Updated: April 19, 2013 7:17PM
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The two surviving children of sports great Jim Thorpe won a critical ruling Friday in federal court that could clear the way for his remains to be removed from the Pennsylvania town that bears his name and reinterred on American Indian land in Oklahoma.
U.S. District Judge Richard Caputo ruled in favor of sons Bill and Richard Thorpe and against Jim Thorpe borough in northeastern Pennsylvania, saying the town itself amounts to a museum under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The men’s lawyer, Stephen R. Ward of Tulsa, Okla., said they will now pursue the legal process to have their father, who won the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics, returned to Sac and Fox land in central Oklahoma.
Messages seeking comment from lawyers for the borough, and top borough officials, were not immediately returned. They could appeal Caputo’s decision.
Ward said the brothers were pleased with the decision.
“They and their brothers and other members of the family have wanted this and have worked for this for a long time,” he said. “They well remember how the wishes of the Indian members of the family were not respected concerning their father’s burial.”
After Jim Thorpe died in 1953 at age 64, his third wife made a deal with two merging towns in the Poconos, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, to have the new town named for him. His remains have been kept for the past six decades in a roadside memorial along the Lehigh River.
“The result here may seem at odds with our common notions of commercial or contract law,” Caputo wrote. “Congress, however, recognized larger and different concerns in such circumstances, namely, the sanctity of the Native American culture’s treatment of the remains of those of Native American ancestry. It did so against a history of exploitation of Native American artifacts and remains for commercial purposes.”
Ward said the brothers are not seeking to have the town change its name.
Thorpe played outfield for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves.
He also played football.
In 1929, at 42, Thorpe played his last pro football game for the Chicago Cardinals.