August 9th, 2010 | News, University

Judge dismisses Apache suit against Skull and Bones

It looks like the public will not be learning any times soon whether the secret society Skull and Bones keeps an Apache warrior’s skull in its tomb.

A District of Columbia judge on July 27 dismissed a case that had been brought against the mysterious society, as well as the University and senior members of the U.S. government, in February 2009. The plaintiffs are 20 descendants of the legendary Native American chieftain Geronimo hoping to reclaim their ancestor’s remains. But their lawyer, Ramsey Clark — who has represented controversial figures such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic — said Monday that he is not giving up.

“We’re obviously disappointed,” Clark said in a phone interview. “We believe that [this case] is awfully important, not only to the wishes of Geronimo himself, but to the spirit of the Indian people and their relationships to the government of the United States.”

The objective of the original suit is to gather Geronimo’s remains and reinter them near his birthplace at the head of the Gila River in New Mexico, thereby fulfilling what plaintiff Harlyn Geronimo says were his great-grandfather’s wishes. Geronimo is reportedly buried in a prisoner of war cemetery in Fort Sill, Okla., but according to an old legend, Prescott Bush — Yale graduate, Bonesman, father of former President George H.W. Bush ’48 and grandfather of former President George W. Bush ’68 — looted that grave in 1918 or 1919 and took the chief’s skull, along with some of his other bones and artifacts buried with him, back to the Skull and Bones tomb on High Street in New Haven.

Because Geronimo’s official burial place is on a military base, which is government property, Clark first planned to pursue a suit against President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of the Army Pete Geren. If he had won his case, he and his clients would have dug up the grave at Fort Sill, and if, as the story about Prescott Bush suggests, some of the remains had been missing, they would have turned to Yale and Skull and Bones.

Before anyone can take legal action against the U.S. government, the government must consent to the proceedings by waiving its sovereign immunity. District Judge Richard W. Roberts said he dismissed the case because the plaintiffs had failed to establish why immunity should be waived in this case. He also said that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), under which the prosecution was suing for ownership of the remains, only applies to burials, grave robberies and other incidents that took place after it was passed in 1990 — making the act irrelevant to this case.

But Clark said he does not think Roberts is correct on this last point.

“It doesn’t seem like that act would have much relevance if it cut off everything before that date,” Clark said.

Still, Clark said the fact that he tried to take the case straight to court, without first arguing his clients’ claim to their ancestor’s remains in front of the relevant government agencies, might be why the government never waived its immunity. Clark said he pursued litigation first because it was the fastest route, allowing him to take on all relevant parties — those in the government and those in New Haven — at the same time. Now, he said, he and his clients will turn to agencies in the executive branch and the Department of Defense that they previously tried to bypass. He added that he will eventually reopen his cases against Yale and Skull and Bones if need be, but not until after the Fort Sill remains are exhumed.

Yale has said it does not possess the remains, but that it cannot say whether the secret society — a separate entity — might have them. A representative of Skull and Bones has declined to comment on the matter.

Correction: Aug. 10, 2010

An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Slobodan Milosevic.