The campaign to bring the remains of legendary Native athlete Jim Thorpe home is gathering support after lawyers representing Thorpe’s two remaining sons, Bill and Richard Thorpe, along with the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, filed a writ of certiorari to petition the Court to hear their case after losing in U.S Appeals Court last October.
A press conference was held in Oklahoma City June 3 to announce the launch of the Bring Jim Thorpe Home campaign, calling for the remains of sports legend and Olympic champion to be removed from the Borough of Jim Thorpe in Pennsylvania and returned to his tribal homelands in Oklahoma. The sons, the tribe and their legal team have alleged that after Thorpe’s death in 1953, his estranged non-Indian wife wrongly interrupted his tribal burial ceremony in Oklahoma and removed his body with the help of police officers.
“This case has broad appeal,” Steve Ward, who is representing the Thorpe family and the Sac and Fox tribe, told ICTMN. “Repatriation of these remains was not a certainty, although I believe we have a very strong argument that it’s the appropriate and right thing to do here.
“I’m very confident that we have the right position under the statutes, and the exercise of religious freedoms,” said Ward. “I believe the [Supreme Court] justices will see the importance of this case.”
Since the announcement last month to petition the Court to hear the case, and the launch of the campaign, a slew of groups have come forward to support the Thorpe family and the tribe: the Native American Rights Fund (NARF); former members, and a current member of Congress; religious organizations, and preeminent law professors.
Filing amicus briefs, these groups have petitioned for the return of Thorpe under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a law that was passed in 1990 which in part says “institutions receiving federal funds must return the remains and sacred objects of Native Americans to their descendants and tribes.”
“NAGPRA is one of the most critical pieces of Native American human rights legislation ever passed by Congress,” said former U.S. Senator and Congressman Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who was one of the original sponsors of NAGPRA and who signed the amicus brief along with former member of Congress Bill Richardson (D-NM), and one current member, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. “It protects that which is most sacred to all of humanity; the right to be buried in accordance with our own religion and under the same soil as your relatives.”
In 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled that, NAGPRA did apply to the Borough of Jim Thorpe. The Borough appealed, and on October 23, 2014, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that NAGPRA cannot be used to compel a repatriation of Thorpe to his homelands.
One of the troubling aspects of the third circuit court’s ruling is their reference to the “absurdity doctrine.” The three-member panel invoked this rarely-applied legal theory to overturn the district court’s decision. According to critics, the appeals court ruling ignored the basic purpose of NAGPRA.“The third circuit’s refusal to enforce the plain language of the statute is very concerning,” said Nighthorse Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne nation. “Since when does a court get to decide that someone’s religious beliefs are absurd?”
Stephanie Barclay, counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a written statement to ICTMN. “No American’s faith should be mocked by our courts. Jim Thorpe said he wanted to be buried with his family and his tribe, and that should have been the end of it. Especially given the government’s history of mistreating Native Americans, particular care should be taken to protect their religious practices.”