Home: Scrying: Recovering the past and missing bones

Recovering the past and missing bones

May 11, 2006

If time is so relative, how can we ever expect to know what really happened in the past? Before I get to the issue at hand, I’d like to visualize a bit. Perhaps I’ve been inspired by the archeology class I took this spring, but I’ve been trying to imagine how we can reconstruct the past. Sure, it’s possible to summarize the history of the world in a single page, as this guy did. This exercise reminds me of the depth of the Mandelbrot set. From a distance, the set appears to simply be two circles, yet to describe it as such ignores the  fine and complex details.

Schulman’s summary is probably correct, but it leaves out the details. Not only that, it is somewhat biased… it ends with “World-Wide Web creation. Composition. Extrapolation?” referring to his personal website, his published book, and future plans. The details of history are often painted with bias. Skull by Van Gogh.While I wouldn’t mind picking up a copy of the book, my “history of the universe” would probably end slightly different. (For one, I’d include “offspring” …as my son is basically the center of my universe.)

Any time we try to describe the past, we’re going to be somewhat biased, no matter how detailed we get. There are simply too many details; we have to summarize to some extent, and in doing so, we’re influenced by our own stance. (Of course, historians and archaeologists still try to be as unbiased as possible.)

Now, for some strange news concerning the uncertain details of history. The LA Times reported yesterday on letter found recently, that suggests members of Yale’s secret society, Skull and Bones, did indeed steal Geronimo’s skull from Ft. Sill in 1918. Apparently, the raiding party included the president’s grandfather, Prescott Bush:

According to Skull and Bones legend, members — including President Bush’s grandfather, Prescott Bush — dug up Geronimo’s grave when a group of Army volunteers from Yale were stationed at the fort during World War I. Geronimo died in 1909.

“The skull of the worthy Geronimo the Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club … is now safe inside the [Tomb] together with his well worn femurs, bit & saddle horn,” according to the letter, written by Winter Mead.

There are some doubts:
But Mead was not at Ft. Sill, and researcher Marc Wortman, who found the letter last fall, said Monday that he was skeptical the bones were actually those of the famed Indian.

“What I think we could probably say is they removed some skull and bones and other materials from a grave at Ft. Sill,” he said. “Historically, it may be impossible to prove it’s Geronimo’s. They believe it’s from Geronimo.”

Geronimo’s great-grandson, Harlyn Geronimo, thinks the letter is important:
“It’s keeping it alive and now it makes me really want to confront the issue with my attorneys,” said Geronimo of Mescalero, N.M. “If we get the remains back … and find that, for instance, that bones are missing, you know who to blame.”

This left me with a few questions. First, why would Skull & Bones consider the Apache warrior so “worthy”? More importantly, why would they think that stealing his remains would be a way to honor him? Why is Harlyn Geronimo trying to sue the U.S. Army?

So I dug around and found his story, in his own words. Geronimo rides alongside his companion, Naiche, who was interred with him at Ft. Sill

It was rather moving… in some ways, I saw it as a tale of adaptation to change… just not a happy one. As a child, he lived with his tribe, much as his people had for hundreds of years in the past. As a young man, he went to Mexico with his family to trade. Before they could reach their destination, however, they were attacked. Geronimo lost his wife and children, and swore revenge—and got it. When the white men came, he again, hoped for peaceful relations, but that didn’t go well, either:

From the very first the soldiers sent out to our western country, and the officers in charge of them, did not hesitate to wrong the Indians. They never explained to the Government when an Indian was wronged, but always reported the misdeeds of the Indians. Much that was done by mean white men was reported at Washington as the deeds of my people.

….After this trouble all of the Indians agreed not to be friendly with the white men any more. There was no general engagement, but a long struggle followed. Sometimes we attacked the white men, sometimes they attacked us. First a few Indians would be killed and then a few soldiers. I think the killing was about equal on each side. The number killed in these troubles did not amount to much, but this treachery on the part of the soldiers had angered the Indians and revived memories of other wrongs, so that we never again trusted the United States troops.

So, I can understand how the members of Skull & Bones might admire a warrior who never compromised his principles… but was bringing his remains to their headquarters, and letting initiates kiss the skull (according to Wikipedia) any way to honor him?

All he wanted was to return to his homeland in Arizona, and live in peace with his people. He wrote:

There is no climate or soil which, to my mind, is equal to that of Arizona. We could have plenty of good cultivating land, plenty of grass, plenty of timber and plenty of minerals in that land which the Almighty created for the Apaches. 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. If this could be I might die in peace, feeling that my people, placed in their native homes, would increase in numbers, rather than diminish as at present, and that our name would not become extinct.

I know that if my people were placed in that mountainous region lying around the head waters of the Gila River they would live in peace and act according to the will of the President. They would be prosperous and happy in tilling the soil and learning the civilization of the white men, whom they now respect. Could I but see this accomplished, I think I could forget all the wrongs that I have ever received, and die a contented and happy old man. But we can do nothing in this matter ourselves-we must wait until those in authority choose to act. If this cannot be done during my lifetime-if I must die in bondage- I hope that the remnant of the Apache tribe may, when I am gone, be granted the one privilege which they request-to return to Arizona.

It didn’t happen… Geronimo died a prisoner at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. And it sounds like he couldn’t even rest in peace there. It seems to me, after all that has happened, the very least we could do would be to find those bones, wherever they are, Ft. Sill or Yale, identify them with DNA or whatever is necessary, and return them to Arizona.

While we will never be able to retrieve all the details of this history, or view them without bias, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. If we really want to honor Geronimo, we should try to understand what happened, both before and after his death, and correct what we can. Send him home.

I’ll let Geronimo have the last words here, as I think they might hold meaning for us, today:

“We are vanishing from the earth, yet I cannot think we are useless or Usen would not have created us. He created all tribes of men and certainly had a righteous purpose in creating each.”

Image credits: Painting of a Skull by Van Gough, from the Van Gogh Museum. Photo of Geronimo and his companion, Naiche, via “From Revolution to Reconstruction”