by Noam Rudnick
24th October 2003
"An axe pried open the iron door of the tomb, and Pat[riarch]
entered and started to dig...Pat[riarch] James dug deep and pried
out the trophy itself...I showered and hit the hay...a happy
So recounts a document thought to be an internal record from the
Skull and Bones Society. "Pat[riarch] Bush" is Prescott Bush, father
of an American political dynasty. His "trophy" is the skull of
Geronimo, the Native American spiritual and military leader laid to
rest in 1909 at Fort Still, Oklahoma, where Bush and fellow Bonesmen
were stationed nine years later.
Alexandra Robbins, ES '98, has researched Bush's secret society
extensively. Her recent book,
Secrets of the Tomb, has heightened
interest in the activities of Skull and Bones. She attests to the
legitimacy of the story,
"The text looks to be an authentic Bones
document describing Prescott Bush and other Bonesmen robbing
Geronimo's grave and cleaning the skull with carbolic acid."
interviews with Robbins, Bonesmen have admitted that there is a
skull in the tomb that they call Geronimo.
Current Members of Skull and Bones chose not to comment on the
legitimacy of the allegations.
Apache tribal leader Ned Anderson was informed of the alleged theft
in 1986. As an ancestor of Geronimo, Anderson petitioned the Federal
Bureau of Investigations to force the return of the skull. Noting
that Apaches have a "great fear and respect for death," Anderson
said that he hoped to honor Geronimo's express wish to be laid to
rest in "Arizona acorn country."
Unwilling to remove himself from the case entirely and yield all his
evidence to the FBI, Anderson withdrew his request for action.
Instead, he arranged to meet with George H. W. Bush's, DC '48,
brother Jonathan in New York City. Anderson recounts that Bush
sounded "very encouraging" during their initial meeting. Eleven days
later, Bush presented the display case. Anderson refused to accept
the skull because it appeared to belong to a small child. Bush
acknowledged this fact but claimed that it was the only relevant
artifact in the society's possession.
He urged Anderson to accept the display and sign a document
verifying that the society was not in possession of Geronimo's
skull. Anderson refused.
Since the meeting in Manhattan, no further efforts to recover the
skull have been made. Anderson puts great faith in the Bonesmen.
believe that those who are involved need to come clean on this," he
said. "I think they'll come around and do what is appropriate."
Jim Adams, managing editor of Indian Country Today, provides an
explanation for the notable absence of recovery efforts.
tribal governments seem reluctant to raise the issue because it does
violate taboos about speaking about the dead. This doesn't mean
they're not concerned; rather they have their own laws of secrecy."
Native Americans are far from unconcerned. Adams' publication, the
leading Native American news source, has run several articles on the
secret society's alleged possession of the skull. On Oct. 6, 60
Minutes televised a segment on Skull and Bones that briefly
addressed the society's possession of Geronimo's skull.
James Craven, an economics professor at Clark College, suggests that
such media exposure is leading to action.
"In the near future, there
will finally be large groups of Natives showing up in front of 'the
tomb' to protest this ugly racism and grave robbing by the Bones,
and they will not be leaving until that skull and any other Native
artifacts have been returned."
Adams expressed similar sentiments.
"My sense is that American
Indians in general are appalled—outraged by the accusation, but not
surprised," he said.
"Remains of ancestors have been exploited and
desecrated for centuries in the name of anthropology or simply for
idle curiosity. But even by these standards, it's bizarre and
embarrassing that a supposedly elite group would use the remains of
any human being for its own entertainment."
Supposing the grave-robbing allegations are true, why would the
Skull and Bones be interested in the head of Geronimo? Robbins
suggests that the answer lies in their name.
"Bones as a society is
preoccupied with death; skulls, skeletons, and artwork depicting
death are prevalent in the tomb. When Bonesmen steal things they use
the euphemism that they are taking 'gifts to the goddess' whom they
honor within the tomb."
The focus on death is not arbitrary. The
society emphasizes mortality in order to illustrate the necessity of
Robbins, herself a member of Scroll and Key, attests to the
centrality of ritualized stealing in many of the societies at Yale.
Each class attempts to outdo its predecessor in the acquisition of
valuables. In addition to Geronimo's skull, the Bonesmen's tomb is
rumored to contain the skull of Pancho Villa and Adolf Hitler's
Robbins expresses outrage at Skull and Bones' behavior.
it's ridiculous that Bonesmen's sense of entitlement is broad enough
to include items that allegedly don't belong to them. The items they
supposedly steal as a prank or competition may be valuable and
meaningful to the actual owners. It's appalling that proper
authorities have not forced their way into the tomb to retrieve the
items that don't belong in there."
The legality of Skull and Bones' behavior is dubious. According to
Adams, members of Skull and Bones have violated laws preventing the
desecration of graves and should be held responsible as felons.
it is true that Skull and Bones and its corporate parent RTA Inc.,
continue to hold these skulls, my belief would be that they are
participating in a continuing conspiracy to be in possession of
Many are quick to cite the Native American Graves
Protection and Repatriation Act as grounds for prosecuting Skull and
Bones. Ironically, it was George H. W. Bush, DC '48, a member of
Skull and Bones, who signed this bill into law in 1990. However, NAGPRA only applies to organizations that receive federal funding.
The University, in fact, was forced to return certain artifacts
previously held by its Peabody Museum in accordance with the bill.
However, secret societies are not directly affiliated with the
University, exempting them from NAGPRA jurisdiction.
While the society's exemption from NAGPRA relies on financial
independence from Yale, the two organizations are in fact closely
intertwined. As Robbins emphasizes, the administration hasn't taken
steps against the societies because administrators have historically
been members. To this day, prominent figures on the Yale faculty and
administration are members of Yale secret societies. There has
always been a kinship between society men at the faculty,
administration, and undergraduate levels. This close connection may
explain Yale's failure to investigate the activity of certain
In addition to being high-ranking members of the Yale
administration, members of Skull and Bones work in important
governmental positions. The upcoming presidential election could
potentially pit Bonesman against Bonesman.
George Bush, DC '68, and John Kerry, JE '66,
both members of the
society, could be hurt by their involvement in an organization that
allegedly takes part illegal behavior.
"I think these politicians
are caught in a real conflict between their loyalty to Bones and
their oaths as public servants if they don't take positive steps to
return any human remains. The reports about Geronimo certainly
poison relations between the Presidency and the tribes," Adams said.
Whatever the repercussions, many see the society's behavior as
wholly reprehensible, particularly among those who would run for
high public office.
"[The theft] is a metaphor for something much
bigger and even uglier. It is the ugly racism and hubris of the
in-bred power elites who seek to infiltrate positions of power,"