Late, Great Jim Thorpe: NAGPRA’s Newest Draft Pick?

His Sauk (Sac & Fox) name was Wa-Ho-Thuk. The world knew him as Jim Thorpe, one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. He played professional football, baseball, and basketball, and took gold medals in both the pentathlon and the decathlon in the 1912 Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) took away his medals (amateur-standing issues, having been paid to play semi-pro baseball); the Great Depression took away his career and earnings; a heart attack in 1953 took away his life. At that time, Thorpe’s native Oklahoma appeared singularly uninterested in erecting a monument. Frustrated, widow Patricia cast a wider net for the kind of memorial she felt Jim deserved. She found it in the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, which proposed to merge into the single town of Jim Thorpe, PA and provide a granite mausoleum to house Jim’s remains. He was posthumously inducted into several athletic halls of fame, and honored with a “Jim Thorpe Day” in 1973. In 1983, after years of stonewalling, the IOC reinstated his Olympic medals.

So now this remarkable personage can rest in peace? Nope, not yet. His three surviving sons are suing the town of Jim Thorpe under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA, 25 U.S.C. 3001 et seq.), to have Jim Thorpe’s remains returned to Oklahoma for burial in the family plot near his birthplace (which has a historic marker now). Different facets of the controversy have been presented in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

NAGPRA is a handy legal lever here, but is it really the right tool for the job? In the last half-century, federal statutes that bolster tribal sovereignty and Native cultural identity have seemed especially vulnerable to being crushed – or at least noticeably flattened – under the wheels of justice. One plaintiff tries to push the law just a little too far, and the court severely narrows the scope of the law or strikes it down altogether.

Under NAGPRA, “if . . . the cultural affiliation of Native American human remains. . . with a particular Indian tribe. . . is established, then the. . . museum, upon the request of a known lineal descendant of the Native American. . . shall expeditiously return such remains.” 25 U.S.C. 3005. Establishing Jim Thorpe’s cultural affiliation is not arduous. Even though he reportedly had no birth certificate, Kennewick Man he ain’t. His dad was half-Sauk, his mom half-Potawatomi. “Museum,” for NAGPRA purposes, “any institution or State or local government agency that receives Federal funds and has possession of, or control over, Native American cultural items.” A local government agency in Jim Thorpe, PA maintains the current Thorpe grave, and the town appears to receive federal funds for, among other things, a “Reading is Fundamental” program and a HUD Community Development Block Grant. Jack Thorpe, Jim Thorpe’s son (a lineal descendant of the least ambiguous kind) has requested the return of the remains. So, the turn-the-crank analysis shows Jim Thorpe as a pretty good candidate for repatriation at the town’s expense under NAGPRA as written.

Add the policy shading and the picture changes somewhat. NAGPRA was enacted in 1990 to curtail the historically prevalent treatment of Native remains and burial goods as curiosities, souvenirs, or debris. Although mainstream America had moved past most of the overt racism – 19th-century scientists’ proposals that Native skull dimensions signify inferior intellect, for example – there was still a sizable empathy gap due to different cultural perspectives. The excavation of European settlers’ bodies in Jamestown raised no hue and cry from their descendants; the public reaction was more akin to loitering at the edge of the hole going “Awww, cool!” The remains of famous non-Native outlaws were frequently featured in Old West traveling sideshows. In parts of the West Indies and the southern US, human remains were used in rituals derived from the Congolese Palo Mayombe tradition. However, treating one’s own ancestors’ remains nearly as badly really wasn’t an excuse.

Has there been that kind of disrespect, though, in the case of Jim Thorpe? Although the NY Times smirkingly calls the PA monument a “nifty roadside attraction,” Jim’s body is hardly on display for a nickel a peek. His granite mausoleum in an apparently well-kept, dedicated park is perfectly dignified, and even stands on soil brought in from his Oklahoma birthplace and from the stadium in Stockholm where he won his Olympic medals. His widow consented to the burial. OK, she was his third wife and none of the kids were hers, but his daughters also reportedly approved; because of this, the sons waited until all of them passed away before bringing the lawsuit.

The whole dispute, at least as reported in the press, seems much more like a family issue than a cultural issue. Disagreements about where people should be buried are extremely common when the deceased was married more than once – but only Natives can bring NAGPRA into play. From the tone of the reports, the parties are likely to settle; Jack bears the town no grudge, and the town’s increased tourist revenue is, by its own admission, virtually unrelated to the location of the actual grave. Like any law intended to redress generations of disfavored behavior in a few short years (can you say “school desegregation”?) NAGPRA is a big administrative hassle – but in the cases it was designed for, it’s there for good reasons. Let’s not stretch it till it breaks just yet, OK?

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