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. Continue reading