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Tomb Raiders

The skull and partial remains of the legendary Chiricahua Apache chief Geronimo may languish in a display case somewhere in one of Yale University’s most mysterious buildings. Rumors have swirled for years that the remains are located in the “Tomb,” the headquarters of the ultra-secret Skull and Bones Society.

Yale’s secret student societies have long been the subject of intense speculation and rumor. And the 175-year-old Skull and Bones is perhaps the most recognizable of those organizations. Conspiracy theorists have depicted the society as a training ground to turn the country’s social elite into world leaders. Each year, 15 seniors are “tapped” for admission into the society. There are about 800 “Bonesmen” alive today. In a famous 1977 Esquire article, Yale alum Ron Rosenbaum wrote that the mission of Skull and Bones was “converting the idle progeny of the ruling class into morally serious leaders of the establishment.”

Indeed, some of the most powerful men in the world have been Bonesmen, including both President Bushes. George H.W. Bush’s father, former U.S. Senator Prescott Bush, was also a member. It’s this Bush who figures prominently in the Geronimo story.

The most credible account of the Bonesmen’s connection to Geronimo is supported by a newly discovered 1918 letter written by society member Winter Mead to fellow Bonesman Trubee Davison. The letter details the theft of “the skull of the worthy Geronimo the terrible” from its tomb at Fort Sill, Okla., and declares that “the skull is now safe inside the Tomb together with his (Geronimo’s) well worn femurs, bit and saddle horn.”

Marc Wortman, a writer and former editor of Yale Alumni magazine, found the letter last year in the university’s Sterling Memorial Library archives while conducting research for a book on Yale’s World War I aviators. In an article for the magazine, the library’s chief archivist, Judith Schiff, says the letter “has a very strong likelihood of being true.” Schiff, who has written extensively about Yale’s history, notes that Bonesmen are required to be honest with fellow members about society affairs. At the very least, researchers agree that there is strong evidence to suggest that Bonesmen who were serving with Army volunteers at Fort Sill unearthed the remains of an American Indian and believed them to be those of Geronimo. Mead’s letter names the Bonesmen involved in the theft, including Prescott Bush.

News of the possible connection first emerged in 1986, when Ned Anderson, then tribal chairman of the San Carlos Apache tribe in Arizona, was working to get Geronimo’s remains repatriated from Fort Sill to the tribe’s homeland. Geronimo died while a prisoner of war at the fort in 1909 and was buried there. He and his band of about 500 Chiricahua Apache were the last American Indians to resist the U.S. government’s expansion into the Southwest. They ultimately surrendered in 1886 and spent the next 27 years imprisoned at the fort.

In 1986, Anderson received an anonymous letter from a self-identified Bonesman indicating that the society had the skull and was interested in returning it to the tribe. The letter included a photograph of what the Bonesman claimed was Geronimo’s skull in a glass case. Anderson says that during an arranged meeting in New York City, Prescott Bush’s son Jonathan Bush and other Bonesmen presented him with a glass case containing what appeared to be the skull of a child. Anderson declined to accept it, believing that it was not the same skull depicted in the photograph. He says Jonathan Bush also urged him to sign a document stating that Skull and Bones was not in possession of Geronimo’s skull, but he refused. The society then threatened legal action if the photograph was not returned. Endicott Davison, an attorney for the secret society, says the organization does not have the skull. 

 “[Skull and Bones] have completely disregarded our concerns,” Anderson says. “They are in power, and they exercise that power.”

Yale students William Huntington Russell and Alphonso Taft (father of U.S. President William Howard Taft) founded Skull and Bones in 1832, apparently disgruntled after learning they had not been admitted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society. The history of the exclusive group and its name is shrouded in mystery. According to Alexandra Robbins, author of Secrets of the Tomb, the society is preoccupied with death, reflected in its symbols of skeletons, skulls and macabre artwork. During her research, several Bonesmen confided to Robbins that a skull referred to as “Geronimo” is indeed kept in a glass case inside the Tomb.

But among the unanswered questions surrounding the remains is this: Why travel all the way to Oklahoma to steal a skull? Grove Street Cemetery, the country’s first chartered burial ground, is located just four blocks from the Tomb. The cemetery is often referred to as the Westminster of Yale, and among its noted residents are Eli Whitney, Noah Webster, 14 Yale presidents and numerous campus and national figures.

Many American Indian leaders say they believe the Bonesmen dug up the grave of an American Indian simply because they could.

“[Non-Indians] simply don’t see us as quite human and, therefore, our dead are unworthy of respect,” says Vicky Whitewolf, the executive director of Indigenous Cultural Advocacy in Resources and Education. The group advocates for the repatriation of American Indian remains.

Whitewolf’s contention has some historical support. In 1868, the Smithsonian Institute commissioned a study hoping to prove that American Indians were physically inferior to White Europeans by measuring the cranial cavities of American Indians. The museum offered money for the delivery of Native skulls, eventually receiving thousands of remains. Today, approximately 14,000 are still housed at the National Museum of Natural History, awaiting repatriation to their respective tribes. Ironically, the science of the day found that American Indians were, in fact, physically equal to White Europeans.

Dr. Garrick Bailey, a professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa, agrees that, until very recently, the remains of indigenous peoples have been viewed by mainstream America as merely scientific specimens. Bailey served on the review committee for the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was, ironically enough, signed into law by the elder President Bush. The act requires institutions and museums that receive federal funding to return human remains, associated grave goods, ceremonial material and other cultural items to their tribes of origin. The law includes provisions for remains discovered on federal lands. Although Yale would fall under the law, spokeswoman Gila Reinstein says student and alumni organizations like Skull and Bones are not necessarily regulated by the university.

“We have no information on their holdings or activities,” she says.

Geronimo’s great grandson, Harlyn Geronimo, is continuing his family’s efforts to regain his ancestor’s remains. He says he and a number of spiritual leaders throughout Indian Country are engaged in ceremonies praying for guidance and the safe return of the remains. He has also said the family is pursuing legal options for the return of the remains.

Jeff Houser, chairman of the Ft. Sill Apache tribe of Oklahoma, insists that the Skull and Bones story is a hoax.  His people, descendents of 80 of Geronimo’s people who elected to stay in Oklahoma after their release from prison in 1913, believe that the great leader’s remains are still buried at Ft. Sill.  In keeping with  Apache taboos against speaking of or disturbing the dead, they are adamant that his grave will remain undisturbed. “He (Geronimo) is where he should be,” says Houser. 

Dr. Henrietta Mann, professor emeritus of Native American studies at Montana State University, notes that many Native cultures hold a deep belief in natural justice, believing that a bad act will eventually circle back around to the perpetrator. According to an article published in Indian Country Today, some Apaches now believe that the problems besieging President Bush are in some way the result of his family’s long connection to the defilement of Geronimo’s grave. For her part, Mann, who is Cheyenne, agrees.

“The Cheyenne say that a bad act will return to you multiplied seven times seven,” she says.

–Mary Annette Pember

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