Jim Thorpe never stepped foot in the Pennsylvania town that was renamed after him. But his remains are buried there and how that happened is the subject of decades-long disputes with his Native American family.
Thorpe is still considered one of the greatest 20th century American athletes for his versatility as a football champion (his 97-yard touchdown is still legendary) and for winning Olympic gold medals in pentathlon and decathlon in 1912. So it’s not surprising that his name and his place in history had a certain appeal for a coal town called Mauch Chunk (derived from the Munsee Lenape language) that was in search of a broader, more appealing identity.
The athlete’s connection to the town between Allentown and Scranton is more an accident of commerce than of history, says native American writer Suzan Harjo, The township bought the athlete’s remains from his last wife, even though he was to be buried in Oklahoma.
Right in the middle of a traditional burial ceremony, “his third wife and a state trooper came in the door of the ceremonial room and then they took Jim Thorpe’s casket and his body and put it in a hearse and drove away,” said Harjo. “It took almost a year before she sold the body to this town in Pennsylvania.”
So he became a tourist attraction. Harjo sasy that is ” the very kind of thing we were trying to get rid of when doing the repatriation laws and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. We were trying to move away from those roadside attractions.”
To explore the issue of tribal kinship Harjo and her cowriter Mary Kathryn Nagle wrote “My Father’s Bone” and decided to use the model of Thornton Wilder’s play ” Our Town” to tell Thorpe’s story. It’s set in a cemetery and a narrator tells the audience who’s buried there.
“In this case” said Harjo, “it’s one of Jim Thorpe’s sons, Jack who went on to be chief of the Sac and Fox nation, and started his lawsuit and passed on. In the play he names all his relatives and says the only one who is not here is dad.”
The short play, is meant to set a mood to explore the question ” who should have the final say of where a person is buried and who really gets to decide?”
Thorpe was a member of the Sac and Fox tribe in Oklahoma, as a teen he ended up in Carlisle , Pennsylvania at the first federal Indian boarding school in the country. It was there he honed his athletic skills but he never lost contact with his tribal roots. Members of Thorpe Sac and Fox family say he wanted to be buried in Oklahoma, but Thorpe left no written will and that allowed his wife to send his body to Pennsylvania.
The dispute over where his bones should really be, has been pitting native family members against the town’s interests. Last year the town earned the right in a Philadelphia court to keep the athlete’s body. Town officials did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
What’s at issue here goes beyond this case, says Richard Leventhal, executive director of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the Penn Museum. He said it’s about honoring and preserving cultural patrimonies.
“I think we are really thinking of human rights here, not just an individual and a family we are thinking in a broad frame of human rights and the ability of communities to identify how they feel. They should be able to perform rituals, they should be able to identify themselves and how they present themselves to the world. In the U.S. one of the communities that have the biggest difficulties have been the Native American communities”
The play “My Father’s Bones” and a discussion on issues of identity and repatriation are part of a broader panel discussion at Penn Museum, that will take place this afternoon at 5:30.
The panel is a component of the Museum’s multiyear, multimedia exhibition: “Native American Voices: The People. Here and Now”