Jim Thorpe. One of the greatest athletes of the 20th century – if not the greatest. After winning two gold medals at the 1912 Olympics, Sweden’s King Gustav V reportedly told him, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”
Thorpe’s response? “Thanks.”
Thorpe was a member of Oklahoma’s Sac and Fox tribe. His Sauk name meant “Bright Path.” He was born in 1887 near Prague, 20 years before Oklahoma became a state. Kate Buford, who wrote the biography Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe, says the first two decades of Thorpe’s life were a turbulent period of pre-statehood history.
“He grew up just as the allotment system went in, the land runs begin. He grows up in a period of enormous cultural change and tumult right around Shawnee and Prague and Oklahoma City,” Buford said.
As a boy, Thorpe hunted and fished with his father. He could track, shoot, and trap at a young age, and never lost his love for the outdoors and hunting prey.
“He would always disappoint sports reporters when they would say, ‘Hey Jim, what was your favorite sport?’ Expecting to hear, ‘Oh, running for this touchdown,’ or ‘Doing the 1500 meters in 1912 in Stockholm.’,” Buford said. “And he would just say, ‘Hunting and fishing.’ And that’s where he began in Oklahoma with his father. And I think that’s always where he wanted to come back.”
Thorpe went to an Indian school in Stroud, but he ran away a lot. So his father to put him in a boarding school in Kansas. After his mother’s death, he left school and worked on a horse ranch. He eventually ended up at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
At Carlisle, Thorpe’s prowess took off. He joined the track and field team, where he was spectacular. But he didn’t stop there. He played baseball, boxing and lacrosse. He took up ballroom dancing.
“As soon as he had started being an athlete, American athletes were pressured to specialize. He didn’t have to do that. He could try everything, because again, it was brand-new,” Buford said.
He made a name for himself on Glenn “Pop” Warner’s football team. He was big and fast and could play multiple positions – he was even the team’s kicker. His speed and size propelled Carlisle over squads from Harvard and, later, an Army team that featured a young Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In 1912, Thorpe went to Sweden to compete in the Olympics. He won gold. Twice.
“He astonished the world at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm by winning by huge margins both the decathlon and the pentathlon - the ultimate tests of the complete athlete,” Buford said.
That’s when the Swedish king proclaimed he was the greatest athlete in the world. Linda Frick, the manager of the Jim Thorpe Home in Yale, called it a remarkable achievement.
“It was the first year they’d been offered. And he entered them both, and he won them both,” Frick said. “And after he did that they split them up, and said they would never let one man enter both of them again because they were just too grueling.”
Frick says that made Jim Thorpe a hero. It didn’t matter if he was an Indian.
“I think after he won the Olympics, nobody cared,” Frick said. “They give him ticker tape parades, and just poured it on over him after he won in the Olympics.”
But controversy soon found him. Thorpe had played professional baseball in North Carolina before he competed in the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee stripped Thorpe of this gold medals for violating amateurism rules. His accomplishments were wiped from the record books. The Olympic committee eventually presented duplicate medals to his family in the 1980s.
With his amateur status revoked, he immediately received offers to play professional sports. Major League Baseball’s New York Giants signed Thorpe for the 1913 season. Thorpe didn't flourish as a baseball hitter during his first couple of years. But in 1919, he hit his stride with the Boston Braves and ended up hitting .327 on the year.
But he continued to excel on the gridiron. He played and coached for the Canton Bulldogs for several years and was the president of the American Professional Football Association – the precursor to the NFL. Thorpe was a draw for the Bulldogs, and drastically improved attendance. When the Bulldogs joined the NFL in 1920, he was on the list that became known as the first All-NFL team. He played professional football until he retired at age 41. He’s now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“When sports reporters would get together and ask, ‘Who’s the greatest athlete of all?’ they compared any newcomer to Jim Thorpe,” Buford said. “People have said Deion Sanders, often even Jim Brown. Jackie Robinson was a good multi-sport athlete. But no one really has excelled in all of these sports - baseball, football, track and field – to the extent that Jim Thorpe did.”
