Still lost in limbo

Will new Native American burial law bring Jim Thorpe and others home?

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Jim Thorpe was a multi-sport athlete, playing professional football and winning multiple Olympic medals.
Wikimedia Commons/U.S. National Archives and Records Admin.

When Olympic athlete and Native American football legend Jim Thorpe died in 1953, there wasn’t money in his bank account to send his body back to his native state of Oklahoma, where he wanted to be buried. He didn’t have his Olympic medals for the decathlon and pentathlon events he won, either. They’d been confiscated several months after the 1912 Olympic Games — during which the Swedish king had declared him the greatest athlete in the world — when word came out that he’d once been paid $2 to play a baseball game and was therefore disqualified as a professional athlete.

The medals were returned decades after his death, given to his children in 1982.

But what also happened after his death was that Jim Thorpe and his sons had something else taken from them that they’re still fighting to rectify decades later. A descendant of several tribes, Jim Thorpe had chosen to become a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, and he had told his children time and again that when he died, he wanted to be returned to Indian country in Oklahoma and be given a traditional burial ceremony before being interred in a cemetery he’d share with his father.

After he died, money was raised to bring Jim Thorpe back to Oklahoma, where his children and members of his nation met his body to prepare him for his journey out of this life. The traditional ceremony was underway when his estranged third wife, Patsy Thorpe, walked in with law enforcement officers. That anyone would interrupt was an idea so foreign that the tribal members present were frozen in surprise. They didn’t know how to respond as the officers carried Jim Thorpe’s casket away.

Patsy then undertook negotiations with bidders for his remains, and the highest bidder, it turned out, was a pair of slumping former coal mining towns in Pennsylvania, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, that had hopes of acquiring a tourist attraction and a little economic income. The towns united under the name the Borough of Jim Thorpe, and promised a “fitting tribute” to their namesake. There was talk of stadiums, museums and hospitals to bear the athlete’s name, and perhaps even the Football Hall of Fame, none of which came to fruition.

In the end, Jim Thorpe was laid to rest in a small, quiet park on the eastern edge of the Borough, in a mausoleum of red stone engraved with images of the athlete that’s now accompanied by statues of him throwing a discus and running with a football clutched to his ribs.

Since 2010, three of Jim Thorpe’s sons, John “Jack”, William and Richard, have been embroiled in a court battle with the Borough that bears their father’s name to see their father’s remains returned to Oklahoma where his burial ceremony could be completed. On June 3, their lawyer filed paperwork asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case. If the court takes it, it may be the first ruling on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the law invoked by Jim Thorpe’s sons. If the current court ruling is allowed to stand, the Native American Rights Fund cautions it may create exemptions that undermine the law’s efficacy.

An Oklahoma runaway becomes a professional athlete

Jim Thorpe was born to parents who were both half-white and half-Native American in a one-room cabin on 160 acres in Oklahoman Sac and Fox territory. He was given the Native American name “Wa Ha Thuk” meaning “The Bright Path the Lightning Makes as It Goes Across the Sky.” He had a twin brother, Charlie, and both boys were sent at age 6, as was mandatory, to the Sac and Fox Indian Agency School in Stroud, Okla., 23 miles from home.

“When they got there, they couldn’t come home. They didn’t come home for anything — not summer weekends, holidays or anything,” says Linda Frick, manager of Jim Thorpe House in Yale, Okla. She’s been through news articles and letters written to and by Jim Thorpe in an effort to get to know the man whose house she has guided tours through since 2008. “It was trying to make them more white, and it actually was fairly brutal. They were pretty rough on the kids.”

Even at that young age, Jim Thorpe could manage by himself in the woods. He regularly ran away, the first time jumping off the wagon his father had pulled up the school’s front door, running right out the back door and beating his father home, Frick says, “and for that, he got the razor strap.”

So Jim Thorpe, 9 years old, was off in the woods by himself when small pox swept through the school, and his brother Charlie got pneumonia and died.

“Some of the things that he had said about it later on, you knew that it really bothered him,” Frick says. “He felt like the reason he had so much ability was that he was carrying the strength for him and his brother too.”

Jim Thorpe’s father sent him to schools farther and farther away, from Stroud to one in Lawrence, Kan., where Jim discovered baseball, and then finally to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Penn.

