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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  

July 1, 2009, 12:00 am

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,” Miller, who taught for 37 years at Oklahoma’s Cameron University, says. “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,” Miller says. “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,” Jay Van Orden, a retired Arizona Historical Society curator and now a lecturer on Apache culture, says. “It doesn’t pass the giggle test.”

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This 1917 photograph is of the Tomb on High Street in New Haven, Conn., where the Order of Skull and Bones is said to have transplanted Geronimo’s, well, skull and (some) bones.

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,” Van Orden says. “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,” Fort Sill Apache Tribe Chairman Jeff Houser says. “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 a 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,” Melendrez says. “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,” the Fort Sill chairman says. “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,” Brinckerhoff says. “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, says 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,” Darrow says. “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,” Darrow says.

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.

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