The 1920s were a Golden Age of American sports. Football and basketball – even the modern Olympics – were still their infancy. Agents, marketing and publicity all became part of the games. Athletes like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey emerged and became larger-than-life figures.
“He just misses that, but he becomes this archetype of the great athlete who then has to figure out how he’s going to live the rest of his life,” Buford said.
After sports, Thorpe had a hard time making ends meet and struggled with alcohol. He married three times and had eight kids.
“He tried everything. He dug ditches. He called dances. He did just whatever it took to make money. He had gone through the Depression, and he was flat broke,” Frick said. “It’s really kind of a sad story. He ended up broke. That’s why the State of Oklahoma would’ve buried him.”
Jim Thorpe’s family life was often surrounded by tragedy. His twin brother died at age nine. Both his mother and father died when he was young. His own first son died as a child.
Buford says the difficulties of his life, compared with his great exploits, make for an almost operatic story – a rural Native American kid from Oklahoma who conquers the athletic world, but struggles to make ends meet as he ages.
“People assumed that after the triumphs of 1912, and after the professional football career in Canton, Ohio, that he was just one long slide – that his life sort-of went to pot,” Buford said. “In fact, he had a remarkable life after that.”
Sandra Massey, the historic preservationist with the Sac and Fox Nation, says Thorpe’s greatest accomplishment was never losing his sense of tribal identity.
“He was working for the extras, making sure that anybody playing a Native American was actually a Native American, because you see these old Westerns and you see how awful they are,” Massey said. “He noticed there was an injustice in that so he was working to fix that.”
And he helped ensure Native American extras received the same pay as their white peers.
“He at this time was living in southern California, had this whole other life in Hollywood,” Buford said. “He appeared in at least 70 movies. Maybe double that. Some of the records of those films are gone. So his life really was centered in southern California.”
Bufurd says Thorpe was constantly called back to Oklahoma, particularly to represent Native American tribes and their interests in the state.
“Several Oklahomans kept trying to find him jobs, or positions in Oklahoma to bring him home,” Buford said. “And he would flirt with the idea, but then would be lured back to Hollywood.”
Jim Thorpe died of a heart attack in his mobile home in California in 1953. He was 64 years old.
An Unpredictable Turn
Oklahoma lawmakers appropriated money for a monument in Shawnee that would rival the one commemorating Will Rogers in Claremore. But when Gov. Johnston Murray ran into a deficit, he canceled the appropriation.
“Initially he was going to be buried in Oklahoma. And his third wife Patsy knew that,” Buford said. “So her initial impulse, her initial wish, was to honor his desire to be buried in Oklahoma with an appropriate memorial. But that did not work out.”
Massey said Jim Thorpe told his sons and brothers that he wanted to be buried in the traditional Sac and Fox way in Oklahoma. Under normal circumstances, the Sac and Fox bury their dead four days after death. In Thorpe’s case, his body didn’t arrive in Oklahoma until 13 days after he died because his California friends needed to raise money to send him home.
“When he actually came here, it was ready. They were able to take him right to his funeral,” Massey said. “She [Patricia Thorpe] had nothing to do with any of this until the night before, and then the next day. So that night before is when she came and stole him.”
The night before he was buried, his third wife Patricia came to Shawnee and took the body. Some say she arrived with a highway patrol trooper, maybe two. She came in and took the body mid-ceremony. Thorpe didn’t have a will. He made his intentions known that he wanted to be buried in Oklahoma, but he never wrote it down. His third wife was in control of his estate, and he wasn’t buried for over a year. His widow kept him in cold storage in Shawnee and later Tulsa while she was shopping him around to find the highest bidder.
Enter Mauch Chunk And East Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania
Times were tough in these two little coal mining boroughs. They had no real industry, they were considering consolidation, and they needed a way to attract business and tourism dollars. For the past several years, the town had been collecting a five cent-per-week tax from citizens for an economic development project. When Patricia Thorpe found Mauch Chunk, the little town had $30,000 in nickels.
