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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

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,’” Van Orden says. “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,” Van Orden says. “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 New Mexico and Arizona, 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.

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Retired Arizona Historical Society curator Jay Van Orden holds a .50-70 caliber 1870 Springfield rifle, the same kind of gun Geronimo carried when he was arrested by John Clum at Ojo Caliente in 1877.

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 his face stares back at us from postcard racks at Walgreens.

“People have latched onto him as a hero figure,” Darrow says. “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 New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma gathered at San Carlos, of all places, to celebrate Geronimo.

US Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., got in on 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 the modern fights over his bones demonstrate using “Geronimo” and “healing” in the same sentence doesn’t work today any more than it would have 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,” Edwin Sweeney, author of an important biography of Cochise and several other books, says. “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.”

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A Frank Randall took this picture of Geronimo, the first time he was photographed, in 1884 at San Carlos, Ariz. When modern shoppers see Geronimo staring back at them from postcard racks, this is the image they see..

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.”  SFR


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