Concussing Jim Thorpe's Life: Pennsylvania's State of Denial

Originally posted on October 26, 2013 at:

Planning to watch a game today? Figuring our your fantasy roster online? Weekends with football are as American as it gets and as surely as cooler weather arrives and leaves turn, we turn as a family to playing and watching games. On this last weekend before the month of Thanksgiving, take a moment and give thanks to Jim Thorpe before giving thanks to the game you love. Widely believed to be one of the greatest modern athletes, he was a driving force behind the spread and popularity of football as we know it. He died sixty years ago this year and is fondly remembered by many across the land.

Let's be clear about how big this man's legacy is. Thorpe won Olympic medals in pentathlon and decathlon, played professional football and baseball and basketball. He was the first president of the NFL. He was so robustly capable that he has been named by numerous people as the titleholder for greatest athlete of the twentieth century. He greets you at the football Hall Of Fame and is one of the reasons that your weekends are filled with friends and family to bond over pigskins. He should truly rest in peace.

If only a Pennsylvania town wasn't obsessed with preventing his body's return to his home state and his family. Looking into the life of Jim Thorpe, you'd think that there must be a majestic connection between him and the town that has taken his name as its own in Eastern Pennsylvania. It is not the case. Indeed, having dubiously already erased the Native American name that graced it (to say nothing of its equally suspect history as a site of one of the Molly Maguire trials), this town consciously remarketed itself with a faux connection to Thorpe and gained access to his body from a widow motivated by money more than memorial.

In 2010, Jim's son Jack sued for the return of his remains to tribal homelands under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Dying before the lawsuit was completed, his own children continued the case and were joined by the Sac and Fox Nationin the cause. This year, Judge Caputo wrote a summary judgment agreeing with the plaintiffs. Disgustingly, there is resistance in the town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania to comply with the verdict (to say nothing of the IOC being willing to play ball with the hatefest of Sochi but not to recognize Thorpe).

This is hardly the only case of remains being held for entertainment against the wishes of disempowered peoples. The history of museums holding on to remains for exhibition is astonishing to read about. There has been steady progress made around the world to relinquish these remains to families and peoples they belong to as part of their heritage and as theirs to honor. Apparently the town of Jim Thorpe, PA hasn't been satisfied to erase theLenape origins of their town toponym, take the bones of someone with nothing to do with the town against the wishes of most of his family, but is now fighting a judges ruling ordering the town to return the remains.

What is the issue here? Wouldn't it be better to acknowledge the wrongs of history and to return the remains of one of the greatest athletes of the twentieth century to his family and his people? What would happen if we did that as a society? If Jim Thorpe, PA were to walk back into its history of Mauch Chunk and to embrace all of its past to move more equally into the future? What would happen if the nation did such as a whole. Is it possible to redeem ourselves after the horrors of Mankato? We'd certainly return Geronimo's remains to the Bedonkohe Apache rather than leave them in Fort Sill. We'd surely not have a football team in our nation's capital called the Redskins. And we'd give Jim Thorpe's body back to his family and his people. There's an awful lot of work to do to secure universal access to universal human rights. Changing the name of a team? Giving back bones to a family? Easy. If Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania has any respect for Jim Thorpe, this should be done yesterday. Call your representative in Congress and register your concern that Thorpe's remains should be given rest with his family and his people. It's your Congress. Use your voice. But these remains belong with Jim Thorpe's family, not a town who used him to market and to ironically erase their own Native American past.