The descendants of the Apache Geronimo, a warrior chieftain whose remains are rumored to be held inside Yale’s oldest secret society, filed a lawsuit Tuesday demanding the return of their ancestor’s skull.

Twenty members of the legendary warrior’s family are suing senior federal government officials, the University and the society Skull and Bones in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to seek the return of Geronimo’s remains as well as punitive damages.

“I believe strongly from my heart that his spirit was never released,” Geronimo’s great-grandson Harlyn Geronimo said in the press conference on Tuesday. “Presently, he’s still imprisoned. The only way to put this into closure is to relieve the remains and his spirit so that he can be taken back to his homeland, on the Gila Mountains, at the head of the Gila River.”

One hundred years ago Tuesday, Geronimo died of pneumonia at Fort Sill, Okla., but the suit alleges that members of Skull and Bones exhumed his remains in 1918 or 1919 and transported them to the society’s High Street tomb in New Haven. The group that is rumored to have stolen Geronimo’s skull, bones and other items from his grave site is said to have included Prescott Bush, father of former President George H. W. Bush ’48 and grandfather to former President George W. Bush ’68.

“To assure that all existing remains of Geronimo and funerary objects are recovered by Geronimo’s lineal descendants, the Order of Skull and Bones and Yale University must account for any such articles that are or have been in their possession, or on their property,” the formal complaint states. “And persons with knowledge must provide any facts known to them concerning the claims.”

Reached by phone Tuesday evening, four individuals — named in the society’s 2007 tax filings as directors of Skull and Bones’s corporate parent, the Russell Trust Association — said they had no knowledge of the lawsuit. Repeated knocks on the front door of the society’s tomb were not answered Tuesday evening.

University spokeswoman Gila Reinstein said Tuesday afternoon she had “no knowledge” of the complaint filed by Geronimo’s descendants, adding that she could not comment on ongoing lawsuits. Even if Skull and Bones does have Geronimo’s remains, she said, the society is a separate entity from Yale and is not affiliated with the University.

Because Geronimo’s initial place of burial was a U.S. military base, the suit’s 20 plaintiffs — all lineal descendants of Geronimo — named President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of the Army Pete Geren as defendants in the suit.

Rumors that Bonesmen stole Geronimo’s remains have never been authoritatively confirmed or debunked. Experts remain split on whether the grave robbery ever took place. In an interview, Towana Spivey, director of the Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum, said he has never believed the story.

Some of the details of Bush’s story were also inconsistent with Geronimo’s tomb, Spivey said. For example, Bush described a stone vault with an iron door, Spivey said, but Geronimo’s grave would have been marked by a simple wooden headstone at the time when the robbery allegedly took place.

But Alexandra Robbins ’98, author of the 2002 Bones exposé, “Secrets of the Tomb,” is not so quick to discount the idea that Geronimo’s skull may have spent most of the last century at Yale.

“Of all of the pilfered items rumored to be in the Bones tomb, Geronimo’s skull is the most plausible,” Robbins said in an e-mail to the News. “The society’s documented description of the grave-robbing is in standard Skull and Bones lingo, and Bonesmen I spoke to told me that there is a skull in the building that they call Geronimo.”

If they win the suit, plaintiffs hope to re-inter Geronimo in a site close to his birthplace, in the Gila Wilderness of southwestern New Mexico.

Geronimo’s descendants are legally entitled to ownership of his remains and any funerary objects buried with him under the provisions of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the complaint argues.