By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
HOUSTON — The descendants of Geronimo have sued Skull and Bones, a secret society at Yale University with ties to the Bush family, charging that its members robbed his grave in 1918 and have kept his skull in a glass case ever since.
The claim is part of a lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington on Tuesday, the 100th anniversary of Geronimo’s death. The Apache warrior’s heirs are seeking to recover all his remains, wherever they may be, and have them transferred to a new grave at the headwaters of the Gila River in New Mexico, where Geronimo was born and wished to be interred.
“I believe strongly from my heart that his spirit was never released,” Geronimo’s great-grandson Harlyn Geronimo, 61, told reporters Tuesday at the National Press Club.
Geronimo died a prisoner of war at Fort Sill, Okla., in 1909. A longstanding tradition among members of Skull and Bones holds that Prescott S. Bush — father of President George Bush and grandfather of President George W. Bush — broke into the grave with some classmates during World War I and made off with the skull, two bones, a bridle and some stirrups, all of which were put on display at the group’s clubhouse in New Haven, known as the Tomb.
The story gained some validity in 2005, when a historian discovered a letter written in 1918 from one Skull and Bones member to another saying the skull had been taken from a grave at Fort Sill along with several pieces of tack for a horse.
Ramsey Clark, a former United States attorney general who is representing Geronimo’s family, acknowledged he had no hard proof that the story was true. Yet he said he hoped the court would clear up the matter.
Tom Conroy, a spokesman for Yale, declined to comment on the lawsuit but was quick to note that the Tomb was not on university property.
Members of the Skull and Bones, who guard their organization’s secrecy, could not be reached for comment. Though the society is not officially affiliated with the university, many of Yale’s most powerful alumni are members, among them both Bush presidents and Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts.
“Of all the items rumored to be in the Skull and Bones’s possession, Geronimo’s skull is one of the more plausible ones,” said Alexandra Robbins, the author of “Secrets of the Tomb” (Little Brown 2002), a book about the society. “There is a skull encased in a glass display when you walk in the door of the Tomb, and they call it Geronimo.”
Some local historians and anthropologists in Oklahoma have cast doubt on the tale, noting that no independent evidence has been found to suggest that Geronimo’s grave was disturbed in 1918. Ten years later, the army covered the grave with concrete and replaced a simple wooden headstone with a stone monument, making it nearly impregnable.
Geronimo, whose given name was Goyathlay, put up fierce resistance to white settlers, fighting the Mexican and United States armies for nearly three decades. He finally surrendered, with only 35 men left, to Gen. Nelson A. Miles on the New Mexico-Arizona border in 1886 and spent the rest of his life in prison, dying of pneumonia.
Not all Apaches want to move his remains to New Mexico. The branch of the tribe that settled at Fort Sill after Geronimo died is fighting to keep the grave where it is.
“There is nothing to be gained by digging up the dead,” said Jeff Houser, the chairman of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe. “It will not repair the damage to the tribe caused by its removal and imprisonment.”