Six decades have passed since state troopers barged into a sacred Native American burial ceremony in Oklahoma and seized the body of Jim Thorpe so it could be transported halfway across the country to Pennsylvania.
It was his third wife, Patricia Thorpe, who orchestrated the move.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal by Thorpe’s surviving sons in their effort to move his remains to tribal lands in Oklahoma. The decision leaves in place an appeals court ruling that Thorpe’s body should stay in the town of Jim Thorpe, the Carbon County community that took his name when he was laid to rest there.
The Supreme Court did not elaborate on its decision.
Richard and William Thorpe, along with the Sac and Fox Nation, claimed the remains were stolen and taken illegally to Pennsylvania by Thorpe’s wife, who was seeking to profit from the move.
“Very few other Americans have experienced the forced removal of their parent’s casket from a funeral ceremony being conducted according to their family’s beliefs — something most would find shocking, to say the least,” Thorpe’s sons said in a joint statement.
Attorneys for and members of the Sac and Fox Nation said Thorpe’s remains fall under the 1990 Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a civil rights law that protects Native American cultural and religious traditions and sacred objects.
In April 2013, U.S. District Judge Richard Caputo in Scranton, Pennsylvania, found that the town of Jim Thorpe was a “museum” under the NAGPRA.
As such, it was required to return Thorpe’s remains if a lineal descendant asked for them.
In October 2014, a federal appeals court said the lower court judge was wrong to order that Thorpe’s remains be turned over to the Sac and Fox Nation.
The federal appeals court reversed that decision, finding that the law’s definition of museum does not extend to the memorial Thorpe’s wife intended as his final resting place.
For Anna Marie Fitzpatrick news of the decision brought a wave of relief.
“It means he’ll be left alone and he can rest in peace like he has rested there for the last 60 some years,” said Fitzpatrick, who organizes the town’s celebration of Thorpe’s birthday each May.
The town has maintained the remains are rightfully interred and give proper respect.
Thorpe was one of the 20th century’s greatest athletes, winning Olympic gold in decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Games before turning to professional baseball and football.
He died in 1953 at age 64 after suffering a heart attack.