Federal Judge rules Jim Thorpe's relatives can move forward with their claim against Borough of Jim Thorpe, Pa.

By Jon Campisi | Dec 2, 2011

To urban dwellers in Pennsylvania’s metropolitan locales, the name Jim Thorpe conjures up images of tranquility and scenic destination.

The mountain town in Carbon County, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Philadelphia, serves as a vacation spot for many city residents from eastern Pennsylvania and beyond.

But for relatives of the historic Jim Thorpe, a Native American activist and revered athlete who lived in the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Borough of Jim Thorpe has become a place of resentment.

Last week, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled that Thorpe’s relatives could move forward with their federal lawsuit that seeks to have town officials return Thorpe’s remains to the family, which wishes to bury his bones in his tribal homeland in Oklahoma.

The plaintiffs claim that in refusing to return the remains to the family, the borough is violating the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.

On Nov. 23, Judge A. Richard Caputo, of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, ruled that Thorpe’s sons could move forward with their claim, which seeks to have their father’s remains returned to the place where his ancestors resided.

John Thorpe, one of the sons, filed his original complaint in the summer of 2010. It contended that borough officials were keeping his father’s remains in their town as a way to attract tourists to an area that was renamed in his father’s honor.

Before that, Jim Thorpe, Pa. was known as Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk. The two towns were later consolidated into the Borough of Jim Thorpe.

In his ruling last week, Caputo stated that the plaintiffs could move forward with their claim under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

At the same time, the judge dismissed two constitutional claims, saying the plaintiffs failed to state a claim under the Equal Access to Justice Act and that they failed to state a section 1983 civil rights claim.

The judge also denied the borough’s motion to dismiss, and he granted the plaintiff’s motion for leave to amend, giving Thorpe’s relatives 21 days to amend their complaint and re-file.

One interesting aspect of the case had to do with the designation of the borough as a “museum.” In court papers, borough officials argued that the town was not considered a museum as defined in NAGPRA, and therefore they were entitled to continuing possessing Thorpe’s remains.

The judge, however, disagreed, ruling that the “Borough is a museum pursuant to the act.”

Furthermore, Caputo ruled that whether or not the borough has a “right of possession is a question of fact that is not properly considered on a motion to dismiss.”

“The amended complaint does not change the allegations or present new allegations that would affect my previous analysis on these issues,” the judge wrote. “Therefore, I will not revisit Defendants’ arguments and cannot grant their motions on these grounds.”

Thorpe was a member of the Sac and Fox Indian tribe and was a strong advocate for the rights of Native American people.

He was perhaps best known for being a competitive athlete well versed in a variety of sports.

Dubbed by some followers to be the “world’s greatest athlete,” or a “superathlete,” Thorpe, born in Oklahoma in 1887, was an Olympic winner who took part in everything from baseball to football to running.

According to an online biography, Thorpe was integral in helping to start the American Professional Football Association, the predecessor to today’s NFL.

Thorpe died of a heart attack in the spring of 1953.

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