She struck a deal with the town. Jim Thorpe would be buried there, and the town would rename itself Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Thorpe’s sons say she did it for money. Massey believes this too, but they don’t have any records that any money was exchanged for Thorpe’s body, though Mauch Chunk paid $500 to ship him to the town. People in Pennsylvania say Patricia Thorpe promised to use her connections with the NFL to bring the Pro Football Hall of Fame to the little town. That didn’t happen. It instead went to Canton, Ohio. Patsy’s other promises rang hollow, too, like a 500-bed hospital, a museum and an Olympic stadium.
Jim Thorpe never set foot in the town that bears his name while he was alive.
Unpacking The Native American Graves Protection And Repatriation Act
In 2010, Jim Thorpe’s son, Jack, sued the Pennsylvania borough to repatriate his father’s remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. Congress passed the law in 1990. It allows tribes to claim Native Americans remains or funerary objects that are held in museums.
“The Sac and Fox believe that the soul walks the earth until it’s buried in its own ground. And that’s a terrible thing for the boys to have to think,” Frick said. “So for their sakes, I would like the body put back in Oklahoma.”
Jack Thorpe died a year later and two other sons, Richard and William, took over the suit. In 2013 a judge ruled on the side of the sons, saying the town and its mausoleum amounted to a museum. A year later, an appeals court panel reversed the decision, allowing the body to stay in Pennsylvania. The sons are now seeking an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.
“After NAGPRA passed, Jack came up and asked me, didn’t I think NAGPRA could apply?” Massey said.
Taiawagi Helton, a professor of environmental, property, and Native American law at the University of Oklahoma, says when NAGRPA passed 25 years ago, the Smithsonian Institution housed about 18,500 remains of Native people from North America.
“When you look at the remains of other demographic groups, like Revolutionary War soldiers or pilgrims or Civil War soldiers or colonists, they were quickly studied and then reinterred when they were dug up,” Helton said. “But Native American remains were, for the most part, studied and then put on shelves and never returned to the ground. And that was profoundly troubling to a lot of Native people.”
The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – the court that decided that Thorpe’s remains would stay in Pennsylvania – agreed NAGPRA covered this situation. But they didn’t think this was Congress’s intention when they passed the law. The judges viewed this as a family dispute – the widow who interred him in Pennsylvania and some grandchildren who want him to stay there, against the surviving sons. The Third Circuit judges didn’t think Congress intended for NAGPRA to be a tool for solving family disputes, so they invoked a really rare doctrine known as the absurdity doctrine.
“The absurdity doctrine basically says that the law won't allow, or courts shouldn't allow the law to lead to absurd results. It's more often used when the statutory language isn't quite clear or is a little bit ambiguous,” Helton said. “Where I disagree with the court here is they seem to think that it's absurd that the literal reading of the statute would require that these bones be returned to his lineal descendants. And although it's atypical because it involves a family dispute and his wife was legally designated to be the administratrix of his estate, it's still troubling that the court would invoke absurdity in over to overcome a plain and literal meaning.”
Lindsay Robertson, the faculty director at OU’s Center for the Study of American Indian Law and Policy, also disagrees with the Third Circuit’s decision. He says, yes, the family may have disagreed over the location of Thorpe’s remains, but that isn’t the point.
“This really is a situation that arose from the attempt of a pair of Pennsylvania boroughs to establish what amounts to a tourist attraction in a remote, mountainous part of Pennsylvania, a means of drawing people to come in, to stay in local hotels, to spend money in local restaurants so that they could visit the grave of the greatest athlete in history,” Robertson said. “They paid money for that. They essentially bought Jim Thorpe's remains and put them on display. Now, they're in a mausoleum, they're not mounted in a glass display case, but it's not clear to me that that makes any difference under NAGPRA.”
For now, the final resting place of Jim Thorpe’s remains hinge on whether or not the U.S. Supreme Court chooses to take up the case. In 1953, Jim Thorpe would have been buried in a rural family cemetery near Shawnee. Now, if his body comes back to Sac and Fox land, his ultimate burial place is still up in the air. Massey says he could be buried in one place, and a memorial erected elsewhere.
“Wherever he goes, we would have to protect him because his fame has lasted all this time. It’s not just burying one of our tribal members with his family. Now we have to think, is he going to be safe where we put him?” Massey said.
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