Geronimo's Skull at Yale's
Skull and Crossbones
by Jay W. Sharp
Measured against Yale's standards, Geronimo would scarcely have regarded himself as a scholar, although by Chiricahua Apache standards, he likely thought he measured up pretty well as a seer, a medicine man and a preeminent warrior.
His clairvoyance and prestige notwithstanding, however, he probably never foresaw finding a long-term home at Yale, with an honored place in the esteemed university's most prestigious and enigmatic fraternity, the Skull and Bones Society, a student organization that taught future presidents the value of cronyism and secrecy.
How Geronimo Qualified for Yale
Geronimo did not look like the stereotypical candidate for Yale, not to mention the Skull and Bones Society. In an early version of the manuscript for the book Making Peace With Cochise, Captain J. A. Sladen described Geronimo — in his early 50's at the time — as an "old looking, very dark complexioned, unprepossessing appearing Indian... His sensual, cruel, crafty face, as well as his dissatisfied manner had prejudiced me against him from the first.
"He was short and stout, in size, exceedingly dirty, and wore a white man's shirt, loose like a blouse, and little else beyond the usual breech cloth and moccasins... "
If he held few academic credentials and looked slovenly, however, Geronimo had won the respect of the Chiricahuas for his ability to see events outside the normal range of human perception. (That skill, of course, would have served him well in preparing for Yale's exams.) Leading a war party at the height of the Apache conflict, he and his warriors had paused near Casas Grandes, in northwestern Chihuahua, to eat. "Geronimo was sitting next to me with a knife in one hand and a chunk of beef which I had cooked for him in the other," said Jason Betzinez in his book I Fought With Geronimo. "All at once he dropped the knife, saying, "Men, our people whom we left at our base camp are now in the hands of U. S. troops! What shall we do?"
"This was a startling example of Geronimo's mysterious ability to tell what was happening at a distance. I cannot explain it to this day. But I was there and saw it."
As his war party turned back for the base camp to investigate, Geronimo said, according to Betzinez, "Tomorrow afternoon as we march along the north side of the mountains we will see a man standing on a hill to our left. He will howl to us and tell us that the troops have captured our base camp."
"About the middle of the [next] afternoon," said Betzinez, "we heard a howl from the hilltop to our left. There stood an Apache calling to us." Geronimo and his warriors heard the report that "the main camp, now some fifteen miles distant, was in the hands of U. S. troops."
"Thus the event which Geronimo had foretold... came to pass as true as steel. I still cannot explain it."
Geronimo also gained the Chiricahuas' respect as a medicine man, with battlefield surgical abilities that might have proven useful in Yale's pre-med academic programs. "Usually about eight persons worked together in making medicine," he said in his autobiography Geronimo: His Own Story, "and there were forms of prayer and incantations to attend each stage of the process.
"Some of the Indians were skilled in cutting out bullets, arrow heads, and other missiles with which warriors were wounded. I myself have done much of this, using a common dirk or butcher knife."
Nearing 40 years old, Geronimo gained respect at another level among the Apaches. He became an exceptionally fierce warrior in a war-making society after a Mexican force massacred his band's encampment, in northwestern Chihuahua, in 1858. "... I found that my aged mother, my young wife, and my three small children were among the slain," he said in his autobiography.
"... none had lost as I had, for I had lost all."
A year later, Geronimo — driven mad by his thirst for revenge — led a Chiricahua Apache war party into battle against that same Mexican force in northern Sonora, on the western slopes of the Sierra Madre range. "... I thought of my murdered mother, wife, and babies... and I fought with fury. Many fell by my hand, and constantly I led the advance...
"... the Apaches had seen...
"Still covered with the blood of my enemies, still holding my conquering weapon, still hot with the joy of battle, victory, and vengeance, I was surrounded by the Apache braves and made war chief... " (Such battlefield experiences would certainly have been enlightening for those Skull and Bones Society members who would someday hold the office of president of the United States and send our military forces into war.)
