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The Lenape view Clan elder says every Lenape has own opinion on Jim Thorpe lawsuit

  • Reprinted with permission of Ben Hasty/Reading Eagle Elizabeth Belk at Berks County farmhouse she hopes to turn into a cultural center for Lenape Indians.
    Reprinted with permission of Ben Hasty/Reading Eagle Elizabeth Belk at Berks County farmhouse she hopes to turn into a cultural center for Lenape Indians.
Published January 15. 2011 09:00AM

The lawsuit requesting that the borough of Jim Thorpe repatriate the remains of the athlete Jim Thorpe to be reburied in his family plot in Oklahoma has sparked widespread interest, even prompting reaction from Native Americans.

"We were known as the grandfather tribe," said Elizabeth Belk, a clan elder and an assistant chief of the Turkey clan of the Lenni Lenape. "We would be called to broker peace between other tribes."

"Every Lenape is an individual with their own opinion," Belk said regarding the Thorpe lawsuit.

Jim Thorpe was married three times. The suit, filed in the name of Jack Thorpe, the youngest son of Jim Thorpe, is supported by his brothers. All the surviving brothers are children from Jim Thorpe's second marriage.

The children and grandchildren from Jim Thorpe's first marriage want his body to remain where it has rested for over half a century, in a mausoleum on the East side of the borough of Jim Thorpe. Several years ago, Jim Thorpe's daughter, Grace Thorpe, oversaw a ceremony where a Native American performed rites consecrating the grounds enclosing the Jim Thorpe mausoleum.

Jack Thorpe waited to file the suit until the last of the children of Jim Thorpe's first marriage had passed away. The children of the first and second marriages did not grow up together. After the divorce from his first wife, her children rarely saw Jim Thorpe.

According to Jim Thorpe Borough Council President John McGuire, before the lawsuit was filed, Jack Thorpe had never approached the borough for the return of his father's remains. Instead, a lawsuit has been filed that not only requests return of the remains of Jim Thorpe, but also contains terms that seek to earn substantial fees for the law firm if the suit is successful.

When asked about her thoughts on the law firm possibly instigating and profiting from the lawsuit, Belk replied, "That's nothing new historically."

When asked about Jim Thorpe's body being buried in Mauch Chunk, a town with a Lenape name, and on land that had once belonged to the Lenape, Belk replied, "Many non-Lenape have come into our territory-a wonderful territory with forest and waters. The Lenape people were well known to be friendly, cooperative and peaceful. We lost a lot of our land because of those wonderful characteristics.

"We accepted everyone. There is no word in the Lenape language for prejudice. We believe that we are related to every two-legged creature, every four-legged creature, and those that swim in the oceans, and fly in the skies. We accepted everybody. That included every race, color, and religion.

"If Jim Thorpe's body was meant to be there, then, Lenape people would not have a problem with it. The only problem would be if his family would want to take him back to where he was born and have a spiritual ceremony."

From her talks with other Lenape, Belk said, "The majority of Lenape people that I have spoken with over the past several years about this, would be that Jim Thorpe's body should reflect the wishes of his family. Whatever the wishes of the family are, we would certainly support that decision.

"We do not know what Jim Thorpe's wishes were regarding his burial, and it would be a good thing to have the families involved sit down and talk about the decision to be made. We don't know if the Sac and Fox traditional ceremonies were performed in the town of Jim Thorpe or not. We are told the ground was blessed. We don't know what that means. And again, we don't know the wishes of Mr. Thorpe himself.

"The town has been respectful and that is a very good thing. However, the decision should be made by Mr. Thorpe's entire family."

Belk noted that it is important that remains receive a traditional burial ceremony to insure that he would be able to "go across the heavens to the other world to make the circle complete.

"Native Americans feel that life is a circle," Belk said. "It is important to have specific ceremonies in which, when someone dies, ceremonies occur over a period of time. Each tribe is different. It can last anywhere from a 24-hour period to a two-week period. When the person is buried, usually in their finest clothing and with implements for travels, that they will be able to continue their journey. With the Lenape it is to the 12th level of the heavens to live with Creator."

Belk indicated that most Lenape support the Repatriation Act. The Repatriation Act is the legal tool being used to press the lawsuit to return Jim Thorpe's remains to Oklahoma. The Act seeks to return found remains of Native Americans to their ancestral tribe.

In 1954, in a somewhat macabre agreement, the remains of Jim Thorpe were offered by Jim Thorpe's third wife to the towns of Mauch and East Mauch Chunk if they would honor her husband by uniting as the borough of Jim Thorpe. The borough signed an agreement and has fulfilled its requirements.

In pre-colonial days, the Lenape homeland reached from the Southwestern tip of Connecticut down through the Eastern part of New York, Eastern Pennsylvania, all of New Jersey, and the tips of Delaware and northeastern Maryland, and they had been in this region for 12,000 years.

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