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The Strange Saga of Geronimo's Skull 

A century after his death, the Apache leader's remains continue to make news

Geronimo lay in bed, delirious. He was moments from death, and his final mutterings would be familiar to those who knew him in life. He spoke of his regret at having surrendered, saying he should've died fighting his enemies—the Mexicans, for whom he harbored a lifelong hatred, and the white eyes who'd taken over his homeland.

This was the warrior Geronimo, the man American settlers knew, the blood lover, the killer.

But he also talked about his love for his children. As his nephew Asa Daklugie held his hand that night in 1909, at the Fort Sill hospital in Oklahoma, Geronimo begged Daklugie to care for his daughter, Eva Geronimo, as if she were his own.

After a bout of unconsciousness, his eyes—those narrow, burning, paralyzing eyes—would open and fix on Daklugie. "I want your promise," he'd say.

This was Geronimo, too, the worried father, the family man.

News of his death made telegraph wires crackle worldwide, and in those reports, we see the same split between Geronimo the man and Geronimo the monster.

In covering his passing, The New York Times called him "the worst type of aboriginal American savage" whose life proved "the proverb that a good Indian is a dead Indian."

Many of the same reports also noted his intelligence, his genius at warfare and how, in 1886, pursued by one-third of the U.S. Army, plus 4,000 Mexican soldiers, he melted into the landscape, ghost-like, there one moment and gone the next.

But as with other great Western figures—Billy the Kid, Custer, Wyatt, Hickok—Geronimo's death wasn't an end, but a beginning. He's too much fun to say goodbye to, and far too useful.

The question now is whether his skull and two femurs sit inside a spooky gothic stone building known as the Tomb, on High Street in New Haven, Conn.

It has long been rumored that several Yale students—among them Prescott Bush, father of former President George Herbert Walker Bush and grandfather of former President George W. Bush—dug up Geronimo's remains in 1918 while taking artillery training at Fort Sill.

The bones were allegedly taken to Yale, where some believe they're used to this day as ritualistic props by an elite student society called the Order of Skull and Bones.

Harlyn Geronimo, of Mescalero, N.M., a great-grandson, in February filed a suit to free Geronimo's remains and spirit "from 100 years of imprisonment at Fort Sill, Okla., the Yale University campus at New Haven, Conn., and wherever else they may be found."

He wants the remains returned to Geronimo's birthplace at the headwaters of the Gila River in southwest New Mexico, "for burial in the manner of his fathers." He also wants a 12-foot bronze statue placed at the site.

News of the lawsuit went worldwide, predictably so. The story makes great copy. It has the unforgettable Geronimo at its center, the Bush family connection, Harlyn posing for Eastern media in his clean cowboy hat and beads, and a weirdo college club about which wild rumors abound—like members dining with Hitler's silverware and initiates kissing Geronimo's skull as a rite of entry.

It's the journalistic equivalent of shooting buffalo from a slow-moving train on the Kansas prairie in 1869.

Only one problem: The theft of Geronimo's remains almost certainly didn't happen. According to the best evidence, the "one who yawns"—the translation of Geronimo's Apache name, Goyathlay—rests right where he should, in the ground at Sill, beneath a cobblestone pyramid topped by a soaring eagle.

But out there somewhere, lost for 146 years, there really is the head of a great Apache leader, taken in the most violent and ignominious means imaginable.

With the exception of his family and a few historians, no one knows a thing about him.

The Skull and Bones theft account stems from a document titled "Continuation of the History of Our Order for the Century Celebration," prepared by the Order itself, in 1933, to mark its 100th anniversary. Even though some have called it a hoax, this history keeps popping up in published sources, including Alexandra Robbins' 2002 book, Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power.

The text says the Geronimo "crook" was carefully planned, because "six Army captains robbing a grave wouldn't look good in the papers." This account continues: "The ring of pick on stone and thud of earth on earth alone disturbs the peace of the prairie. An axe pried open the iron door of the tomb, and Pat Bush entered and started to dig."