Over the next two and a half decades, as a prophet, a healer and a top-gun warrior, Geronimo would forge his place in American legend, alongside the fabled chiefs Cochise and Mangas Coloradas, although he never reached their heights in the tribal hierarchy. For nearly three decades, he capitalized on his skills to lead Chiricahua warriors on raiding parties across southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico and into Chihuahua and Sonora. He led them in escaping from the hated Apache reservation in southeastern Arizona, taking them southward into Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountains. He led them in desperate flight from U. S. and Mexican troopers and civilian militia. Finally, in early September of 1886, Geronimo, with the remnants of his band, dispirited, starving and defeated, gave up their quest. He surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, in the Peloncillo Mountains, near the Arizona/New Mexico border.
Geronimo — promised by Miles that he would be reunited with family members on a forested reservation in the east — instead found himself imprisoned with other warriors at a squalid and disease-ridden prison in Florida. Still a prisoner, he was moved, finally reunited with his family, to Alabama and, then, in August of 1894, to Fort Sill, near Lawton, Oklahoma, where he put the Chiricahua way of life behind him. (Even so, he still did not find the door open to Yale.)
As a matter of fact, Geronimo "... became a very shrewd capitalist when the white way was forced upon him," said S. M. Barrett in an introductory note to Geronimo's autobiography. "... he took on all the trappings of the white man's civilization, becoming a farmer, a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, a Sunday school teacher, and a tireless promoter of himself, hawking photographs, bows and arrows at various fairs [including the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis] and exposition. He was one Indian who exploited the exploiters better than they could him." And he may have wittingly have qualified himself here for Yale, which has a penchant for capitalism.
He also developed a passion for the white man's drink.
In early February of 1909, at about the age of 80, Geronimo got drunk in Lawton. Coming home alone, in a stupor, he fell out of his buggy. He "lay all night on the road in a freezing rain," said Barrett. "He was discovered the next day and taken to the hospital, where he died... " still, technically, a prisoner of war.
Interred in the quiet, secluded but ill kept Apache cemetery at Fort Still, he had probably passed from this world with little notion of going to Yale. In fact, he had always yearned to return to the Chiricahua Apache homeland. Before his death he said, in his autobiography, that "It is my land, my home, my fathers' land, to which I now ask to be allowed to return. I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountains."
His people still remember him by the Indian melody that he sang, "Geronimo's song:
O, ha le
O, ha le!
Through the air
I fly upon the air
Towards the sky, far, far, far,
O, ha le
O, ha le!
There to find the holy place,
Ah, now the change comes o're me!
O, ha le
O, ha le!
from the Indigenous Peoples' Literature Internet site
So how did Geronimo — seer, medicine man, warrior, capitalist and American legend — lose his head and go to Yale?
How Yale Recruited Geronimo
On a night in late May of 1918, more than nine years after Geronimo fell, not to the white man's rifles, but to his liquor, six young army officers from Fort Sill's "School of Fire," stole into the Apache cemetery on Beef Creek. Armed with picks, shovels and axes, they threaded their way quietly through Apache grave markers until they arrived at Geronimo's resting place.
Alumni of Yale and members of the Skull and Bones Society, they came in great secrecy, mindful, as one of them had said, that "Six army captains robbing a grave wouldn't look good in the papers."
They had come to recruit the American legend, believing him fully qualified for Yale and their organization.
Of those named, the captains, according to Kathrin Day Lissila and Mark Alden Branch, "Whose skull and bones?" Yale Alumni Magazine, May/June 2006, included Charles C. Haffner, Henry Neil Mallon, Ellery James, and one Prescott Bush. The latter would become a businessman in Connecticut, a member of the United States Senate, the father of President George H. W. Bush, and the grandfather of President George W. Bush. These army captains, like all Skull and Bones members, addressed each other, not as "Sir," but as "Patriarch" or "Knight."
According to the Skull and Bones Society's own Continuation of the History of Our Order for the Century Celebration, 17 June 1933, written by one of the organization members, one of the six grave robbers recalled that, "The ring of pick on stone and thud of earth on earth alone disturbs the peace of the prairie. An axe pried up the iron door of the tomb, and Pat[riarch]. Bush entered and started to dig. We dug in turn, each on relief taking a turn on the road as guards... Finally Pat. Ellery James turned up a bridle, soon a saddle horn and rotten leathers followed, then wood and then, at the exact bottom of the small round hole, Pat. James dug deep and pried out the trophy itself... We quickly closed the grave, shut the door and sped home to Pat. Mallon's room, where we cleaned the Bones. Pat. Mallon sat on the floor liberally applying carbolic acid. The Skull was fairly clean, having only some flesh inside and a little hair. I showered and hit the hay... a happy man... "
The Skull and Bones Society has long called the story a "hoax," said Lassila and Branch, but only a few days after the captains robbed the grave, society member Winter Mead wrote, in a personal letter to member F. Trubee Davison, that "The skull of the worthy Geronimo the Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club and the K—t [Knight] Haffner, is now safe inside the T—[or, Tomb, the crypt-like home of the society] together with his well worn femurs[,] bit & saddle horn."
