It's the stuff of legends: an elite secret society that includes what would become some of the most powerful men of the 20th century allegedly invading the grave of an Apache chief to steal his skull for fraternal rituals. It's also the stuff of a new lawsuit filed Tuesday by descendents of that Apache chief.
On the 100th anniversary of the death of Geronimo, 20 of his blood relatives have 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.
The lawsuit also names President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Army Secretary Pete Geren as defendants because they are responsible for maintaining Geronimo's remains on a U.S. Army base in Oklahoma, the group said.
"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.
Skull and Bones has never said whether any of Geronimo's remains are in its possession. The descendants say they are investigating long-held claims that in 1918, members of Skull and Bones, including Prescott Bush, the father of George H.W Bush and grandfather of George W. Bush, invaded Geronimo's grave at Ft. Sill and stole his skull, some bones and other items buried with him.
"In this lawsuit, we're going to find out if the bones are there or not," said the group's lawyer, said the group's lawyer, Ramsey Clark, who was attorney general in President Lyndon Johnson's administration.
Gila Reinstein, a spokeswoman for Yale University, said she is unaware of the lawsuit, but Yale can add nothing to the mystery of the Indian chief's whereabouts.
"To the best of my knowledge, Yale University has no relics or bones belonging to Geronimo," she said, adding that she couldn't speak on behalf of Skull and Bones because it is independent of the university.
Geronimo fought for decades against Mexican and American expansion into tribal lands. He and his small band of Apaches surrendered to U.S. troops in 1886 and were sent to Florida as prisoners of war before being transferred to Alabama.
Five years later, he was sent to Ft. Sill, where he lived the rest of his life as a free-range prisoner. Geronimo became a celebrity in the twilight of his life, appearing at fairs and selling souvenirs and photographs of himself. He died of pneumonia in 1909 at Ft. Sill and was buried at the Apache Indian Prisoner of War Cemetery on the military base.
Three members of the Skull and Bones, including Prescott Bush, served as Army volunteers at Fort Sill during World War I. They are accused of stealing the items which supposedly are used in initiation ceremonies. One alleged ritual includes kissing Geronimo's skull.
Geronimo said he's bringing the lawsuit now after contemplating it over the past decade because he has the time to do it after retiring from a tribal council in 2000. Clark added that at the 100th anniversary of the shaman's death, "We really thought it would be a good time to say enough is enough."
Geronimo said he has appealed to former President Bush for help in returning the remains.
"According to our traditions the remains of this sort, especially in this state when the grave was desecrated, need to be reburied with the proper rituals to return the dignity and let his spirits rest in peace."
Asked why he didn't appeal to Obama first, Geronimo said he thought Obama may be too busy to heed his request.