11 March 2009

Geronimo's Skull

The New York Times reported on February 19 that descendents of Apache leader Geronimo (Goyathlay) filed suit in Federal court against Skull and Bones, demanding the return of his skull on the 100th anniversary of his death. Rumor has long held that the Yale secret society holds Geronimo’s skull and uses it in the quasi-occult rituals held in its clubhouse, called the Tomb. Allegedly, the bones were looted from Geronimo’s grave at Fort Sill, Oklahoma around 1918 by Prescott Bush (the father of George H.W. Bush and grandfather of W). This seems to be confirmed by a letter discovered in 2005, which describes the skull in New Haven as having been excavated in Fort Sill, along with two bones and some horse tack.

The case seems fairly cut-and-dried. Lineal descendants of a great Native American leader want his stolen remains returned from an odious, elitist occult society that produced such wretched specimens as George Bush and John Kerry. Hard to imagine anyone having a problem with that.

However! The complaint, filed by former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, also names President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates, and asks not only for whatever bones may be in New Haven, but for the exhumation of Geronimo’s grave at Fort Sill and the reburial of his remains in the Gila Wilderness. This request raises the specter of intratribal politics. Jeff Houser, Chairman of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, insists that the grave be left where it is, whether or not the body is complete.

So, who does Geronimo really belong to? The descendants? The Apache generally? To Native Americans? To the place where he died? To the United States as a whole? All of these groups have a claim in one way or another, and the sensationalism around Skull and Bones is a distraction from the real question.

The appearance of Ramsey Clark as attorney for the plaintiffs flags this case with a political agenda that extends beyond a simple family affair. Clark, leader of a cult-like Communist group and an enthusiastic apologist for characters like Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, doesn’t do anything these days unless he thinks it contributes to anti-imperialism and world revolution. Implicit in his role, and in the tenor of the complaint, is a desire to secure justice not only for the descendants of Goyathlay, but for the oppressed people of the world more generally.

Supporters of the cause certainly draw this connection (along with many others). A petition circulating online demands the return of the skull and decries Skull and Bones as an organization full of “satanic theatricism and latent homosexuality”, “elitist, racist witchcraft”, and connections to Nazism and the Bavarian Illuminati. Many of the almost 9,000 signatories point out how the case is symbolic to them of larger historical injustices against Native peoples.

One frustrating thing about the case is the lack of hard evidence. Skull and Bones, of course, neither confirm nor deny. Some historians insist that Geronimo’s grave was not robbed in 1918, and no one has exhumed the body to see. It seems likely that Prescott Bush dug up a grave at Fort Sill, but there is no proof it was Geronimo’s. Inclusion of Skull and Bones in the demand for repatriation is solely based on hearsay.

But like most archaeological controversies in the news, whatever empirical truths might lie behind the case have very little to do with how the public understands the issue. The story is the compelling thing. The elitist white secret society practicing occult rituals with the bones of a great Native leader? This is a metaphor that precisely captures very real historical truths. Secretive, cynical, exploitative, obsessed with death: this has been indigenous peoples’ experience with whites for 500 years and more. People much like the Bonesmen were the ringleaders in the genocide of Native Americans. The story is true in some fundamental sense, regardless of the empirical facts of the case.

So, what role for the archaeologist here? A decent excavation at Fort Sill could resolve the question of whether the grave was robbed in the first place, but this is a technical process, which could only happen after the political questions behind the case were resolved. What is missing here, as in many archaeological stories that come into the news, is a role for the scholar of the past in telling a story that captures the contemporary imagination. To command the public eye, archaeologists and historians need to find ways of giving our stories about the past a moral dimension and a kind of poetry that goes past the simply empirical.

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