By Michael Neill
January 08, 1996 12:00 PM

ON A STARLIT SUMMER NIGHT CROSSing through the Southwest 60 years ago, Grace Thorpe, who was barely in her teens, learned to drive a car. She had been visiting her father and his new wife in their home in California, and he was driving her back to their native Oklahoma. “In those days,” she says, “you drove across the desert at night. Dad asked, ‘Would you like to drive?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I’d never driven before, so he showed me where the brakes and gas were. Then he got in the backseat and went to sleep.”

The man who showed such faith in his daughter was Jim Thorpe, the football star and Olympic track-and-field legend whom Sweden’s King Gustav V called “the greatest athlete in the world.” He was long past his glory days by then—and heading downhill into alcoholism and failure. But to Grace he was a hero. He still is.

And when others fail to give her father his due, Grace Thorpe doesn’t hesitate to take them on. In 1982, Grace won her five-year battle to get the International Olympic Committee to return the two gold medals—for the decathlon and pentathlon—that her father had won in Stockholm in 1912. The medals were stripped from him after it was discovered that he had played semiprofessional baseball as a student at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Recently she locked horns with Olympic officials once again, insisting that the 1996 Olympic Torch Relay, scheduled to pass through Yale, Okla., where her father once lived, should go instead through Prague, Okla., near his birthplace. Now 74 and living in a three-bedroom brick home near the Sac and Fox reservation, about 45 miles east of Oklahoma City, Grace has another, more critical fight: to eliminate the dumping of nuclear waste on tribal lands.

Thorpe joined the antinuclear movement in 1992 after reading that her tribe had accepted a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to study the placement of radioactive waste on its 900-acre reservation. “I thought, ‘That just isn’t the kind of thing that our tribe should be doing,’ ” she recalls. Of the government’s attempt to use tribal land for nuclear dumping, she adds, “It’s going to be genocide, because we have no way of knowing [the effects on the future].” Thorpe, the tribe’s health commissioner, won a vote to withdraw the tribe from the study. After that, she started getting requests from tribes and environmental groups all over the country to help organize similar campaigns. “My whole life changed,” says Thorpe, an artisan. “Since then I haven’t thrown any more pots or made any more baskets.”

Of course, when she travels around the country helping others organize, it doesn’t hurt that she is the daughter of the great Jim Thorpe. Her father was already in his 30s when she was born, the fourth of his eight children, in Yale, Okla. Some time before Grace’s second birthday, her father, a Sac and Fox, broke up with her mother, Iva Margaret, a Cherokee, who moved to Tulsa to work as a hotel clerk. Grace was educated (along with her older sisters Gail and Charlotte) at Native American boarding schools. After World War II broke out, she became one of the first WACs and met her future husband, Fred Seely, in New Guinea. The marriage, which produced two children, Dagmar and Paul, ended in divorce in 1950, and Grace settled with her children in Pearl River, N.Y., where she sold ads for the Yellow Pages.

For two decades, Thorpe had little contact with her roots. “There were powwows that I’d take my children to,” she says, “but they were in Greenwich Village.” Then, in the mid-’60s, grieving after her son’s death in an auto accident, she returned to the West, working as an activist for various Native American groups—and eventually moved with Dagmar and her daughter back to Oklahoma. There, from a small office decorated with pictures of her father, Grace, who has diabetes and has had triple-bypass heart surgery, runs her many campaigns. “I love her energy,” says Nilak Butler, director of Greenpeace’s Nuclear Free Future Committee, Indigenous Lands. “Every now and then I get a little tired, and then I look at her and I go, ‘Oh, get real!’ ”

Grace last saw her father just months before his death in 1953. “I dropped him off at the corner to take the bus to New York City,” she says. “He stood underneath the marquee of the theater there, and right above his head were the words Jim Thorpe—Ail-American. [Thorpe had signed away all rights to his name during the Depression and received no money from the movie, which starred Burt Lancaster.] I remember glancing over there and seeing him with the marquee and his scarred leather luggage. That was my last memory of him,” says Thorpe. “He was kind of cool.”