince his widow to bring his body there shortly after his death in 1953 in hopes of launching a tourism industry. Patsy Thorpe and city officials signed a contract and Thorpe’s body has lain in a mausoleum in a tiny park ever since.
But the 32-page ruling by U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo rejected the city’s bid to keep their namesake, ruling that the federal Native American Graves and Repatriation Act mandated that the body be returned.
Caputo noted that his decision overriding the contract “may seem at odds with our common notions of commercial or contract law,” but said that Congress passed the law “against a history of exploitation of Native American artifacts and remains for commercial purposes.”
Thorpe, who was principally of Sac and Fox ancestry, played professional football and baseball and set Olympic decathlon records. In 1950, sportswriters named him the nation’s greatest athlete of the half century.
“This decision vindicates the basic human rights of Bill and Richard Thorpe and the Sac and Fox Nation,” said Stephen R. Ward, the lawyer representing the family and the tribe.
Sandra Massey, historic preservation officer of the Sac and Fox Nation in Stroud, Okla., said she was “all emotion.”
Michael J. Sofranko, mayor of Jim Thorpe, said the city was “disappointed” but had not decided whether to appeal.