Sunday, 25 September 2011

Issue: Theft of Geronimo's Remains

Geronimo was a prominent Native American leader of the Chiricahua Apache in the 19th century. In 1886 he became a prisoner of war of the United States of America when he surrendered to the authorities after an extended pursuit. As an aged prisoner of war he earned some celebrity status. He was not allowed to return to his home land and died in 1909 from pneumonia complications in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. His remains were buried at Fort Sill in the Apache Indian Prisoner of War Cemetery. Geronimo’s remains remained at peace until World War I, when his bones were allegedly stolen by members of the secret society, Skull and Bones.
Skull and Bones is an undergraduate secret society at Yale University that was founded in 1832. The society’s members have become known as ‘Bonesmen,’ which have included several prominent men such as, George H.W. Bush, his son George W. Bush, and John Kerry.  It was some of these men that former San Carlos Apache Chairman, Ned Anderson, accused for stealing the bones of Geronimo after receiving an anonymous letter, with a photograph and a copy of a logbook of Skull and Bones, in 1986. The letter, photograph, and logbook claimed that Skull and Bones had the skull of Geronimo. Anderson met with the group’s attorney, Endicott P. Davidson, who denied that Skull and Bones had Geronimo’s skull and that what Anderson had received was a prank.
In 2009, Ramsey Clark asked for the return of Geronimo’s remains in a lawsuit filed on behalf of people claiming to be the descendants of Geronimo. Skull and Bones and all others accused in the lawsuit stated that, since the 1986 letter was a prank, there was no evidence against the fact that the bones still remained at the grave site in Fort Sill.
This story, whether true or not, brings up some very pressing issues in archaeological ethics. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) states that all federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding must return Native American cultural items and remains to their respective peoples. If Geronimo’s remains were stolen from his grave then Skull and Bones is in direct violation of this law and should be punished accordingly. Due to the secrecy of the society though, it is almost impossible to find out the actual truth of the matter. It may be particularly difficult to get to the bottom of this issue because in order to check to see if all of Geronimo’s remains are still intact, his grave would have to be dug up. The digging up of his grave poses a problem because Native Americans do not wish to disturb their dead. Therefore it is almost impossible to prove whether or not the remains were ever stolen.
This story was also of personal interest because it shed light on secret societal operations and how conspiracies can become real issues. Skull and Bones is very secretive and is therefore a favourite source to pin conspiracy theories around. What if the 1986 letter sent to Ned Anderson was truly a prank? If it was a harmless prank then it has clearly been blown way out of proportion and has upset several people, Native American and non.   
I personally have a special connection to Native American issues as I have some Inuit family and am aware of how important their ancestors heritage and culture is to their continuing existence. Even though this issue takes place in the United States, it brings to the forefront the issues that are facing Native Americans all over the world. Pieces of their heritage and culture have been stripped from them due to the carelessness of ‘non-Native Americans.’  It is important that everyone becomes aware of these issues and makes an effort to support Native Americans and their struggle with gaining back all pieces of their culture and heritage.

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