After grabbing the skull, the men "quickly closed the grave, shut the door and sped home to Pat Mallon's room, where we cleaned the Bones. Pat Mallon sat on the floor liberally applying carbolic acid. The skull was fairly clean, having only some flesh inside and a little hair. I showered and hit the hay ... a happy man."

Bonesmen refer to each other as Pat, for patriarch. In addition to Prescott Bush, the account names Henry Neil Mallon and Ellery James, all stationed at Sill in May 1918.

The story moves forward to the 1980s, when Ned Anderson, then chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, northeast of Globe, was leading an effort to have Geronimo's remains removed from Fort Sill and returned to the Southwest.

At the time, he'd never heard the rumor that some remains might be in New Haven. He learned of it from an anonymous caller directing him to a post office in Tempe. There, hidden behind a wall hanging, Anderson was told he'd find proof—an envelope containing a document along with a photograph.

The photo, supposedly taken inside the SKB Tomb, showed a skull in a display case, other bones, stirrups and a horse bit.

In a recent telephone interview, Anderson told the Weekly the episode had hints of danger. The caller warned him to follow instructions exactly, saying he, the caller, was being followed by shadowy men who'd already rifled through his trash.

"It was risky," says Anderson, who now works for the tribe as a liaison with the Central Arizona Project. "I was told to be careful, because we were dealing with a secret society."

The spy-novel theatrics led him to a bizarre, 1986 meeting in a New York City high-rise. There, according to Anderson, former Bonesman Jonathan Bush, brother of former President George H. W. Bush, and SKB's lawyer, Endicott Peabody Davison, showed Anderson some bones in a fishbowl-like glass container on a conference table.

Davison told Anderson the remains had been tested and actually belonged to a 10-year-old boy, not Geronimo. He then shoved a contract across the table at Anderson and said, "We'd like you to review this, and if you're satisfied with it, sign it."

But Anderson refused, telling the men, "I have the photo right here, and the bones in the picture are different from the ones you're showing me."

Anderson now believes they wanted him to agree that the bones belonged to a 10-year-old and drop the matter. He could take the bones with him if he signed the contract, which stipulated that SKB did not have Geronimo.

"They wanted to shut me up, so we reached an impasse," says Anderson. "It bothered me, these privileged men, military men who are supposed to look out for our interests, treating up Geronimo this way. It was the principle involved. I wanted justice."

The story sounds too wild and outrageous to be believable. But Anderson has been telling it, unchanged, for 23 years.

The most recent entry in the saga of Geronimo's skull came in the fall of 2005, when writer Marc Wortman, working in the Yale Library, found a previously unknown letter written by Winter Mead and dated June 7, 1918.

To fellow Bonesmen Frederick Trubee Davison—father of the Davison present at the Anderson meeting—Mead wrote: "The skull of the worthy Geronimo the Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club and Knight Haffner, is now safe inside the T—together with his well worn femurs, bit and saddle horn."

"I was electrified," says Wortman of his discovery. "Here was contemporary evidence of something I always felt was apocryphal. The letter convinced me they had dug up somebody they at least believed was Geronimo."

David Miller agrees that the Bonesmen probably did some grave-digging that night. But in a paper he has delivered at several venues, the retired history professor argues that the facts of the supposed SKB theft just don't add up, for several reasons.

Geronimo's grave wasn't a tomb guarded by an iron door, as the SKB document says. In fact, he was buried beneath a simple Army-issue wooden headstone in the Apache cemetery three miles east of the main post.

In the early 1900s, getting to this cemetery meant crossing remote, often flooded land, with the access bridge frequently out. However, Sill's original post cemetery was close to the quadrangle, parade grounds and barracks where the young soldiers stayed.

"My suspicion is that Bush and the others dug in the old post cemetery," says Miller, who taught for 37 years at Oklahoma's Cameron University. "There's a structure in that cemetery with an iron door, like the one described. Even if they wanted to dig up Geronimo, I don't think the Bonesmen would've had any idea where his grave was."

Except for a few close relatives, the Apaches themselves lost track of it shortly after Geronimo's death, when a prairie fire destroyed many of the markers. By 1915, when Morris Swett, a librarian at Sill, visited the Apache cemetery, he found it overgrown with weeds; many of the graves were filled with water.