“His father thought if he could get him to go to Kansas, it would be too far for him to run away,” Frick says. “But got news that his mother was ill with blood poisoning from childbirth. … He asked for permission to go home to check on his mother, and they denied it. He walked almost 300 miles to get home that time.”

She died, and shortly after his father convinced him to enroll at Carlisle, his father was in a hunting accident and died as well.

“Jim didn’t really have any place to run off to after that,” Frick says.

His father sent him to the Carlisle Indian School to learn a trade, but Carlisle was the birthing ground for American football as we know it, and Jim Thorpe was there as Carlisle football coach Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner led the charge to make or break the rules on the way to creating America’s iconic game.

Jim Thorpe was instrumental in leading the football team to wins against college teams from the U.S. Army and Navy, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Pennsylvania and Nebraska.

Pop Warner didn’t really want him to play football, Frick says, he wanted him to play track and field, and he was afraid he would get hurt in a game at that point still played mostly without rules or pads.

“But that was Jim’s first love, and he had a football someone had made him from Lawrence, Kan., there at the Indian school, and it was leather stuffed with rags and he just wouldn’t have it any other way,” Frick says. “He was studying to be a tailor while he was at school, but of course we all know that didn’t happen.”

As a professional football player between 1915 and 1928, he played for the Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, Oorang Indians, Rock Island Independents, New York Giants and Chicago Cardinals. He played for the Bulldogs for $250 a game, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1963.

“While Thorpe’s exploits tend to be exaggerated with the passing years, there is no question he was superb in every way,” his Pro Football Hall of Fame biography reads. “He could run with speed as well as bruising power. He could pass and catch passes with the best, punt long distances and kick field goals either by drop kick or placekick.

“Often, he would demonstrate his kicking prowess during halftime by placekicking field goals from the 50-yard line, then turning and dropkicking through the opposite goal post. He blocked with authority and, on defense, was a bone-jarring tackler.”

He eventually competed in 20 different sports, including baseball, which he played professionally in the major leagues for six seasons, figure skating, lacrosse, handball, tennis, boxing and he even won an intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship in 1912. He also earned gold medals for the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Olympics.

He moved to Yale, current population about 1,300, in 1917, with his first wife, Iva, who he’d met at Carlisle. They had one small child and another on the way and wanted to be closer to her family and were also only roughly 30 miles away from the town where he’d grown up.

Their two-bedroom house was a Montgomery Ward home, ordered out of a catalog in 1915. The Thorpe family was second to own the house, equipped for the time with all the modern amenities of cold running water, electricity and sewer and gas lines. It had a large front porch and screened back porch that, until recently, looked out onto open space where Jim Thorpe used to hunt raccoons, squirrels and rabbits with an airedale bred by the founder of the Oorang Indians football team.

“The Indian guys, when they hunted they would run with the dogs. Most of your regular people that weren’t quite that talented would just listen to the dogs run and when they treed, they’d go to them,” Frick says. “But Jim actually would run with the dogs.”

Next door is a cabin that is much like the one Jim was born in and lived in until he was 6.

The Oklahoma Historical Society bought the house in 1968 and restored it, and it’s now frequented by tourists and school groups. His first wife, Iva, came back in 1970 and drew the layout and furniture for each room “down to the spindles,” Frick says, and then she helped to fill them with personal effects she had saved — clothing, their daughters’ dolls, the quilt handmade by nuns that they bought in France on their round-the-world honeymoon trip, her purses, the suitcase Jim took on tour and family photos that show Jim Thorpe proudly holding his first son, Jim Junior, who died in that house when he was 3 years old.

Jim Thorpe was often on the road at that point, playing for professional football, baseball and basketball teams. Just a few years ago, someone unearthed a ticket to a Jim Thorpe basketball team game; that there ever was such a team had long been forgotten. He coached, too, the Oorang Indians out of Ohio. The team didn’t have a home field, so they were on the road all the time, Frick says, and if the team fell behind in a game, Jim Thorpe would suit up and play with them.

Through the Great Depression and the years that followed, he did whatever had to be done to make money, and it wasn’t always sports.

“He dug ditches, acted in Hollywood, was in the Merchant Marine, called dances — just anything he could do to make money, he did,” she says. “The reason he moved so much around was because he was following the ball playing, and then of course he did speeches, if somebody wanted him to give a talk, and he made a little money off that, and he did Indian powwows.”

