Notes From The Frontier
The Tragic Mystery of Geronimo’s Skull
White desecration of Native people and their customs went beyond life and was the ultimate sacrilege.
This is a shocking story and, sadly, not an uncommon tale of the deaths of Native Americans being treated with stunning disrespect and the body regarded as war booty or a collectible, rather than the sacred remains of a human being. While it is true that some Native Tribes took scalps, fingers or other body parts of their vanquished enemies as counting coup, the practice was part of a long cultural warrior tradition of demonstrating bravery and also gathering courage from a vanquished enemy. But this story is about wealthy white Ivy League college students stealing the skull of a great and widely admired Native American leader as a prank. The crime is even more grievous given that this great man and his people died in captivity and misery, having been defeated and imprisoned decades before.
This story is not uncommon in our nation’s history of warfare with Native Americans. The bones of the Nez Perce Chief Joseph’s own great chieftain father, Teukakas, were dug up and his skull was displayed for many years in an Idaho dentist’s office. Native Americans can tell numerous such stories of their ancestors.
And the Sand Creek Massacre of peaceful Cheyenne women and children at Black Kettle’s camp in Colorado in November 29, 1864 led by Colonel John Chivington was another such tale. Chief Black Kettle had been told by the U.S. military to fly the American flag and a white flag above his camp to show he was peace-loving, which he did, but that did not help him on November 29. More than 200 Cheyenne were murdered, mostly women and children. (Black Kettle escaped and would die four years later in yet another massacre against his people at the Washita, that one led by Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer.) What happened after the Sand Creek Massacre was equally horrific.
Historian Louis Kraft, who wrote Sand Creek and the Tragic End of a Lifeway for the University of Oklahoma Press, said of the attack:
“Volunteer troops used small children for target practice, an unborn child was cut from its dead mother’s body and scalped, three women and five children prisoners were executed by a lieutenant as their guards backed away in horror and while they begged for their lives. Many of the bodies gave up between five, seven and sometimes eight scalps. Penises, vaginas and breasts were cut from the dead and displayed as ornaments and trophies.” Chivington and his men brought their “trophies,” including dead fetuses, female genitalia and breasts and scalps to be put on display in Denver to cheering crowds.
The story of Geronimo’s remains, however, is shocking because rich young white men robbed his grave and his bones as a prank and a joke.
Geronimo is one of the most famous Native American leaders in our nation’s history and the last Native American warrior to surrender to U.S. forces after a very prolonged and bitter struggle. His legacy lives on in numerous ways. (I remember as a Baby Boomer growing up in the late 50s and 60s when children playing war or cowboys and Indians would often yell “Geronimo” in a charge or when pretend- attacking a foe. This was at least a half century after his death!) The military has a long tradition of using Native American names for their war machines and special operations. For example, the Mission to capture Osama bin Laden was dubbed (controversially) “Operation Geronimo.” Battalions have taken Geronimo’s name. And the Apache military combat helicopter is one of the most advanced, multi-role attack helicopters in the military’s arsenal.
Geronimo was born a Bedonkohe Apache, but later joined the Mescalero-Chiricahua Apache in his fight against both Mexican and American military campaigns in attempting to suppress the Apache. His original name was Goyathlay, "One Who Yawns." But his peaceful nature was dramatically changed when troops from Mexico murdered his wife and three young children in 1858. From that day on, he harbored a deep hatred of whites and spent much of his life terrorizing Mexican settlements, fighting both Mexican and American forces, and became known for his daring feats at Sonora and many other battles.
When the Chiricahua Apache were forced to move to arid reservation land at San Carlos, Arizizona — known as "Hell's Forty Acres" — in 1874, Geronimo could not abide such imprisonment and fled with a band of followers into Mexico, eluding U.S. forces for over a decade.
Geronimo surrendered to Gen. George Crook in 1884 and spent a year farming on the San Carlos reservation but took flight again in 1885 with a small band of men, boys, and women. Geronimo’s fighting force included famous Apache women warriors Lozen, Dahteste, and Goyen. (See the very popular post, WOMEN WARRIORS RISE AGAIN)
On March 27, 1886, Geronimo again surrendered to Crook at Canon de Los Embudos in Sonora, Mexico. However, as they neared the border, Geronimo, fearing murder, bolted again with his small band. As a result, Crook was viewed as being too soft on Indians and was forced to resign. Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles, a veteran of the Nez Perce wars, became head of the campaign against Geronimo. Miles organized more than 5,000 men who were employed at various times over the next five months to track the Apache band. At one time, nearly a third of the U.S. military cavalry was employed in the massive campaign against Geronimo.