In his extensive research, Miller also learned that Geronimo's grave had indeed been disturbed by treasure hunters in 1914. But the remains were untouched, and tribal members refilled the grave. To protect it from further desecration, they spread a false rumor that the body had been moved and reburied in another grave.

In 1930, after learning of the grave's precise location from a close family member, Swett obtained money to build the monument that stands over it today. This marker—as everyone agrees—has never been bothered.

Miller makes another point: Yale's Sterling Memorial Library holds photographs of skulls sometimes purported to be Geronimo's. But one of the photos is dated 1869, another 1879—dates that precede Geronimo's death by decades.

"The story is folklore," says Miller. "I'm convinced Geronimo is intact at Fort Sill. He's under concrete."

Where does this leave Harlyn's lawsuit?

"It's absurd on its face," says Tucsonan Jay Van Orden, a retired Arizona Historical Society curator and now a lecturer on Apache culture. "It doesn't pass the giggle test."

Even if SKB does have Geronimo's head and two femurs, which Van Orden doesn't believe, and Harlyn reburies them on the Gila, what happens then? "There'd be a Hollywood treasure hunt like we've never seen before," says Van Orden. "It'd be like American Idol or something, with people rushing out to dig him up."

It also would further separate the remains, because the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, which controls the cemetery in which Geronimo rests, promises to fight any effort to disturb his grave. And the only way to find out if the supposed SKB bones are a DNA match to the Fort Sill bones is to break out the shovels.

Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the statute Harlyn invokes in his suit, direct descendents have the primary claim on remains, as long as they're in unanimous agreement. But they're not.

In fact, Lariat Geronimo, another great-grandson—he descends from the warrior's son Robert, while Harlyn descends from Geronimo's daughter Lenna—in May joined the Fort Sill Tribe in a countersuit to Harlyn's.

"If there's a family dispute, the tribe should decide what happens in that cemetery," says Fort Sill Apache Tribe Chairman Jeff Houser. "This is a key point. We still bury tribal members and descendants of prisoners of war there. It's an active cemetery."

Harlyn didn't respond to the Weekly's request for an interview. But his adviser Carlos Melendrez says Harlyn simply wants to bring Geronimo home. "He's still in prison, as far as we're concerned," says Melendrez. "Geronimo requested to be repatriated home, but it never happened."

It's true that Geronimo's final wish was to return to Arizona to die. But he was given a proper burial in consecrated ground at Sill, presided over by Apaches and a Christian minister. Geronimo had converted to Christianity a few years before his death.

News accounts describe Harlyn as 61 years old, a sculptor, actor, Vietnam vet and consultant on a History Channel documentary about the Apaches. He was born Harlyn Via, but had his last name legally changed to Geronimo.

Houser suspects Harlyn's real purpose is publicity. "He filed the suit and held a press conference on the 100th anniversary of Geronimo's death," says the Fort Sill chairman. "Everything he did was to create maximum publicity for himself.

Efforts to get at Geronimo's remains are not new. In 1997, Michael Idrogo, a political gadfly from San Antonio, Texas, filed suit in federal court demanding Geronimo's bones be removed from Fort Sill and returned to his native land.

But in an online fundraising appeal, Idrogo couldn't even correctly name the federal law under which he was suing. He called it the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. His suit called for a presidential pardon for Geronimo and a parade, with full military honors, as his remains made their way west from Sill to Arizona. A judge dismissed Idrogo's suit, because he had no standing to sue.

Even Apaches have made efforts to move Geronimo. In the early 1970s, Edgar Perry, then at northeast Arizona's White Mountain Apache Cultural Center, came up with the idea of moving Geronimo's remains to the White Mountains, in part to attract tourists. He discussed it with Sidney Brinckerhoff, then director of the Arizona Historical Society.

"We all understood that having Geronimo's bones in your backyard would be good for tourism on the reservation," says Brinckerhoff. "But that wasn't the only reason. The tribal chairman was there, a woman, and she was concerned that Geronimo hadn't been buried in the religious tradition of his people."

