The Department of Justice has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit brought by descendants of the Apache Geronimo, a warrior chieftain whose remains are rumored to be held inside Yale’s oldest secret society, seeking the return of their ancestor’s skull.

The motion, submitted June 10 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, moves to dismiss the suit on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ demands do not fall within the jurisdiction of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It was filed on behalf of President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, who are defendants in the case along with Yale and the society Skull and Bones.

The attorney for the plaintiffs, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, called the motion without merit and said he would press on with the suit. The motion seeks dismissal of the claims against only the federal government, not the University or Skull and Bones.

The Justice Department’s motion cites a 2006 federal district court ruling that said the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act “applies only to remains or artifacts that are ‘excavated or discovered’ — not to remains that may still be buried.”

Geronimo’s remains were buried in Fort Sill, Okla., after the Apache chieftain died in 1909. As a result, the act would not apply unless the government decides to undertake an “intentional excavation” of Geronimo’s grave, which the act does not require, the Justice Department argues.

The motion also claims that the lawsuit, filed Feb. 17, fails to present the claim as one upon which relief may be granted because it does not include a statement “showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.”

In the suit, 20 of Geronimo’s descendants claim the right to move the Apache chieftain’s remains from Fort Sill to a site near his birthplace in New Mexico. Since the remains at Fort Sill are property of the federal government, the complaint named the three federal officials as defendants. The plaintiffs said they included Skull and Bones and the University as additional defendants because of rumors that members of the secret society pillaged Geronimo’s grave in the early 1900s and brought his skull back to their New Haven tomb.

In a telephone interview Friday, Clark said he and his clients would not take legal action against Yale or Skull and Bones until after they have opened the grave at Fort Sill and determined whether any of the remains are, in fact, missing.

He said the important question is why the federal government wants to keep Geronimo buried at Fort Sill.

“They’re still fighting the Indian wars, and they want to retain the remains of Geronimo to show that they won,” he said.

Clark added that he believes the federal government has a “humanitarian and legal” obligation to surrender the remains, citing the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act as one reason why. “What is the purpose of Congress enacting [the act] if the military is going to stand in the way of its use?” he asked.

The plaintiffs have until early August to respond to the Justice Department’s motion.