A federal judge ruled yesterday that Jim Thorpe's body, buried in the Carbon County town named for him, should be returned to his family.
Judge A. Richard Caputo, U.S. District Judge in the United States Middle District, Scranton, stated in his one-page order, "The borough of Jim Thorpe is a 'museum' under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and subject to the requirements of the Act, including those provisions governing repatriation requests."
The ruling comes nearly three years after a lawsuit was initiated by Thorpe's son, John Thorpe, who was later joined by his brothers, Richard Thorpe, and William Thorpe, and the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, seeking the return of the body of the athlete Jim Thorpe to Oklahoma.
Richard and William are the only two remaining sons of Jim Thorpe. John "Jack" Thorpe died in Shawnee, Oklahoma at the age of 73 on Feb. 22, 2011.
It was initially John who filed the lawsuit against the borough, then was later joined by his brother as well as the Sax and Fox Nations. John was a past chief of the Sac and Fox tribe.
Named defendants in the suit are the borough of Jim Thorpe, Michael Sofranko, Ronald Confer, John McGuire, Joseph Marzen, W. Todd Mason, Jeremy Melber, Justin Yaich, Joseph Krebs, Greg Strubinger, Kyle Sheckler, and Joanne Klitsch.
The borough is represented by Attorney William Schwab of Lehighton.
It has the right to appeal the ruling by Judge Caputo.
Representing the plaintiffs is Stephen R. Ward of Tulsa, Okla.
The Associated Press said the plaintiffs stated 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.
Ward told the AP 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.
Ward said the brothers are not seeking to have the town change its name.
Caputo wrote, "Given that Jim Thorpe's widow made an agreement with the municipalities to inter his body there in exchange for them naming their jointure Jim Thorpe, the result there may seem at odds with our common notions of commercial or contract law.
"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. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act recognizes the importance of compliance with Native American culture and tradition where dealing with the remains of one of Native American heritage, and this is a case which fits within the reach of this congressional purpose."
Jim Thorpe, a native Oklahoman, was born into the tribe.
He overcame humble roots to win the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics.
He died in California in 1953 at the age of 64.
In 1955, a deal was made with Thorpe's widow, Patricia Thorpe, and the towns of East Mauch Chunk and Mauch Chunk to name the town after the athlete. This deal included having Thorpe's body laid to rest in the newly named borough.
Thorpe became well-known during the 1912 Olympics in Sweden, when his track titles led to King Gustav V to declare, "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world." Thorpe, who was 24 at the time, replied, "Thanks, King."