Perry, a teacher, tells the Weekly he changed his mind after traveling to Fort Sill to talk to Geronimo's descendants and found them opposed.

In 1983, Ned Anderson, the same San Carlos chairman, along with Ronnie Lupe, his counterpart with the White Mountain Apache Tribe, traveled to Fort Sill to try to unearth Geronimo.

Michael Darrow, historian for the Fort Sill Tribe and himself part-Apache, says they arrived without informing the Fort Sill Apaches they were coming. But they had told the media and had a writer for People magazine in tow. "The first we heard of it was a phone call telling us we were going to be hosting a delegation of Western Apache chairmen," says Darrow. "We knew nothing about it."

Anderson and Lupe claimed Geronimo's remains were being neglected and disrespected, and they wanted to move him to Arizona in time for the 100th anniversary of his 1886 surrender. Then-Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt endorsed the effort.

Upon checking, Darrow says, Fort Sill officials learned of plans for a tourism development in Arizona, with Geronimo as the central attraction. "We explained that in our opinion, it was none of their business, and that Geronimo was not their tribe, and he was not to be moved," says Darrow.

The idea still hasn't died. A prominent San Carlos Apache spoke of getting at Geronimo's remains as recently as September 2003. In a story in Indian Country Today, Raleigh Thompson, a former tribal councilman who claimed to have accompanied Anderson to the New York SKB meeting, said the time had come to honor Geronimo's wish to be brought home to San Carlos, "to be buried in the mountains that he loved."

But that's historical nonsense.

In Darrow's objection to moving Geronimo, the key phrase is "not their tribe." Knowing what he means is a critical factor in these fights over the warrior's bones.

As Van Orden explains, what the dominant culture has come to call the Apache tribe doesn't exist. Apaches are, in fact, a series of Athabascan-speaking groups, linked sometimes by intermarriage and sometimes by military opposition to the Spanish, the Mexicans and white settlers.

But they're distinct peoples. "If you were to ask Geronimo who he is, he'd say, 'I'm Bedonkohe,'" says Van Orden. "That's his tribe, his highest self-identity. So many people, even ones we now lump together as Apaches, don't understand this notion of identity, and the actions that flowed from identity."

Moving Geronimo's remains to the White Mountains, to which he had no geographic or blood connection, would make no sense. Moving him to San Carlos would be an affront to history, too. Geronimo hated the desert and the gruesome living conditions the government allowed there, which was why he broke out of San Carlos. Most importantly, it wasn't his home.

"The so-called San Carlos Apache are not his people, and that's not his land," says Van Orden. "These disparate Athabascan tribes didn't always like each other then, and still see each other as different tribes today. To Geronimo, San Carlos was just a place where the government put a prison to hold different tribes."

It was a huge mistake. The hostilities between them turned the San Carlos Reservation into a boiling pot. This mixing of tribes kept tensions high after the government moved the Chiricahuas from San Carlos north to Turkey Creek, near present-day Fort Apache in the White Mountains.

Geronimo's breakout from Turkey Creek in May 1885, his final foray on the warpath, was a crucial event. In his flight to the Mexican Sierra Madre, Geronimo and his Chiricahua renegades murdered at least 17 settlers, and in subsequent raids into Arizona and New Mexico, they killed more.

The backlash was enormous. After his 1886 surrender, the government, under pressure to finally end the so-called Apache problem (which, in fact, had become the Geronimo problem), sent the peaceful Chiricahuas, as well as the Warm Springs Tribe, out of Arizona on the same prisoner trains with Geronimo.

They were collateral damage of Geronimo's actions. If he hadn't fled Turkey Creek, historians say, these Apaches would've been allowed to stay in Arizona and escape the devastation, from tuberculosis, they experienced in captivity in Florida and Alabama.

The government's failure to understand the importance of tribal identity played a key role in the tragedy of the Apache wars. The modern ancestors of these Athabascan tribes, in their misbegotten efforts to move his bones, repeat this historic blunder.

