Yale, Skull and Bones, and the Federal Government Sued By Geronimo’s Family

I t has long be rumored that the skull and some of the bones of Geronimo were in the possession of Skull and Bones. A letter uncovered by a Yale historian (more of that shortly) seems to confirm the rumor. Descendants of Geronimo are suing according to MSNBC:

Geronimo’s descendants have sued Skull and Bones — the secret society at Yale University linked to presidents and other powerful figures — claiming that its members stole the remains of the legendary Apache leader decades ago and have kept them ever since.
The federal lawsuit filed in Washington on Tuesday — the 100th anniversary of Geronimo’s death — also names the university and the federal government.

I’m not sure how successful they will be in their lawsuit, but it seems to be driven by the discovery of a letter. According to another story on the letter cme to light in 2006 and says in part:

The skull of the worthy Geronimo the Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club … is now safe inside the (Tomb) together with his well worn femurs, bit & saddle horn…

The discoverer of the letter, Yale historian Marc Wortman, doubts the accuracy of the letter because the letter writter was not actually at Ft. Sill. Then he goes a step further:

“What I think we could probably say is they removed some skull and bones and other materials from a grave at Fort Sill,” he said.

Which is possible, but then he says:

“Historically, it may be impossible to prove it’s Geronimo’s. They believe it’s from Geronimo.”

This is incorrect. Assuming that there are, indeed, two femurs and a skull a lot can be learned. The femur can provide stature and sex. Additionally, examination of the cross sectional properties of the femur can provide clues about whether the person spent time on horseback or walking – particulary walking in rough terrain. The skull can provide information on age, sex, and ethnicity.A multivariate analysis of measurements of the skull might even allow narrowing the biological population affinities down even further. Positive identifications have been made with less material. Bare minimum we could establish whether the skull belonged to a male Native American of Geronimo’s age. We might even be able to say if the person was an Apache. It goes without saying that these bone, if the exist, should not be the play toys of the rich and powerful elites. If Skull and Bones does have some skeletal remains they need to be examined, and if Native American repatriated. If they are not Native American they need to be, respectfully buried.
Of course, we could always see if there was any DNA that could be extracted, which would be the easiest route to go.

9 Responses

  1. Couldn’t the DNA from the burial site be matched to the remains at Yale?

  2. Ghouls in Government.
    Since, how long has it been?

  3. If they have the skull presumably someone (without prior knowledge of the believed identity) could be asked to do a facial reconstruction which could be referenced against the well known photos of geronimo? Hardly exacting I know but it would add in a little I think – he was quite recognisable.

  4. Facial reconstruction would be another way to go. Great blog, by the way…

  5. I should think that if Kennewick Man is Native American enough to be repatriated on the say-so of any modern tribe, the say-so of these folks ought to be good enough in this case as well, even without any letters written by anybody in or out of Fort Sill. If any clubs at Yale need real human skulls and bones for their mascots, an alumnus ought to volunteer his, not somebody else’s. That’s my rulin’.

  6. Performing some of these tests, particularly if they’re in the least way destructive, would be highly contentious, though. Many Native Americans would see all that as just one more way of turning their ancestors’ remains into scientific playthings and curiosities, so it would require some rather delicate diplomacy to pull that off.
    It should also be mentioned that if the remains are those of any Native American Indian, then it doesn’t matter whether it’s Geronimo or not – they’re gonna want them back. And it’s hard to think up any good reason for the SB’s to keep them.

  7. Certainly, the DNA test would be invasive. I think if it were to establish a positive ID Geronimo’s grandson would allow it. The cross sectional work on the femur could be done via CT scan. The rest just require looking or measuring.

  8. You can read the original Yale Alumni Magazine report on the 1918 Skull and Bones letter here, with a link to a scan of the letter itself:

  9. The rest just require looking or measuring.

    If I’m not mistaken, some Native American groups have opposed even that.

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