Trials & Litigation

DOJ Enters Fray Over Geronimo Skull Possibly Held By Yale Secret Society

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In a filing on behalf of three high-level government officials—including President Barack Obama—who are named as defendants, the U.S. Department of Justice seeks to dismiss a federal lawsuit by descendants of the Apache warrior chieftan Geronimo that also names Yale University and a longtime secret society as defendants.

The plaintiffs say their ancestor’s skull may be in the possession of Skull and Bones and, if so, seek its return. (The secret society is rumored to have pillaged Geronomo’s grave at a U.S. Army base at Fort Sill, Okla., in the early 1900s.) However, a primary purpose of the suit is to relocate all of Geronimo’s remains from federal government property to another burial site in New Mexico near his birthplace. The complaint also seeks punitive damages, according to the Blog of Legal Times.

In its motion earlier this month, which concerns only claims against the government defendants, the DOJ asserts sovereign immunity and argues that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act cited by the plaintiffs doesn’t apply. Because the statute concerns only remains or artifacts that have been “excavated or discovered” rather than those that are still buried, the DOJ contends, it is up to the government to decide whether or not to open Geronimo’s grave, according to the BLT and the Yale Daily News.

“They’re still fighting the Indian wars, and they want to retain the remains of Geronimo to show that they won,” says former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who is representing the plaintiffs and contends the motion to dismiss is without merit. He also tells the Yale Daily News that the government has a humanitarian as well as a legal obligation to return Geronimo’s remains to his descendants.

A copy of the federal defendants’ motion to dismiss (PDF) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia case is provided by Turtle Talk.

The plaintiffs don’t intend to pursue Yale and the secret society until they open Geronimo’s grave and see whether his skull is, in fact, missing, Clark tells the Yale Daily News.

Although the membership of Skull and Bones is a closely guarded secret, the society has a mausoleum-like building on the Yale campus that is well-known.

Meanwhile, the litigation was further complicated last month when a separate suit was filed by a competing group of claimed Geronimo defendants who are seeking to retain his remains at the fort, the BLT notes. They have asked the government to conduct a genealogical investigation and determine his rightful heirs.

Additional coverage: “Geronimo’s Heirs Sue Secret Yale Society for Return of Skull”

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