By Michael RubinkamThe Pennsylvania town where famed athlete Jim Thorpe was laid to rest six decades ago asked a federal appeals court Monday to throw out a ruling that could clear the way for his remains to be moved to American Indian land in Oklahoma.
A federal district judge erred when he ruled the town of Jim Thorpe amounts to a museum under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the town's lawyers wrote in an appeal seeking to block the removal of the athlete's body.
Thorpe was a football, baseball and track star who won the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics. He died without a will in 1953 at age 64.
After Oklahoma's governor balked at the cost of a planned monument to the athlete, third wife Patricia had Thorpe's body removed in the midst of his funeral service and sent it to northeastern Pennsylvania, where she struck a deal with two merging towns — Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk — to build a memorial and name the new town after him. His remains are kept in a mausoleum surrounded by statues and interpretive signage.
Thorpe's surviving sons have been fighting to move the body to Sac and Fox land in the state where he was born. In April, U.S. District Judge Richard Caputo ruled in favor of Bill Thorpe, his brother Richard, and the Sac and Fox.
Lawyers for the town — a tourism hotspot in the Pocono Mountains — argued that Caputo misapplied a law that Congress intended to address the theft of American Indian remains from gravesites long ago.
“The intent of Congress was to return human remains of archaeological interest . not to disturb modern-day burial sites" of 20-century American Indians like Thorpe, the appeal said.
Stephen Ward, a lawyer for Thorpe's sons, said the law isn't as narrow as the town makes it out to be.
“This is broadly written civil rights legislation . adopted to address a number of problems, the overriding one being the lack of respect for Indian peoples' right to bury their own according to their desire," he said Monday, after the town's appeal was filed with the Philadelphia-based 3 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The appeal also said Caputo's ruling trampled on a valid contract between the town and Patricia Thorpe's estate and served to “negate this private family decision" about where he was to be buried.
“Here, a surviving spouse buried her husband in the manner she chose, as any other surviving widow would and should be able to do," the appeal said.
Thorpe's grandsons have sided with the town that bears his name and are expected to file legal arguments in the case soon.