In late August, Miles' Lt. Charles Gatewood met with Geronimo. Gatewood had learned Geronimo’s tongue and had gained the warrior’s respect. Gatewood told him that all of his friends and relatives had already been transported to Florida, which left the brave Apache shaken. On Sept. 4, 1886, Geronimo formally surrendered to Gen. Miles at Skeleton Canyon with the promise that, after an indefinite exile in Florida, he and his followers would be allowed to return to their homeland.
The promise was never kept. Geronimo, the last leader of an American Indian fighting force to capitulate to the United States, lived out his last years in exile. Ironically, he became famous by appearing at the St. Louis World's Fair and in Theodore Roosevelt's inaugural procession. Geronimo died in 1909 and was buried in the Apache Cemetery where he and his band had been imprisoned for 23 years at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
There he lay for less than ten years in a grave marked with a humble wooden plank before he was harangued again in death by a group of rich, privileged, white Ivy League boys from Yale University playing a prank. While American young men were losing lives and limbs in foreign trenches in World War I, these boys vowed to show their “bravery” by performing the ultimate prank: digging up the skull of the great Geronimo and delivering it to the secret clubhouse of the Skull and Bones Society to be displayed in its meeting room.
Skull and Bones was founded in 1832 as an elite secret society of Yale male college students. The organization became known for his powerful alumni that includes several U.S. Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, many wealthy corporation CEOs, and leading politicians. The list includes William F. Buckley, both George Bush Presidents, Henry Luce, founder of Life and Time magazines, Harold Stanley, founder of Morgan Stanley, and Frederick Smith, founder of FedEx, among many others.
An important part of Skull and Bones' tradition and a perverse way of members showing fealty to the esteemed secret organization was a practice called “crooking.” The practice involved stealing keepsakes and important historical artifacts from museums, universities, and even cemeteries, that would then be displayed in the Skull and Bones clubhouse. Members sought to outdo each other in the types of artifacts that were stolen, the more famous and historically significant the better.
A longstanding, hundred-year legend 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 Geronimo’s 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 and had been safely placed in the Skull and Bones clubhouse.
“Of all the items rumored to be in the Skull and Bones’ possession, Geronimo’s skull is one of the more plausible ones. There is a skull encased in a glass display when you walk in the door of The Tomb (The Skull and Bones clubhouse], and they call it Geronimo,” said author Alexandra Robbins, who wrote “Secrets of the Tomb” (Little Brown 2002), a book about the secret Yale society.
Some local historians and anthropologists in Oklahoma 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, in 1928, the army covered the grave with concrete and replaced a simple wooden headstone with a stone monument, making it nearly impregnable.
On the 100th anniversary of the death of Geronimo, in February 2009, 20 of Geronimo’s blood relatives, including his 20-year-old great grandson, Harlyn Geronimo, asked the courts to force Yale University and the school's secret organization, Skull and Bones, to release his remains for return to his native land and a proper burial.
"I believe it's a good cause because indigenous people over the century have been annihilated, removed from their homeland," said Geronimo's great grandson, Harlyn Geronimo, at a press conference in Washington, D.C. Ramsey Clark, a famous former United States attorney general who represented 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.
Because several of Geronimo's blood descendants survive today, a DNA analysis could be done of the skull in the Skull and Bones clubhouse to to reveal definitively if there is a match with his living relatives and and the mystery could be solved once and for all.
But, still, nothing came of the request, Skull and Bones handed over nothing, and the mystery remains unsolved. True or not, the story is a shocking commentary on how indigenous people were treated and continue to be treated in modern times.
Against all odds, Geronimo resisted the overwhelming powers of the United States Army and remained a free Apache or more than 30 years. He was the last Native American warrior to surrender to U.S. forces. His surrender marked the end of the Indian Wars but, also, the end of the western frontier in America, the end of an era.
The mystery and ambiguity surrounding his resting place in death is a final injustice to that great man and his people. He was not allowed to live in peace during life, nor return to his own homeland. It appears he will not be allowed peace even in death....
You may also enjoy these related posts:
- The Magnificent Legacy of Crazy Horse
-Honoring Chief Joseph
"The Tragic Mystery of Geronimo's Skull" was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on February 1, 2020.
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