PHILADELPHIA -- A son of sports great Jim Thorpe, often called the greatest American athlete of the last century, sued the town that bears his father's name Thursday, demanding that it return his remains to Oklahoma under a federal law designed to give Native American artifacts back to their tribal homelands.
Jack Thorpe, 72, of Oklahoma, sued in federal court in Pennsylvania, saying he had waited until the last of his half-sisters died to avoid a family conflict over the lawsuit.
"The bones of my father does not make or break your town," Jack Thorpe, a past chief of the Sac and Fox tribe, said of the defendants, who include numerous current and former town officials. "I resent using my father as a tourist attraction."
His father, a native Oklahoman born into the tribe, overcame humble roots to win the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics. Jim Thorpe later earned enviable sums playing professional football and baseball, and somewhat less playing the Indian in B-list Hollywood movies.
Thorpe became well-known during the 1912 Olympics in Sweden, when his track titles led King Gustav V to declare, "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world." The 24-year-old Thorpe replied: "Thanks, King."
The medals were rescinded a year later over concerns Thorpe had played some semi-professional baseball. But the family had them restored posthumously in 1982.
After his sports career ended, Thorpe struggled financially before his March 1953 death in California at age 64.
In a bizarre deal months later to draw tourists, the merging towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, brokered a deal with Thorpe's ambitious third wife that renamed the community Jim Thorpe and brought his remains there, in a corner of the Pocono Mountains that he likely never saw.
Thorpe's three daughters long endorsed the arrangement, especially daughter Grace, a Native American activist who sometimes visited for the town's annual Jim Thorpe celebration. But Jack and his three brothers opposed it, believing their father belongs in sacred tribal burial land in Shawnee.
"Yes, I know that he was the greatest all-around athlete this country's ever produced," Jack Thorpe said. "He was also Native American, and he had his tribe and his family. ... So you've always had two different cultures butting heads."
Tucked in a steep valley on the western edge of the Poconos, the town of Jim Thorpe has been a popular tourist draw for decades, offering historic architecture, quaint shops, train excursions and outdoor recreation from whitewater rafting to guided fall foliage tours.
Defendant John McGuire, the council's vice president, favors keeping Thorpe's remains at the roadside memorial overlooking the Lehigh River. He believes a majority of the town's residents do, too.
"The townspeople are proud of it. We have an association that takes care of the monument and the grounds, and the statues that were placed in his honor," McGuire said. "We try to honor Jim Thorpe as much as possible."
Even if the lawsuit is successful, McGuire considers it unlikely that the town would change its name again.
"It's been that way for 60 years. I don't see a reason to change it. We're well known for what we now are," he said.
Jack Thorpe hopes town leaders will now put the debate over his body to rest without a trial.
"Maybe Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, out of the graciousness of their hearts, would say 'Let's just return the remains. Let's not have to go through this,"' he said.