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Monday, September 6, 2010

Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Over Geronimo's Skull

A longtime story goes that Yale University's famously secretive Skull and Bones Society has in its windowless campus home, known as the Tomb, the skull of Apache chief Geronimo. Back in early 2009, descendants of Geronimo attempted to sue Skull and Bones, Yale, and the federal government for the return of the warrior's skull. Because Geronimo’s grave was originally on a U.S. military base, the plaintiffs also named President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of the Army Pete Geren as defendants in the suit. Under the theory of never sue anyone poor or not famous. But on July 27th, a District of Columbia judge dismissed the case.

The plaintiffs were 20 descendants of the legendary Native American chief, and their attorney was Ramsey Clark, former Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson, whose previous client list has included Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic.

The story goes that back in May of 1918, a group of Bonesmen were all serving in the Army together at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, site of the mouldering remains of the Apache chief who had died in 1909 from pneumonia. It's no secret that S&B prides itself on its creepy collection of frat house decor, and the skull of an Indian chief whose name is synonymous with intoxicated white people jumping off cliffs would make a dandy addition to their "tomb." So (allegedly), Prescott Bush (father of George H.W., and grandfather of George W.), Henry Mallon, Ellery James and Charles C. Haffner, dug up the grave and stole the skull, a few bones, and a horse bit, and spirited them off to the Skull & Bones Tomb at Yale. Over the years, they have (allegedly) been in a glass display case.

The Skull and Bones "Tomb" on the Yale campus.

The Geronimo skull is a longstanding piece of Skull & Bones folklore, but several members of the (alleged) grave robbing team gave conflicting accounts of the raid. Towana Spivey, director of the Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum, is quoted as saying he has never believed the story. Still, there
is a skull in the S&B Tomb in New Haven known commonly as Geronimo.

This public imbroglio started back in 2007 when Harlyn Geronimo of Mescalero, New Mexico, wrote to President George W. Bush for help in returning the skull of his great-grandfather. Bush didn't bother to answer, and the lawsuit followed. During the 2004 presidential race, Bonesmen Bush and Deomocratic nominee John Kerry both reacted to questions about the secretive society (one of about a dozen on the Yale campus) by saying that it was so secret they couldn't talk about it. Obviously, Bush admitting the chief's skull was in the Tomb would be in violation of the Society's oath.

From "Judge dismisses Apache suit against Skull and Bones" in the Yale News on August 9th:

If [Clark] had won his case, he and his clients would have dug up the grave at Fort Sill, and if, as the story about Prescott Bush suggests, some of the remains had been missing, they would have turned to Yale and Skull and Bones.

Before anyone can take legal action against the U.S. government, the government must consent to the proceedings by waiving its sovereign immunity. District Judge Richard W. Roberts said he dismissed the case because the plaintiffs had failed to establish why immunity should be waived in this case. He also said that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), under which the prosecution was suing for ownership of the remains, only applies to burials, grave robberies and other incidents that took place after it was passed in 1990 — making the act irrelevant to this case.

But Clark said he does not think Roberts is correct on this last point.

"It doesn't seem like that act would have much relevance if it cut off everything before that date," Clark said.

Still, Clark said the fact that he tried to take the case straight to court, without first arguing his clients' claim to their ancestor's remains in front of the relevant government agencies, might be why the government never waived its immunity. Clark said he pursued litigation first because it was the fastest route, allowing him to take on all relevant parties — those in the government and those in New Haven — at the same time. Now, he said, he and his clients will turn to agencies in the executive branch and the Department of Defense that they previously tried to bypass. He added that he will eventually reopen his cases against Yale and Skull and Bones if need be, but not until after the Fort Sill remains are exhumed.

Yale has said it does not possess the remains, but that it cannot say whether the secret society — a separate entity — might have them. A representative of Skull and Bones has declined to comment on the matter.


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