Jim Thorpe married three times, and had eight children, four each to his first two wives, and none with his third, Patricia. His first marriage, to Iva, with whom he had Jim Jr., Gail, Charlotte, and Grace, became troubled after Jim Jr.’s death, and ended in divorce, the Shawnee, Okla. News-Star reported. With his second wife Freda Kilpatrick, he had Carl Phillip, William, Richard and John “Jack” before their divorce in 1941.

He died in 1953 in Lomita, Calif., of a heart attack.

For a while, the Jim Thorpe House had his Olympic medals, taking them to the bank vault to store each evening and bringing them back in the morning. The State of Oklahoma, worried about security, took possession of them in 1993, and promptly lost them, Frick says, then figured out a night janitor had taken them, got them returned and handed them off to a museum for safer keeping.

“We still have Jim’s amateur medals, or at least what’s left of them. He let the children play with them and they lost a lot of them, and he was known to give them to friends,” Frick says. “He would have given you the shirt off his back if you wanted it.”

The first thing she points out on any tour of the home are the images that hang over the mantle of Black Hawk and Whirling Thunder, his son, Sac and Fox heroes from the Thunder Clan from which Jim Thorpe was descended. Black Hawk was his hero, she says.

As far as the case to bring him back to Oklahoma, she says, she wouldn’t argue against bringing him all the way back to Yale, but it seems important to at least bring him back to the Nation.

“The Sac and Fox believe that if the body doesn’t return to where it was formed, the soul walks the earth, and I can understand why his sons want his body back here. That would be a terrible thought to think he was still walking the earth,” Frick says.

An unfinished ceremony 

This memorial sits on the grave of Jim Thorpe in the Pennsylvania town that bears his name. Wikimedia Commons/Doug Kerr
This memorial sits on the grave of Jim Thorpe in the Pennsylvania town that bears his name.

The details of the Sac and Fox Nation burial ceremony are kept to tribal members, but it’s a multi-day event that includes an evening feast with some of the deceased’s favorite foods and some sacred foods before tribal members sit up with the body all night. Then there’s also a namereturning ceremony, in which an Indian name goes back to its clan, and a process by which the dead are given supplies and preparations to take on the journey, and then a ceremony in which they are sent on their way.

“What we do is we prepare them for the other side, and then there are other ceremonies after somebody dies that we do so that we send them on, but he didn’t even get to finish. He didn’t even get to finish his burial ceremony,” says Sandra Kaye Massey, director of historic preservation for the Sac and Fox Nation. That first evening meal was underway when Patsy arrived. “He’s kind of in limbo because we didn’t get to finish.”

The ceremony can’t be completed with his body in a crypt in Pennsylvania because part of it involves physically preparing him to go and giving him food from the feast.

Were his body returned to the Sac and Fox Nation, they’d finish that ceremony to release him from the inbetween no one expects to spend an eternity in.

“We’re thinking about him, what he wanted, how he believed,” Massey says. “I can’t imagine that it’s not going to be a great thing to have him back because that’s what he wanted and that’s what the law intended to happen.”

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was created to protect Native American burial sites and see those remains and cultural artifacts that were collected as curiosities and museum pieces returned to tribes. It applied to federal agencies and museums, but also to any entity that held Native American remains and received federal funding.

Native Americans have witnessed desecrations such as Geronimo’s skull being stolen from his grave — a still unresolved case — and an order issued in 1868 by the Surgeon General that Army field officers send Native American skeletons to him to study. An estimated 100,000 to 2 million deceased Native Americans were dug up from their graves for storage or display by government agencies, museums, universities and tourist attractions, according to the NAGPRA. The law created the first opportunity for Native Americans to demand that their remains and those of their ancestors be treated as the remains of people, and not artifacts. Human remains were recalled from the shelves of museums and universities and buried as close as possible to original burial grounds — back in the original gravesite, if that’s an option, according to Massey, who works on the Sac and Fox Nation’s repatriation cases.

For Jim Thorpe, she says, “It rights a great wrong, I think, because he did say that he wanted to be buried in a traditional way, and for especially the traditional community it’s like yes, you do deserve to be heard.”

Because NAGPRA didn’t exist when Thorpe died, the tribe had no recourse to make their wishes and rights heard over those of Jim Thorpe’s wife.

