Penn Museum Press Release: Controversy over Remains of Native American Athlete Jim Thorpe Subject of Play Reading, Panel Discussion February 12


Renowned Native American Writers and Activists Suzan Harjo, Mary Kathryn Nagle
Join with Theater Director Matt Pfeiffer to Present My Father’s Bones at the Penn Museum

JimThorpe-smPHILADELPHIA, PA January 20, 2015—The Penn Museum hosts a staged reading of My Father’s Bones, a short play by nationally renowned Native American writers and activists Suzan Shown Harjo and Mary Kathryn Nagle, Thursday, February 12, 5:30 pm. The play recounts the ongoing struggle of three sons to recover the remains of their father—the unmatched Olympian Jim Thorpe—from the Borough of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, for reburial with his relatives on Sac and Fox Nation land in Oklahoma. The free program, sponsored by the Penn Cultural Heritage Center of the Penn Museum and presented in conjunction with the Museum’s Native American Voices exhibition, concludes with a panel discussion and reception.

The first version of My Father’s Bones was selected as a finalist for the 2013 Von Marie Atchley Excellence in Playwriting Award and performed at the Autry Center of the American West in Los Angeles. This revision is staged by Philadelphia-based director Matt Pfeiffer, recently nominated for the 2014 Barrymore Award for Outstanding Direction of Play for his direction of Down Past Passyunk, at InterAct Theater Company in Philadelphia.

Following the play, the Penn Cultural Heritage Center and the Museum host a panel discussion about repatriation and the use of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) as the legal basis to return Jim Thorpe’s remains to his ancestral home. Representatives of the Borough of Jim Thorpe and the Sac and Fox Nation have been invited to attend. To date, panelists include tribal representatives of the Sac and Fox Nation; Attorney John Echohawk, Director of the Native American Rights Fund; and Suzan Shown Harjo, President of the Morningstar Institute. Penn Cultural Heritage Center Director Richard Leventhal moderates.

For those unable to attend in Philadelphia, the play will be viewable online via HowlRound’s livestream on its global, commons-based peer produced HowlRound TV network at

To participate in the talk back following the performance, use Twitter hashtag #newplay, #MyFathersBones and/or#JimThorpe and direct your questions @HowlRound.

Background to the Story

On October 23, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia determined that NAGPRA does not apply to the requested repatriation of Jim Thorpe’s remains. As a result, Sac and Fox Nation, Jim Thorpe’s sons Bill and Richard Thorpe, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell have all petitioned the Court, requesting that the Third Circuit reconsider the case en banc. Their petitions remain pending.

Jim Thorpe was an enrolled citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation and winner of several Olympic gold medals. He passed away in 1953 and the Sac and Fox Nation honored him with a traditional Sac and Fox burial, in accordance with his last wishes. Ordinarily, these ceremonies last four days. However, on the fourth day, his third wife, Patsy, who was not Native American, interrupted the returning-the-name ceremony, which is the last step before burial in the territory of the Sac and Fox Nation.

“Researching the play, we learned that Patsy burst into the funeral and, with the assistance of an Oklahoma State Trooper, removed his body,” noted Ms. Harjo. “She then proceeded to sell Jim Thorpe’s body for a few thousand dollars to a town in Pennsylvania that hoped to use his body to attract tourism and enhance its local economy. This town, originally comprised of East and West Chunk, re-named itself after the human body it purchased as the Borough of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.”

After years of attempts to convince the Borough to permit the repatriation of Jim Thorpe to his Sac and Fox homeland, his sons (former Chairman Jack Thorpe and Bill and Richard Thorpe) filed suit, along with the Sac and Fox Nation. The District Court concluded that NAGPRA does apply to the Borough’s possession of Jim Thorpe, but the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the lower court’s decision.

About the Playwrights and Panelists

John Echohawk (Pawnee), one of the panelists, is the Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund. He was the first graduate of the University of New Mexico’s special program to train Indian lawyers, and was a founding member of the American Indian Law Students Association while in law school. John has been with NARF since its inception in 1970, having served continuously as Executive Director since 1977. He has been recognized as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America by the National Law Journal and has received numerous service awards and other recognition for his leadership in the Indian law field. He serves on the Boards of the American Indian Resources Institute, the Association on American Indian Affairs, the Indigenous Language Institute, and the Native American Rights Fund (August 1970 to present), among others.

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Moscogee) and Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee) have collaborated to create a provocative play that documents the conflict. Dr. Harjo, one of the principal consultants for Native American Voices, is president of The Morning Star Institute in Washington, DC, and has helped Native Peoples protect sacred places and recover more than one million acres of land. President Obama awarded her with a 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work on American Indian civil, human, and treaty rights. Over the past five decades, she has developed key laws to promote and protect Native nations, sovereignty, children, arts, cultures and languages, including the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, National Museum of the American Indian Act and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Formerly the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, she served as Legislative Liaison for the Native American Rights Fund and in the Carter Administration, and was lead plaintiff in Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc. (1992-2009), the landmark lawsuit against the name of the Washington professional football franchise. She is a Founding Trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian and is the first Native woman to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Prior to moving to Washington, D.C., she had a long career in broadcasting and theater in New York City.

Oklahoma City-native Mary Kathryn Nagle studied theater at Georgetown University and graduated summa cum laude from Tulane Law School, where she received the Judge John Minor Wisdom Award. Her plays have been performed from Oklahoma to New York. She is a member of the 2013 Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater, where her latest play, MANAHATTA, was performed as part of the PUBLIC’s new PUBLIC STUDIO series.

Dr. Richard M. Leventhal, moderator for the program, is Executive Director of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the Penn Museum, a Professor in the University of Pennsylvania Department of Anthropology, and Curator in the American Section of the Penn Museum. He is also the former Director of the Penn Museum, President and CEO of the School of American Research in Santa Fe, Director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at UCLA, and Director of the Institute for Mesoamerican Studies at SUNY-Albany. Dr. Leventhal lectures and writes extensively on the preservation of cultural properties and cultural sites, on the need to prevent the looting of global heritage resources, and on the acquisition policies of museums.

The Penn Museum (the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 300 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind’s collective heritage.

The Penn Cultural Heritage Center is dedicated to expanding both scholarly and public awareness and promoting discussion and debate about the complex issues surrounding the world’s rich—and endangered—cultural heritage.

Photo: Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Public domain image.