Tony Platt: The bones of Geronimo and Yale's Skull and Bones

Roundup: Talking About History

[Tony Platt is Professor emeritus, California State University, Sacramento.]

The Indian leader Goyathlay, popularly known as Geronimo, died in captivity and was buried at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1909. This fact about his death is generally agreed upon. But the current location of his skull and where his remains should be buried are matters of a longtime and acrimonious dispute, and now a lawsuit that pits tribe against tribe, and the descendants of the man whom Teddy Roosevelt showed off in his 1905 Inaugural Parade against Yale’s most exclusive private club.

On February 17th – the centennial of Geronimo’s death – his great-grandson and nineteen other lineal descendants filed a suit in federal court against Yale University, Yale’s Order of Skull and Bones, and – for maximum impact – the President, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of the Army. The suit seeks to “free Geronimo, his remains, funerary objects and spirit from one hundred years of imprisonment at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Yale University campus at New Haven, Connecticut, and wherever else they may be found.”

According to Harlyn Geronimo, the defendants are in violation of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), under which any institution receiving federal funds is required to acknowledge and repatriate skeletal remains and artifacts derived from Indian graves. “It has been claimed and widely repeated,” argues the suit, “that in 1918 or 1919 a group of Yale University students, members of a campus organization called the Order of Skull and Bones… opened the tomb of Geronimo and removed his skull, other bones and items buried with the body and took them to the Order’s premises on the Yale campus.”

The case is a little bit of a fishing expedition because nobody has convincing evidence that any part of Geronimo’s skeleton was removed from Fort Sill. And it’s mostly speculation at this point that the hush-hush club kept the Apache warrior’s cranium in a trophy case in The Tomb, their hangout at Yale. The allegation relies on a letter written by a senior Bonesman in 1918 in which he informs a colleague, “The skull of the worthy Geronimo The Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club … is now safe inside the T[omb] together with his well worn femurs, bit & saddle horn.” One of the alleged conspirators was Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of presidents.

Experts on this claim are divided. Judith Schiff, an archivist at Yale, thinks “it has a very strong likelihood of being true, since [the letter] was written so close to the time.” The Skull and Bones Club, true to its name, had a longtime reputation for stealing or acquiring desirable objects. The ritual was called “crooking” and members tried to outdo each other’s “crooks.” As early as 1869, a Yale alumnus asked a colleague at the Smithsonian if he could acquire a “spare human cranium” to present to his club.

There’s no doubt that the Club sought out Indian skulls. For the countless middle class men who joined fraternal clubs in the second half of the 19th century, notes historian Curtis Hinsley Jr., “backyard archaeology served as a field for male play.” But David Miller, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, is convinced that the Bonesmen “could not have located Geronimo’s grave in 1918 since it was unmarked at the time.”

It’s just as plausible that the Bonesmen dug up an anonymous Indian or soldier from Fort Sill and made up the story that the remains were those of Geronimo to impress the lads back at Yale. It’s not hard to imagine Prescott Bush and his chums trying to come up with an action that would enhance their cred in The Tomb. Or maybe they purchased the skull from a trader and, back at Yale, somebody made up the name Geronimo as a stand in for the generic Indian: “Say hi to Geronimo, he’s our mascot. Charge!”

Geronimo vs. Obama will hopefully unravel this historical mystery. In addition, Geronimo’s descendants not only want to make sure that his cranium is buried with his skeleton, but also demand that his remains be exhumed from his granite tomb in the Apache Indian Prisoner of War Cemetery at Fort Sill and repatriated to a gravesite at the headwaters of the Gila River in New Mexico, where he was born. The Fort Sill Apache Tribe opposes this request on the grounds that “there is nothing to be gained by digging up the dead.”

While the suit may not be built on the most compelling legal evidence and there’s no right-and-wrong resolution to the inter-tribal conflict, the case deserves serious attention, and not only because of its roster of celebrities: in addition to Geronimo, there is also ex-Attorney General Ramsay Clark for the plaintiffs, burnishing his reputation as a crusader for social causes; and a typecast villain played by the paterfamilias Prescott Bush, grandfather of a political dynasty, who may have taken his penchant for headhunting too literally when he was based at Fort Sill in 1918.

The legal case, in my opinion, could be easily settled. First, the Skull and Bones Club should do the right thing – disclose and repatriate all the skeletons it has closeted, and make public all paperwork related to the collection of Indian body parts and grave goods. Secondly, military and Apache archaeologists should collaborate on a respectful exhumation of Geronimo’s grave at Fort Sill to see if his remains are intact. When these two steps have been taken, the two tribes, not the government, should try to resolve the thorny issue of whether Geronimo should be interred where he was born or where he was died. Unless Judge Solomon is available, this shouldn’t be a matter for the courts.

More importantly, Geronimo vs. Obama will provide an opportunity to explore the long, sorrowful history of respectable grave looting. Between 1788, when Thomas Jefferson dug up an Indian burial mound near his home, and the 1970s when the Red Power movement began to put amateur and professional archaeologists on the defensive, the harvesting of Native American human remains was widespread, authorized, and even celebrated as good science.

Through much of the 20th century, while the government built memorials to unknown victims of World War I and World War II, and tried for years to account for every missing person in the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of Indian remains were stored anonymously in dank basements and bankers’ boxes, or displayed as mementos of a “vanishing race” or freak show curiosities. We are long overdue for a public debate about why and how this happened.
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