The latest court ruling in Jim Thorpe’s case, Massey argues, misunderstands their intent.

“They’re making it sound like we want to use this law to go dig people up and that’s not what we’re trying to do, and in this case, he did not get to finish his ceremony,” Massey says.

Jim Thorpe died without a will, but, she says, that’s how Sac and Fox Nation members are. She knows that her family would make sure her remains were given a burial in their tradition if she were to die. It goes without saying, and in that culture, often without writing down.

“He is a tribal member, he wanted a traditional Sac and Fox ceremony and that’s extremely important to those of us who believe in our traditional ways,” she says.

For 13 days after he died, his wife did nothing about it. Family members picked him up. Others arranged for the money for him to be returned to Oklahoma from where he’d died in California. No one heard from Patsy — they weren’t divorced, but separated. He’d told his children time and again he wanted to be buried in Oklahoma in the traditional way, and those preparations began.

Massey’s mother was at the ceremony when Patsy entered.

“Nobody has ever come in and interfered like this,” Massey says. “Nobody has ever taken somebody away in the middle, so everybody was in shock.”

The deal Patsy made 

When Patsy began the search for a place to bury her husband, the story goes, she heard of an economically sinking town in Pennsylvania and approached the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk. Local newspaperman Joe Boyle saw an opportunity to unify the towns, and there was a sense that the athlete’s potential grandiose tributes — the stadiums and museums — would draw tourists to a town losing its other industries. Boyle orchestrated the town’s end of the deal.

In the agreement signed in 1954 between Patricia Thorpe and the Boroughs of East Mauch Chunk and Mauch Chunk, Patsy’s right to decide the disposition of his remains was reasserted (and has since been echoed by the town’s legal representation). If Patsy was personally given any form of compensation, it’s not mentioned. The Borough promised to provide a “suitable site within the limits of said consolidated borough of ‘Jim Thorpe,’ Pennsylvania, for the internment of the remains of Jim Thorpe above ground and further agreed to provide for perpetual care thereof as a public shrine under borough supervision.”

They did. Statues were erected, and a stone mausoleum was built and etched with images of Thorpe as an athlete competing in various sports; all paid for by the town and its members.

The mausoleum is said to sit atop soil from his home state, Oklahoma, as well as ballfields that were the site of his athletic conquests and the Olympic Stadium in Stockholm. He was buried wearing a favorite white buckskin jacket and with a rosary.

He was interred there in 1957, four years after his death, over the objections of several of his eight children, as well as the Sac and Fox Nation. The agreement Patsy signed also stated that neither she nor any of her heirs would remove or cause to be removed Jim Thorpe’s body from the town, for as long as the towns were officially known and designated as Jim Thorpe.

The Borough of Jim Thorpe in northeastern Pennsylvania, an hour and a half outside Philadelphia, is home to about 5,000 people. The Borough’s economic landscape has been dominated at various turns by coal mining, railroads and textile industry. Now, tourism is the major draw. In recent years, it was second only to Niagara Falls for the number of tourists, Borough of Jim Thorpe Mayor Michael Sofranko says.

The Borough now celebrates its namesake’s May 28 birthday each year with a weekend of festivities. Jim Thorpe’s grandson, John Thorpe, who shares the Borough’s opinion that Jim Thorpe stay in the town, and Sitting Bull’s great-grandson, Ernie La Pointe, as well as other guests from the Carlisle Indian School, participated in a tribute at Jim Thorpe’s mausoleum this year.

Plenty of shop owners throughout town have told previous reporters that the grave isn’t a big draw for tourists — the recreation, the opera, even the shopping are. But few people frequent the athlete’s grave.

In a Sports Illustrated interview, a community leader was quoted as saying, “Mention Jim Thorpe and nobody knows what you’re talking about … [a]ll we got is a dead Indian.”

The lawsuit the Thorpe sons brought 

In June 2010, John “Jack” Thorpe, Jim Thorpe’s oldest living son, filed a court case to have his father’s remains brought home to Oklahoma. He once told the Borough: “The bones of my father will not make or break your town, it’s the people living here that will do that.” In his lawsuit, he argued that the Borough had failed to meet the requirements of NAGPRA and needed to return Jim Thorpe’s remains.

