In this undated AP file photo, Jim Thorpe, left, is greeted by a group of American Indians from a nearby reservation at St. Petersburg, Fla. A son of Jim Thorpe is suing the Carbon County Seat that bears his father's name over the remains of the Native American often called the 20th Century's greatest athlete. (AP Photo/File)
After being interred in Carbon County for more than half a century, the body of American sports legend Jim Thorpe may soon find itself returned to Oklahoma.
Thorpe's son, Jack, filed a lawsuit with the Middle District Court of Pennsylvania early Thursday morning, claiming the borough had violated the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 by refusing to return his father's remains.
Hours later, the case was officially opened by the court, with subpoenas being distributed to members of the Jim Thorpe Borough Council, court officials said.
This lawsuit marks the culmination of a long-standing feud over the remains. Jack Thorpe has threatened legal action against the borough multiple times, most recently in November 2009. He claims, however, that the root of the problem stretches back to shortly after his father died in 1953.
"My stepmother was greedy in giving my father's remains away," Thorpe said. "They were married for only four years before his death and she had no right to make that decision on her own."
Patricia Askew, Thorpe's third wife, lacked the financial means to provide her husband with a proper burial after legislators in Oklahoma, Thorpe's birthplace, denied her. Officials from Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk agreed to unite the two towns under Thorpe's legacy in an attempt to lure tourism commerce to the ailing region.
Since then, Thorpe's body has lain in a mausoleum in the eponymous town's East Side. Jack Thorpe, however, refuses to rest until his father comes home.
"I don't have any problems with the people in Jim Thorpe," Thorpe said. "They're a great group of people and they've done some great things. We just want to return dad home to his proper burial site next to his own father."
Even if the body is returned, Thorpe promised that the town will be able to keep his father's namesake.
"It's an honor to have a town named after my father," Thorpe said, "but his bones won't make or break the area as it is now."
Thorpe, together with brothers William and Richard, filed the lawsuit after many years of planning and research. The brothers claim to have the full support of their tribe, the Sac and Fox Nation, and are prepared to do whatever it takes to secure their father's remains.
"Some people may not understand," Thorpe said. "They say 'he's been there so long, why not just leave him where he is?'"
Under the aforementioned Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, institutions receiving federal aid are obligated to return Native American remains and artifacts to their respective owners whenever they are requested.
"If your father was buried away from his family," Thorpe said, "would you be agreeable to the same thing?"
R. Travis Willingham, a member of the Sean W. Pickett and Associates law firm in Kansas City, Mo., is representing the family and feels strongly about the case.
"I've been following the situation over Jim Thorpe's remains for many years now, and it holds a great deal of interest for me," Willingham said. "I filed this lawsuit because I felt the family had a legitimate right to bring his body back to Oklahoma."
Michael Sofranko, Jim Thorpe's mayor, doesn't seem to share Willingham's opinions.
"The Thorpe family needs to consider what the residents of Mauch Chunk did 50 years ago for their father," he said. "They upheld their end of the bargain by extensively promoting the town and turning it into the attraction it is today. Now it's the family's turn to keep its end."
Sofranko believes that the final fate of Jim Thorpe's body rests in the hands of the town's citizens, claiming that as taxpayers, they "deserve to have their say in how this matter is pursued."