Inter-tribe dispute stalls Geronimo suit

A lawsuit implicating the University that seeks to move the remains of Apache chieftain Geronimo hit a roadblock in early August, when a second Apache tribe demanded a voice in the suit.

The Oklahoma-based Fort Sill Apache tribe filed an intervention in the suit, initially filed by the New Mexico–based Mescalero Apache tribe, on Aug. 5, effectively tabling further proceedings until an inter-tribe dispute over Geronimo’s rightful successor is resolved in a Washington district court.

Twenty lineal descendants of Geronimo filed suit last February, demanding the removal of the chieftain’s remains from their purported Fort Sill military base in Oklahoma to a location near his birthplace in New Mexico. The suit names the University and senior society Skull and Bones as defendants because, according to University lore, a group of Bonesmen opened the Oklahoma grave nearly a century ago and brought some of its contents to their New Haven tomb.

The intervention argues that the Fort Sill Apaches deserve a say in the case, especially because the Mescalero Apache suit is not backed by all of Geronimo’s descendants.

“If the Geronimo family all wanted Geronimo to be returned or moved anywhere we would not object to it,” Fort Sill Apache Chairman Jeff Houser said, “but if only one group is representing itself as the entire family we feel that is not right.”

Thus far, Yale’s involvement in the case has been minimal. The University has yet to be served in the suit, Associate Director of Public Affairs Gila Reinstein said Tuesday.

Ramsey Clark, the Mescalero Apaches’ lawyer, said in June that he will not serve the University, nor the society, until the exhumed remains are examined for missing components. Clark said he does not know how long it will take for the courts to decide whether the Apaches can exhume the remains.

The U.S. Department of Justice asked a district court to dismiss the case in August. Clark said last week that he will fight to bring the case to trial, but will not respond to the Department of Justice motion until the dispute with the Fort Sill Apaches is settled.

The dispute opens a battle of succession for Geronimo’s legacy. The Fort Sill Apaches claim they are the chieftain’s rightful heirs because Geronimo lived the last years of his life — and is now reportedly buried — in the Fort Sill area of Oklahoma. The Mescalero Apaches claim a blood relation to Geronimo, which they argue trumps the Fort Sill tribe’s claim.

Houser said the leadership of his tribe feels it would be a violation of Apache tradition to move the remains. Apaches are not supposed to mention the names of the dead, he said, let alone exhume and re-inter their remains.

Clark said he thinks Houser’s tribe wants to keep Geronimo’s remains because they draw tourists to the area, where the Fort Sill Apaches operate a large casino.

“All they do is have a casino,” Clark said. “We feel they don’t represent any relevant interests.”

After the court rules on the Fort Sill Apaches’ involvement in the case, Clark will have 30 days to respond to the motion to dismiss filed by the Department of Justice this summer.

The suit also named President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of the Army Pete Geren as defendants, because the military base at Fort Sill is federal property.

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