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Two other sons join lawsuit to regain Jim Thorpe's body

Published May 11. 2011 05:00PM

Two sons of legendary Native American athlete Jim Thorpe, as well as his native tribe, have joined as plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against his namesake borough. The suit seeks to have Thorpe's remains disinterred from their resting place along Route 903 and moved to his tribal homeland in Oklahoma.

The move, the latest in a long-standing controversy over Thorpe's remains, essentially revives the lawsuit, filed U.S. District Court, Scranton, on June 24, 2010, by Jim Thorpe's son, John "Jack" Thorpe and his brothers, Richard and William Thorpe. Richard and William were not listed as plaintiffs in the original suit.

The brothers, and the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, joined the suit on May 2, just shy of three months after federal court Judge Judge A. Richard Caputo ruled that Jack Thorpe could not receive any monetary award from the suit and that for it to continue, his family members and the tribe would also have to join the legal action. The suit names as defendants the borough, council members John McGuire, Joseph Marzen, W. Todd Mason, Jeremy Melber, Justin Yaich, Joseph Krebs, Greg Strubinger, Kyle Sheckler and Joanne Klitsch, and mayors Michael Sofranko and Ronald Confer.

Jack Thorpe died on Feb. 22.

Jim Thorpe Area Sports Hall of Fame president Jack Kmetz said he is "rather disappointed. I thought that with Jack's unfortunate death ...(the matter would end). I think it's unfortunate. I don't know how much weight this will carry in the courts."

Kmetz said he hopes that "if it comes down to a judge's decision, that someone will come to this community to see how hard we have worked to honor this hero."

"If they want to make a comparison on burial sites, where Jack wanted to put him - it's a disgrace," Kmetz said. He said the grave site in Oklahoma is "filled with debris" and surrounded by a "rusted chain link fence."

"We have a beautiful burial site here in Jim Thorpe, with a bronze statue going up in two weeks. There is just no comparison," he said. "I just hope the leaders of our community continue to stand up and fight for what is ours. We have a contract. They don't have a lot of grounds."

Kmetz said Jim Thorpe's oldest grandson, Michael Koehler, opposes moving the late athlete's remains.

Jack Thorpe, in a June, 2010 interview with the TIMES NEWS, said that "I don't have any problems with the people in Jim Thorpe. 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."

Thorpe said the borough will be able to keep his father's namesake even if his remains are brought back to Oklahoma.

"It's an honor to have a town named after my father," Thorpe said in that interview. "But his bones won't make or break the area as it is now."

Jack Thorpe and his brothers filed the suit in U.S. District Court, Scranton, contending that the borough had violated the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 by refusing to return his father's remains.

The law, according to the amended suit, provides Native American people with a "legal tool to help them prevent the exploitation and commercialization of the remains of their ancestors and elders."

Jim Thorpe was born on May 28, 1888 in Oklahoma Territory and was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation. When he died on March 28, 1953, his remains were taken to Shawnee, Oklahoma, to be buried near his birthplace.

But Thorpe's third wife, Patricia Askew, removed his casket from a traditional Sac and Fox memorial service in April, 1953, according to the suit.

"After being shopped to several cities, the great athlete's remains were offered to the leaders of two former coal mining communities, the Boroughs of East Mauch Chunk and Mauch Chunk, for inclusion in a public shrine under borough supervision intended to further the communities' economic development initiative. In 1954, residents of the two boroughs approved a consolidation under a new name, the Borough of Jim Thorpe," the suits says.

"The abrupt removal of Thorpe's remains from the memorial service, and the borough's acquisition of those remains, are viewed by the Sac and Fox people"as an injustice against their people and against American Indians," the suit says. The borough has "repeatedly refused" to return the remains, the suit says.

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