April 19, 2013

Judge rules Thorpe's remains may return

Judge rules Jim Thorpe’s body should be returned to Oklahoma

By Neely TuckerA 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.”
Jim Thorpe's Sons Win Federal Lawsuit Against Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania

Jim Thorpe’s Remains Can Be Moved To Native Land, Court Rules

But a commenter on the first article says it's misleading:As a current law student who has been following this case closely, I must state that this article is severely misleading. What this ruling means is only that the town, as a "museum" (a questionable legal proposition ripe for appeal itself), must complete an inventory of holdings under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Once the inventory has been completed, it triggers a right by the family to request repatriation. However, the ultimate disposition of the remains will depend on the outcome of an administrative hearing, which will consider the interests of not only the two brothers who brought suit, but also those of the other half of the family by Thorpe's first marriage (and, incidentally, his only one to a Native American woman) who want the remains kept in their current location and who were kept out of the suit by the judge. They believe Thorpe's soul is already at peace after a burial ritual performed there by Thorpe's daughter Grace, a respected shaman, in the 1990s and think that moving him would itself be a sacrilege.

Considering that both they and the next of kin at the time of his death (his third wife Patricia) have expressed a desire to see him buried in Pennsylvania, and that there is no record of Thorpe himself ever stating a preference, the board may end up awarding possession to them, with the ultimate outcome of nothing happening, since the judge already threw out any possibility of monetary awards earlier in the case!
Comment:  I've never heard Grace Thrope called a "shaman" or anything like that. But the commenter's main point seems valid. It sounds as though the judge ruled that NAGPRA applies to Thorpe's remains. That's different from saying that NAGPRA mandates the body's return.

For more on Jim Thorpe, see Thorpe Still the Greatest Olympian and Best in the World at NMAI.

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