September 17, 2011

Did Prescott Bush steal wrong skull?

Marc Wortman reviews a popular legend about Geronimo. He tackles the burning question: "Did a group from Skull and Bones break into Geronimo’s tomb and ship his skull back to the society’s clubhouse at Yale?" Below he offers a possible answer.

The Skull—and the Bones

By Marc WortmanTowana Spivey, the museum curator, was adamant: “The facts on the ground here just don’t line up with the story being told.” I’ve been involved in the Geronimo story, more or less accidentally, for a number of years, and agree with Spivey. That’s not to say that I don’t accept the story about Prescott Bush—in fact, I do. The circumstantial evidence suggests that Bush and his friends did indeed mount a grave-robbing operation, and that they came away with something. But with what? The historical rec­ord is clear that in 1918, when the “most spectacular ‘crook’” took place, Geronimo’s body was not lying in the kind of vault described in the Skull and Bones logbook. It had been buried in an unmarked grave, precisely to deter would-be grave robbers. The pres­ent monument was not built until 1930. There’s no iron door on it, like the one the Bones history describes. Assuming that Prescott Bush and his friends did smash open a burial vault, there are only two possible candidates at Fort Sill.

One of them straddles the grave of a Kiowa chief named Kicking Bird. It sits in a cemetery just a few hundred yards from the barracks where the Bonesmen were quartered. Spivey believes this was the grave they struck. I have my doubts. It’s so close to a main road that it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have been observed.

The other site is three or four miles away—it’s the small Otipoby Comanche Cemetery, on a rise overlooking the prairie. A burial vault lies at its center. A modern stone marker next to it bears the words “Mark ‘Thomas’ Perconnic / Comanche Tribe / Son of Perconnic.” There’s evidence of past tampering: bricks now seal what once must have been a doorway. I suspect that the young men from Yale ended up here, having assumed that this very prominent grave must hold “the worthy Geronimo the Terrible.” If they took anything away, it was not Geronimo’s head. It was Tom’s.
Kicking Bird was the name of Graham Greene's character in Dances with Wolves, of course.

Below:  "Two burial vaults that the tomb raiders may have mistaken for Geronimo's. Left, the crypt of Kiowa chief Kicking Bird, in the Post Cemetery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Right, the tomb of Mark 'Thomas' Perconnic, in the Otipoby Comanche Cemetery, three or four miles away." (Marc Wortman)

Who is Harlyn Geronmio?

Another interesting aspect of the story is the role of Harlyn Geronimo. I've mentioned him before when the subject of Geronimo's bones came up. But now his story seems more suspect than it did before:Harlyn Geronimo, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, was born Harlyn Via. Now 63 years old, he is a sometime actor and a self-proclaimed Apache medicine man who lives in Mescalero. Harlyn is also a sculptor and has said that he would like the new Geronimo grave site to be marked by a monumental sculpture of his own creation. About 15 Years ago, Harlyn and his brother Joseph legally changed their surname to Geronimo. According to at least one credible Geronimo biographer, their grandmother was Geronimo’s daughter from a brief marriage during the period of his exile in Alabama. Released by the army, the mother went to Mescalero with the baby and soon remarried.

Whatever the nature of Harlyn’s kinship, he has certainly exploited the name. As Harlyn Geronimo, he has acted on television and been featured in documentaries. He has traveled to France and Germany, where fascination with America’s cowboys-and-Indians history is high. A book he co-authored, Sur les pas de Geronimo ( In the Footsteps of Geronimo ), was published in France in 2008. For his televised interviews and appearances at public events and festivals, (sometimes) on horseback he wears the type of feathered headdress used by the Plains Indians, not by the Apaches. When in Paris, you have to give the Parisians what they’re expecting. I have encountered Harlyn only once—in a shared television appearance in the aftermath of my discovery of the Winter Mead letter. His anger seemed genuine. I attempted to reach Harlyn many times over the course of several months, to ask him about the Ramsey Clark lawsuit, but he seemed always to be traveling in Europe, and unreachable. I finally contacted his brother Joseph, in Mescalero. Joseph was not interested in pursuing a conversation. What he in fact said was “I ain’t giving anything away for a handful of beads. Mail me a check, and if it’s enough and don’t bounce, I’ll talk.”

For more on the subject, see:

Geronimo vs. Geronimo Over Geronimo
Apaches don't want Geronimo moved
Geronimo sues Skull and Bones


Anonymous said...

This guy Harlyn and his brother are crooks. Their devotion to native issues might be real, but kinship through exploitation is not a viable means to be taken seriously. Actual descendants of Geronimo have been more modest and less greedy.

Shame on them for cashing in on a great Apache leader, related or not!

And as for Kickingbird, no matter who' skull they possess/ed, how much bad luck do you want for stealing from anyones grave?

And as for Dances With Wolves, the complete story is originally a southern plains story, not Lakota. Ten Bears was Comanche.

Shadow Wolf said...

So the guy is always traveling around in Europe. I guess he's trying to seek fame and make a name for himself in Europe, where the White man over there are so very "facinated" with "Cowboy and injuns(not actual Natives)". Just like "Findians" tidbit. What better place than the gullible Europe.

Likewise, its precisely because he knows he's a fluke here in the U.S......
especially among the genuine Apaches.

Anonymous said...

Great blog. I have been writing about the Geronimo skull issue on and off. I thought it wrong of the Skull and Bones to raid an Aboriginal grave and to use the skull of a deceased person as a plaything at their meeting.It is a very evil and dangerous thing to do(and condemned by the very Bible that they claim to follow)and completely ignores the rights of Aboriginal people to rest in peace.If it is all in innocent fun, why aren't they picking on Pioneer graves? It is hard core ignorance and racism on their part.It is discouraging to learn of some of this background issues. However, I still maintain that in the interests of good racial relationships, the skull should be returned to the tribes involved for repatriation. The only reason it has not been returned , in my opinion, is that the Skull and Bones feel themselves above the law.Under the circumstances what do you feel should be done?

Rob said...

It sounds as though the skull belongs to someone else, not Geronimo. If it's an Indian's, I bet NAGPRA covers it.