SCRANTON, Pa. (CN) – A Pennsylvania borough named after the legendary superathlete Jim Thorpe failed to dismiss claims that it should release the remains of the Native American hero to his sons who want their father buried on his native reservation.
One of Thorpe’s sons, John, sued the Borough of Jim Thorpe and its officials in June 2010, claiming the town is keeping his father’s bones in a museum as a tourist attraction. After the lawsuit buckled in February, John filed an amended complaint three months later alongside two brothers and the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma.
The sons say Thorpe’s third wife had their father’s casket whisked away from an Native American memorial service in 1953, whereupon the remains were “shopped to several cities” and eventually acquired by a tiny eastern Pennsylvania mountain town hoping to draw tourists. Thorpe had allegedly never visited the community while he was alive.
Refusing to return the remains for burial in Thorpe’s tribal homeland in Oklahoma constitutes a violation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), according to the complaint.
But the borough says it is not a “museum” as defined by NAGPRA and that Thorpe’s wife had the right to inter her husband’s bones in a public shrine in the Boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, which were eventually consolidated and renamed Borough of Jim Thorpe.
Claiming that Thorpe’s wife loaned the athlete’s bones out, as opposed to selling them, the borough also disputed the notion of “possession” under NAGPRA.
U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo ruled last week that the Thorpes can proceed with their NAGPRA allegation, but again dismissed two constitutional claims with which he had taken issue in February.
Echoing his earlier opinion, Caputo said the borough should be considered a museum with respect to the lawsuit and that “whether the borough has a right of possession is a question of fact that is not properly considered on a motion to dismiss.”
Born around 1887 on Sac and Fox territory near Prague, Okla., Thorpe went on to become an Olympic track champion, professional baseball player and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. ESPN named Thorpe as the seventh greatest athlete of the 20th century.