The SKB theft story will undoubtedly live on, because it's a useful narrative for those trying to make a point—about class in America, the callousness of the wealthy, the victimization of native people and, especially, about fame. Certainly the story wouldn't have such legs if not for the Bush connection, and you don't have to listen hard to hear the grinding of political axes.

If you say, as is possible, that Prescott Bush shockingly violated the grave of a Kiowa Indian named Kicking Bird—he's the man buried in the grave with the iron door at Sill's old post cemetery—the story would likely land by the classifieds or as a filler on CNN.

But if you say Prescott and the boys made off with Geronimo, you have the lead story—and it's way too good to check.

Fame is a powerful force, strong enough even to alter history, and Geronimo's celebrity has grown every decade since his death—until today, when we even see his cruel face staring back at us from postcard racks at Walgreens.

"People have latched onto him as a hero figure," says Darrow. "They exploit his name to get attention they can't get on their own, and to accomplish what they want."

He's everybody's Indian now, an icon for hire to any tribe or activist group with a cause to push, from tourism, civil rights and celebrating Native American resistance, to what Van Orden calls "the deeply felt emotional need for an Indian hero."

In February, on the 100th anniversary of Geronimo's death, Apaches from Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma gathered at San Carlos, of all places, to celebrate Geronimo.

Even Congressman Raúl Grijalva has gotten into the act, co-sponsoring House Resolution 132 honoring Geronimo. The text is pitch-perfect in its political correctness, and inaccurate in its history. It notes the importance of reminding our children of the facts of the past and uses Geronimo's name as a way of "bringing the Apache nation to heal."

Of course, there is no Apache nation, and as we see in the modern fights over his bones, using "Geronimo" and "healing" in the same sentence doesn't work today any more than it would've worked in the 1870s and 1880s.

But what irony: The man everyone now wants a piece of was often reviled in his own time.

"Nobody really liked Geronimo, especially the Apaches at San Carlos and the White Mountains," says Edwin Sweeney, author of an important biography of Cochise and several other books. "Where do you think General Crook recruited many of his scouts to ride against the hostiles? When Geronimo broke out the last time, there were 80 Chiricahua men at Turkey Creek, and 60 volunteered as scouts to go after him."

In February 1909, Geronimo went to Lawton, Okla., to sell his handmade bows and arrows to tourists. He used the pocket money to buy whiskey. On the way home, drunk, he fell from his horse and lay in a field for hours before being found. He died of pneumonia a few days later at Fort Sill, still a prisoner of war.

Every night for months after Geronimo "rode the ghost pony," Daklugie and others stood guard over the grave to keep robbers away. They were mindful of what happened to Mangas Coloradas, whose story points out an even bigger irony.

Mangas was a contemporary of Geronimo's and a chief, which Geronimo never was. He was also a leader capable of bringing the different tribes together against common enemies. Soldier John Cremony, in 1868, described Mangas as "beyond comparison the most famous Apache warrior and statesman of the present century."

After Mangas' capture in 1863, American soldiers tortured him with hot knives, and when he rose in anger, they shot him dead. Then they severed his head, boiled it in a great black pot and sent it to Orson Squire Fowler, a Boston phrenologist.

But what happened to Mangas' skull after Fowler's death is uncertain.

Darrow says an informant has told the Fort Sill Tribe that the skull wound up at the Smithsonian Institution. An employee, realizing the skull shouldn't be there, took it to Long Island to bury it. Later deciding that Mangas' skull should be turned over to the tribe, this person returned to dig it up. But by then, a landfill had been built on the site.

The Smithsonian has always denied ever having Mangas' skull, and Darrow acknowledges his account is based on unconfirmed information. "Nobody will talk about it officially," he says. "But in the past few decades, there have been attempts to find Mangas, but not by the tribe. We don't bother with such things. It's not appropriate."

Darrow is referring to the long-held taboo against handling the dead in any way, which should apply to Geronimo as well.

Says Fort Sill Chairman Houser: "I find it curious that there is only one historic Apache whose skull really is missing, and that's Mangas Coloradas. He was my great-grandfather."

More by Leo W. Banks

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