Penn Museum explores Jim Thorpe remains controversy

Jim Thorpe is remembered as one of the 20th century’s greatest athletes. He was an Olympic gold medalist for the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912 and played professional American football, baseball, and basketball.

What’s less well-known is the controversial story behind how a town in northeastern Pennsylvania came to bear Thorpe’s name. Upon Thorpe’s death in 1953, the remains of the Native American athlete, an enrolled member of the Sac and Fox Nation, were moved from the tribe’s location in Oklahoma to Pennsylvania.

On Thursday, Feb. 12 at 5:30 p.m., the Penn Cultural Heritage Center of the Penn Museum and the “Native American Voices” exhibition present a program that explores this complex and controversial history. First up will be a staged reading of the short play, “My Father’s Bones,” written by nationally renowned Native American writers and activists Suzan Shown Harjo and Mary Kathryn Nagle. The play recounts the ongoing struggle of Thorpe’s three sons to recover the remains of their father from the Borough of Jim Thorpe, Pa., for reburial with his relatives on Sac and Fox Nation land. This revision is staged by Philadelphia-based director Matt Pfeiffer.

The free program concludes with a panel discussion about repatriation and the use of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) as the legal basis to return Thorpe’s remains to his ancestral home. Panelists include Principal Chief George Thurman and Sandra Kaye Massey from the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma; John Echohawk, director of the Native American Rights Fund; Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Morningstar Institute; and Lucy Fowler Williams, associate curator and Sabloff Keeper of Collections at the Museum. Penn Cultural Heritage Center Director Richard Leventhal moderates.

“One of the big issues for many years had been, in broad context within the United States, the robbing of Native American graves and cemeteries,” Leventhal says. “In the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, there had been a large push to get Native American remains out of the ground [and] in the museum to study.”

NAGPRA was developed in the 1970s and passed in 1990, though Leventhal notes the act does not explicitly state that museums must return human remains and other associated materials to tribes. Instead, it specified that any institution that received federal funding must create an inventory of items and begin a dialogue with tribes.

Leventhal says at the time of Thorpe’s death, his wife, Patsy, put out a call for a place to honor her husband by changing its name to “Jim Thorpe” and creating a monument to the Olympian. The struggling boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk in Pennsylvania were looking for a way to attract business, so they merged and built a monument to Thorpe.

After years of attempts to convince the Borough on Jim Thorpe to permit the repatriation of Thorpe to his Sac and Fox homeland, his sons—former Chairman Jack Thorpe and Bill and Richard Thorpe—filed a lawsuit, along with the Sac and Fox Nation. The District Court that heard the case concluded that NAGPRA does apply to the Borough’s possession of Thorpe’s remains, but the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia overturned the lower court’s decision. There is a request pending that the Third Circuit reconsider the entire case.

Leventhal says discussions like these are important to raise awareness about the treatment of Native Americans, their communities, and remains.

“It is of great benefit for everyone to open up lines of communication to discuss these issues,” Leventhal says. “In general, we strongly believe NAGPRA does not decrease the knowledge of what we can learn from collections and materials, but will increase it long-term.”

The event will take place at the Penn Museum, 3260 South St. For those unable to attend, the play will be viewable online via HowlRound's livestream at To participate in the talk-back following the performance, use the Twitter hashtags #newplay, #MyFathersBones, and/or #JimThorpe and direct questions to @HowlRound.

Jim Thorpe