Jack’s name on the lawsuits was soon joined by his brothers William and Richard, as well as the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma. He’d been ill with cancer when he filed the case and died in February of the following year. His death came as a surprise, says Stephen Ward, the attorney representing the Thorpe sons.

Jack Thorpe hadn’t been alone in wanting to see his father’s remains returned to Oklahoma. It was a longstanding wish of the family and of the Sac and Fox Nation, says Ward, who has represented the Sac and Fox Nation since 2008. He’d heard about the frustrations over Jim Thorpe’s body being buried in Pennsylvania since before Jack Thorpe filed the case.

“I had not worked for the Sac and Fox Nation as its council for very long before people in the tribe impressed upon me about what a great injustice they believed had been committed here that the tribe didn’t have the legal tools to remedy,” he says. “So this was not something that just came along at a late date in 2010 with Jack’s lawsuit. It was something that had been a long time interest.”

The Nation signed on to the case at the same time William and Richard Thorpe did.

“To the Sac and Fox people who were close to the situation, it was just a really egregious example of a lack of respect for their religious beliefs and their tradition,” Ward says. “Almost everyone in the Thorpe family in 1953 was opposed to his body being shipped off to Pennsylvania to be a tourist attraction.”

And, of course, Jim Thorpe’s wishes weren’t respected, either.

Initially, a Pennsylvania district court ruled with Jack Thorpe. NAGPRA applied, Jim Thorpe might go home to Oklahoma, and the Borough could lose its namesake. The Borough appealed the decision to a higher court. The representative for the Borough argued that the Borough was honoring the legally secured rights of a widow to decide where her husband is buried, and the matter represented little more than a family dispute.

“The repatriation provisions of NAPGRA don’t apply to a body resting in a grave site where he’s been buried by his family or anyone else lawfully authorized to bury him,” said Daniel Wheeler, who represented Michael Koehler and John Thorpe, grandsons from first marriage who want their grandfather to stay in the Borough.

Based on that interpretation, anyone with Native American ancestry could be reclaimed by their descendants or tribe — Elvis Presley, who was part Cherokee, could be reclaimed from where he was buried in a museum in Graceland, he said. NAGPRA was going after bones in glass cases and museum drawers, he argued, not in graves.

“There’s no harm here. A man was buried by his family in a grave,” Wheeler said. “Why would Congress care? Why would they enact a statute to reach into that grave and get him?”

The panel of judges in Pennsylvania’s Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in the Borough’s favor in October, stating it was absurd to think this kind of family disagreement was what NAGPRA was intended to address. In his written opinion, the Chief Judge on the panel concluded that the literal application of NAGPRA in this incident would produce a “result demonstrably at odds with the intentions of its drafters.” The opinion adds that “the record is clear that plaintiffs delayed bringing this suit until certain of Thorpe’s survivors who favored his burial in the Borough died.” It was suggested that Jack Thorpe waited until his sister Charlotte had died to file the lawsuit to repatriate his father’s remains because she was, and her sons are, in favor of the remains staying in the Borough. Ward says it’s not that simple, and from what he’s heard, Charlotte in the end wanted her father to be buried where and how he had wanted to be buried.

The judge cited an amicus brief submitted by Jim Thorpe’s grandsons, Koehler and John Thorpe, in which they expressed their horror at the idea that a deceased person buried by his widow might later be dug up by subsequent generations and moved elsewhere to be re-buried per their wishes. NAGPRA was not intended to settle familial disputes, the opinion states and would be doing so here. And because he was never buried in Oklahoma, he can’t be “returned” to a final resting place there. The former towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk are where he was laid to rest by his widow, and where he should remain, the judge wrote.

The broader effects of ignoring one family’s protests 

The Native American Rights Fund, based in Boulder, and the National Congress of American Indians immediately began sounding the alarm against the latest court decision on Jim Thorpe’s case and the potential far-reaching effects the exemptions it creates to a basic human rights law of importance to 566 federally recognized Indian tribes and 6.4 million Native Americans, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians.

“The panel decided to basically ignore the statute, even though they thought it applied,” says Matt Campbell, with the Native Americans Rights Fund, which has entered an amicus brief into the case arguing for Jim Thorpe’s repatriation to Oklahoma. “That could potentially give courts in the future an opportunity to say ‘Well, this could lead to what we see as an absurd result, so we’re not going to apply it, even though it’s clear that the statute should apply in this instance.’ So it kind of opens the door for future courts to ignore the language of the statute, even though it’s clear it applies.”

