It’s been a century since Jim Thorpe won his Olympic medals, and half as long since he died. But in the town in Pennsylvania coal country that, for 50 years, has borne the name of the most celebrated Native American athlete ever, his birthday—which takes place today—is still as big as the Fourth of July.
In Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, cheerleaders practice a special routine down by the train station; an oversize birthday cake festooned with fondant medals is ceremonially sung over, sliced, and sold for $1 per piece; the high school track and cross-country teams (who are, of course, called the Olympians) carry a torch through town. And up on a hill, at Thorpe’s roadside memorial and grave site, a man named Don Wild Eagle in sunglasses, braids, a zebra-print tunic, and a great deal of fringe, conducts a ceremony in Thorpe’s honor.
Despite the festive atmosphere, at the tip of everyone’s tongue is the worry that this birthday bash could be the town’s last hurrah.
A federal judge has decided that Thorpe’s remains may be exhumed and returned to the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma for burial, and the town has scrambled to appeal. It’s the latest twist in a macabre tale that has pitted one generation of Thorpe’s descendants against another, and left this Carbon County town—reinvented since Thorpe’s burial as a tourist destination—clinging to its namesake, a point of civic pride and arguably its economic lifeblood.
John Thorpe, one of the grandsons, gestures at the unpretentious statues of Thorpe and the informative plaques and says he thinks the memorial is just right.
“My brother and I believe my grandfather is at peace, and we don’t want him to go anywhere.”
If Jim Thorpe is at peace, it’s been a long time coming.
In addition to medaling in the 1912 Olympic pentathlon and decathlon events, he played professional football, baseball, and basketball —a quintuple threat. King Gustav V of Sweden called him “the world’s greatest athlete,” and the title stuck. But his personal life was filled with tragedy: He was orphaned as a teenager and spent time at the Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School (probably the closest he ever got to visiting the town where he was buried). Later, his Olympic medals were stripped, and he struggled with alcoholism and poverty.
Like his life, Thorpe’s afterlife was fraught with turmoil from the start.
A biographer, Robert Wheeler, recounted the story: how Oklahoma Governor Johnston Murray had reneged on plans for a state-funded memorial, incurring the wrath of Thorpe’s third wife, Patricia, and how Patricia decided to find Thorpe accommodations elsewhere.
“The children were in the midst of a three-day Indian burial ritual for Jim Thorpe with the body laid out in an Indian burial lodge on the Sac and Fox reservation. Mrs. Thorpe arrived with state troopers in tow and demanded the body,” Wheeler wrote. His son now keeps a website advocating for Thorpe’s remains to be returned.
What happened next? A complaint filed by Thorpe’s sons John, Richard, and William puts it dryly: “After being shopped to several cities, the great athlete’s remains were offered to the leaders of two former coal mining communities, the boroughs of East Mauch Chunk and Mauch Chunk,” so long as the two struggling towns consolidated under the name Jim Thorpe. Patricia had been in Philadelphia trying to negotiate an agreement with the National Football League. She came across the story of the two struggling towns an hour and a half to the north, contacted them on a whim, and cut a deal.
The brothers sought relief under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a 1990 law under which thousands of sacred objects have been returned from museums to tribes. A federal judge agreed that Jim Thorpe had accepted federal funds and therefore was a museum covered by the act.
John Thorpe has traveled from his home in South Lake Tahoe, California, to show his support for the Jim Thorpe Birthday Celebration. He’s wearing a black, collared shirt with red and yellow ribbon trim and wraparound sunglasses, looking a lot like a DJ for hire, which he is. He grew up in New York City but has in recent years reconnected with Native culture.
In 2010, he went to a Sun Dance in Texas, a spiritual gathering where, among other things, men pierced themselves and attached buffalo skulls on strings to the piercings, dragging them along the ground until the piercings ripped free.
“They dance for four days and four nights without food and water, and on the third day of the sun dance the medicine man brought me into the sweat lodge with the dancers. And he informed me that my grandfather made contact with him, and he told him he’s at rest and he wants no more pain in his name,” he says.
For him, that settled the matter.
AnneMarie Fitzpatrick, who’s been an organizer of the event for 19 years, carries a flower arrangement to Thorpe’s grave. She’s wearing in a tucked-in T-shirt that says, “Athlete of the 20th Century”; she also sells the shirts in her store in town, Nature’s Trail, alongside an array of porcelain tchochkes, Phillie Phanatic dolls and dream catchers. (The athlete-of-the-century signage is everywhere, though of course such designations are subjective. ESPN’s SportCentury put Thorpe at No. 7, between Jessie Owens and Willie Mays.)
Fitzpatrick said it’s not about selling T-shirts for her: “We’re very proud to have our athlete of the century buried here, and the town named after him. There is no other town in the United States that is named Jim Thorpe. We’re pleased to honor him all these years, and we will continue to do that, God willing.”
John Thorpe is aware that Jim Thorpe (the town) may have transparent economic motives, but he worries that his uncles—who, he said, waited for his mother and aunts to die before filing suit—have more opaque ones.
“They want to put him by a casino in Oklahoma, and we really don’t want that to happen. He was very shy. He didn’t like to have a lot of attention drawn to himself. Putting him in front of a casino doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
He thinks the roadside shrine is the perfect quiet homage. And it’s true: Thorpe does not get a lot of attention here.
At 10 AM on the day of Thorpe’s birthday celebration (his actual birthday is said to be May 28, though no birth certificate has ever been located), the place is deserted. Then the crowd quickly gathers: the cross country team, two yellow school buses of competitors in the Carbon County Special Olympics, a procession of people in assorted Native garb, khaki shorts and high-waist, stonewash jeans. After a half hour of drumming, dancing, and a Don Wild Eagle’s salute to the Father sky, Grandmother Moon, “the two legs, the four legs, the six legs, and the millipede,” the place clears out again.
Fran Boyle, who lives near Jim Thorpe in Lansford, Pennsylvania, says it’s her first time attending the ceremony. “But I go past this place a lot, and you never see anyone here,” she said.
She doesn’t see the grave as a tourist draw. In fact, she didn’t even realize Thorpe’s body was buried there until the court battle made headlines in the local paper. “I personally think his body should be returned. They should stop fighting in court and do what’s right.”
Plus, she added, “I lost my husband and I have children—and I just can’t see his third wife having the final say on his burial—that’d just burn me up.”