This column also ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum.
On February 18th of this year, Harlyn Gernomino, the great-grandson of the famous Apache chief with the same last name, filed a lawsuit in federal court, demanding the return of his great-grandfather’s skull.
The lawsuit alleges that Geronimo’s skull and some of his bones are in the possession of Skull and Bones, the secretive and uber-exclusive Yale fraternity, whose membership rolls boast a long list of important American political, business, cultural and even religious leaders. Three American presidents (Taft, Bush, and Bush) were members; the most prominent member of Skull and Bones currently holding political office is Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.
According to Skull and Bones lore—and supported by a secret Skull and Bones history found in the Yale Library—a group of US army officers, all recent graduates of Yale and all members of Skull and Bones, broke into Geronimo’s tomb at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in May of 1918. The men, who were scions of America’s monied and powerful class, are said to have absconded with Geronimo’s skull, a few of his bones, and some of his funerary objects, (apparently this is something that “Bonesmen” like to do). Allegedly, the stolen bones were sent to New Haven where, to this day, they enjoy a place of honor in the Skull and Bones crypt. The three men named in accounts of the stealing of Geronimo’s remains were Ellory James (about whom I know nothing), Prescott Bush (a future business leader and senator from Connecticut who is most famous for being the father and the grandfather of American presidents both named George), and Neil Mallon (who, as it happens, was my great-uncle).
The Apache warrior’s descendants want their ancestor’s bodily remains returned for a proper burial according to Apache ways and in the earth of the Apache homeland.
The request is entirely reasonable, and the law seems to favor the Geronimo family cause. While the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (signed into law, ironically, by George H.W. Bush in 1990) doesn’t apply to Indian remains in private collections, state and federal laws generally frown upon grave robbing, theft, and the possession of stolen goods.
So it should be an open and shut case. Either Geronimo’s remains are in the possession of Skull and Bones or they are not. Someone’s tomb needs to be opened. Either Geronimo’s grave on Fort Sill needs to be opened, or the crypt in New Haven does. Probably both enclosures should see the light of day.
The problem is that the eight hundred or so living Bonesmen (and, since the 1990’s, Boneswomen) are people with a lot of power and money. Geronimo’s descendants’ only asset is morality, which often is not enough.
The Geronimo lawsuit provides us with an excellent opportunity to test a basic American assumption–that no one is above the law. It doesn’t matter if you are a club whose members have included three generations of Bushes, John Kerry, and my great-uncle, still the law is the law.
It is time for Skull and Bones to open its crypt. If America’s most powerful frat house is in possession of Geronimo’s bones, then they need to give them back. These college kids need to grow up and follow the law like the rest of us. I don’t care how privileged their breeding and I don’t care how lofty the offices they currently may hold or once may have held. It is time to respect the law and to honor the spiritual wishes of a people who, let’s face it, have suffered enough from the shenanigans of white Americans who think the rules of common decency don’t apply to them.