The National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest national organization that represents and advocates for the interests of Native Americans, passed a resolution during their annual convention in 2014 to support the Thorpe brothers and the Sac and Fox Nation through the lawsuit. Their resolution argues, in part, that the Borough “purchased” Thorpe’s body to be displayed for tourism purposes, and contradicts the NAGPRA statute.

“The use of an Indian person’s remains as a tourist attraction is really within the core of the injustices that NAGPRA was intended to stop,” Ward says.

Among the amicus briefs to come in after their decision was one from Colorado’s former U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, one of the original sponsors of NAGPRA. In it, he stated that the precedent established by the decision creates categories that could be exempted from NAGPRA’s protections, and “nothing could be farther from Congress’s intent.”

In his an amicus brief, submitted in December in support of the Thorpe family’s appeal to repatriate Jim Thorpe’s remains, he states that the latest court decision threatens NAGPRA’s protections nationwide and undermines the work achieved by Congress through the passage of that law.

In instances when a NAGPRA claim is contested by the entities holding the remains or there’s a dispute over who receives them, there’s a process in place that allows for that discussion, and what the court is being asked to decide is if whether NAGPRA applies and those proceedings can begin. That administrative process could well end in Jim Thorpe’s remains staying exactly where they are, but the current court decision prevents that discussion from occurring among Thorpe’s descendants, the Sac and Fox Nation and the Borough.

“If left undisturbed, the opportunity to achieve a greater cultural understanding between an Indian Nation and local municipality will be lost,” Nighthorse Campbell writes.

There’s nothing absurd, as the court said, about the application of NAPGRA here, Campbell argues.

“One of Congress’s primary concerns underlying the enactment of NAGPRA was the devastation to Tribes caused by the disruption of traditional Native burial ceremonies,” Nighthorse Campbell writes. In the process part of drafting NAGPRA, Congress heard testimony explaining that when American Indians do not receive a proper burial, their spirits are not at rest, unreturned to their homeland. Congress expressed an intention of permitting Native American religious leaders to practices those ceremonies.

Campbell joined the Native American Rights Fund, the Thorpe brothers and Sac and Fox Nation in asking for a rehearing of the Third Circuit Court’s decision, but were denied, so the U.S. Supreme Court has been petitioned to hear the case. If three judges decide the case is of serious federal significance and public interest, the Supreme Court will hear the case. If not, the lower court’s decision will stand.

At one point before his death, Jack Thorpe seemed to make peace with the idea of his father remaining in Pennsylvania. In 2013, a letter surfaced that he’d written in 1990 to Joe Boyle, who orchestrated bringing Jim Thorpe’s body to Pennsylvania. In it, Jack describes his first visit to the Borough and a morning he’d spent at his father’s grave.

“I prayed to the four directions and over my father’s remains,” he wrote. “I sat down on the steps of the monument and asked for inner peace and guidance. … I felt that there was no conflict with my father’s being on the hillside.”

He described feeling the respect and love the townspeople had for his father, and how he saw that hillside, then, as a place his father would feel was a good and peaceful one. He asked to retract previous statements about wanting the remains of his father to be returned to Oklahoma.

“I now feel that the remains of Jim Thorpe are in a good place and that he is at peace,” Jack Thorpe wrote. “I think that if Dad were living today, he would smile, shake someone’s hand, pat another on the back and say, ‘This is a good place to be.’”

Neither of his brothers knew anything about that letter when it surfaced. Their lawyer, Ward, says that over the years, the family has gone through periods in which they were discouraged over whether the case would succeed, and when that letter was written, Congress had not yet enacted the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It’s possible Jack Thorpe just didn’t see any way of bringing his father’s body home.

“This is exactly what Indian people have experienced in history that Indian people’s remains and possessions and culture has just been used as a curiosity, as a tourist attraction, for non-Indians,” Ward says. “There’s a long history of this in the Sac and Fox Nation. The great warrior Black Hawk, after his death, his body was dug up and displayed in a museum for a long time. And this is the American Indian experience in history. And unfortunately it’s not gone. This is not ended.”