Son Sues Pa. Town For Jim Thorpe's Remains

After Jim Thorpe died in 1953, a Pennsylvania town agreed to change the town's name and pay Thorpe's widow a fee in return for hosting the Native American athlete's grave. Michele Norris talks with Thorpe's son Jack about his lawsuit to send his father's remains to his Oklahoma tribal homelands.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

An unusual story now about the famed Native American sports star, Jim Thorpe. Some say he was the greatest athlete ever: a college football phenom and Olympic track champion who went on to play professional baseball and football.

Shortly after Thorpe died in 1953, two Eastern Pennsylvania communities merged. The new town named itself Jim Thorpe and purchased the athlete's remains from his widow, who was his third wife. They built a monument to Thorpe, and a tourist business sprang up.

Thorpe's surviving sons want his father's remains returned to his tribal homeland in Oklahoma, and they're suing Jim Thorpe, the town in Pennsylvania. One of those sons, Jack Thorpe, joins us now. Welcome to the program.

And do I understand this correctly: Jack Thorpe is suing Jim Thorpe?

Mr. JACK THORPE: Yeah, it's been a long, long, long way from where it started with this thing.

NORRIS: Mr. Thorpe, can you help us understand why your father's remains went to Pennsylvania in the first place?

Mr. THORPE: Well, when Dad passed away, he passed away out in Lomita, California, and then we brought him back here to Shawnee, Oklahoma, for burial.

And my stepmother comes out to the tribal lands, the ceremonial lands where we're doing our dad's burial, came out there with the police and a hearse, removed our father's remains and took him back into town, basically stating it was too cold for him out there.

The state of Oklahoma appropriated, I believe it was $50,000 to do a memorial. And my stepmother was wanting mother, got into it with the governor of the state of Oklahoma and upset the governor so much that he vetoed the bill.

And then she used that as saying that the state of Oklahoma did not want Jim Thorpe's remains and removed his body from Shawnee. And then finally, I guess she made the arrangements with East Mauch Chunk and Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, that ended up being Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, to purchase his remains and removed his remains up there against the wishes of his family, his tribe, the whole thing. So that's the basis of the controversy.

NORRIS: It sounds like part of what bothers you is that these - this town that now calls itself Jim Thorpe purchased the remains.

Mr. THORPE: Thats my understanding.

NORRIS: And is that part of the problem, that this was a transaction?

Mr. THORPE: No, no, the I have nothing against Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. They are a wonderful group of people. They changed the name of the town to Jim Thorpe, and that's a great honor.

I've been there several times, and I've been treated royally by them, but I've stated before, and I'll state it again: The bones of my father will not make or break that town. It's the people in that town.

They can still continue to have the name. That's a wonderful honor. But it's just the remains our father, we wanted to bring him home and finish up help in put him away properly and put him away where he wanted to be.

NORRIS: So when you talk about putting him away properly, tell me what sort of memorial you imagine for him there in Oklahoma.

Mr. THORPE: You've always had a controversy between two different societies, the Indian society versus that of the non-Indian society, different tribal cultures, the way they view remains or the way they do their burials or whatever. And we'd just like to be able to finish off his burial properly and put him away where family wanted him, the tribe wanted him and where he wanted to be.

NORRIS: Jack Thorpe, thank you very much for talking to us.

Mr. THORPE: Thank you.

NORRIS: All the best to you.

That's Jack Thorpe. He's suing to have the remains of his father, Jim Thorpe, moved from their current location in Pennsylvania to the family's native Oklahoma.

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