According to several accounts, the society placed Geronimo's skull, bones and artifacts in a display case near the entrance to the Tomb, making them, according to the San Francisco Bay View Internet site, part of a collection of dozens of skulls (including Pancho Villa's), other human remains, several coffins and Adolph Hitler's silverware.
Geronimo, presumably having now lost his head and gone to Yale, might have been bewildered by the strange band that had forcibly inducted him into a life of Establishmentarian secrecy.
(George W. Bush, in his campaign autobiography, A Charge to Keep, said that in his senior year at Yale, "... I joined the Skull and Bones, a secret society, so secret I can't say anything more.")
The Skull and Bones Society
"On High Street, in the middle of the Yale University campus [at New Haven, Connecticut], stands a cold-looking, nearly windowless Greco-Egyptian building with padlocked iron doors," said Alexandra Robbins in Secrets of the Tomb. "This is the home of Yale's most famous secret society, Skull and Bones... "
Founded as a furtive, elitist organization in the early 19th century, the Skull and Bones Society became a wellspring of power on the world stage over the past two centuries. Members include, for instance, presidents (William Howard Taft in addition to the two Bushes), senators, representatives, cabinet members, ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, media powerhouses, business titans, and even CIA agents — a remarkable number since the society accepts only 15 new members each year. The Bonesmen hold extraordinarily close bonds, supporting George W. Bush, for instance, through employment, financial backing and political contributions, according to Robbins. In return, Bonesmen have received political support and political appointments from President Bush.
Rumor holds that the Bonesmen — the pinnacle of America's social hierarchy — must kiss a skull and swear secrecy to gain admission into the society. They place Geronimo's skull on a table in front of them during Sunday and Thursday night rituals.
Lissila and Branch said that, "In 2001, journalist Ron Rosenbaum... reported capturing on videotape what appeared to be an initiation ceremony in the society's courtyard, in which Bonesmen carried skulls and 'femur-sized bones.'" Judging by history, these same Bonesmen, we can expect, will one day take hold of levers of world power.
How Yale Has Retained Geronimo
The Skull and Bones Society, while claiming to possess Geronimo's skull, bones and artifacts, have helped block the Apaches' attempts to reclaim the remains for respectful re-burial in his mountain homeland in the Southwest.
In 1986, said Lassila and Branch, Bonesmen Jonathan Bush (President George W. Bush's uncle) and Endicott Peabody Davison helped frustrate San Carlos Apache Tribe chairman Ned Anderson's campaign for the return of Geronimo's remains. President George H. W. Bush, according to another source, rejected Arizona Senator John McCain's request to meet with Anderson to arrange the return.
Two decades later, according to an Associated Press release, "Geronimo Kin Eyes Skull & Bones," New York Daily News, the Bonesmen still resisted Apache calls for help. The White House had not responded to a request by Harlyn Geronimo — Geronimo's great grandson — for help in recovering the remains. "I haven't heard a word," said Harlyn Geronimo, of the Mescalero Apache Reservation in south-central New Mexico. He shouldn't have expected to hear anything else. After all, as President Bush said, "I joined the Skull and Bones, a secret society, so secret I can't say anything more.")
According to another AP release — "Discovery Lends Weight to Ultra-secret Skull and Bones Society Lore," posted on the MSNBC Internet site — Bonesmen faced a different potential effort by Harlyn Geronimo, who was considering a suit against the U. S. Army, calling for the return of the remains. "If we get the remains back," he said, Harlyn Geronimo, "... and find that, for instance, bones are missing, you know who to blame."
Geronimo's Last Hurrah
Geronimo: His Own Story (Book available in DesertUSA store)
Cochise and Geronimo
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