RAPID CITY, S.D. - A secret society at Yale University boasts of harboring skulls and bones of humans and members of that society have become some of the most powerful people in America by virtue of the network established by the society.
President George W. Bush, his father and grandfather are and were members of the Skull and Bones Society.
Recent news articles in Indian Country Today, national publications and on the national CBS television program "60 Minutes" exposed some of the inner workings of the society. Books have been written about the society and the Bonesmen, as they are called. Author Alexandra Robbins told CBS correspondent Morley Safer she was threatened and harassed for asking members to reveal information about the society. Some members did open up to her.
The secrecy of the society is what prompts journalists to pry into workings of any fraternal group or organization and Ron Rosenbaum, author and columnist for the New York Observer is obsessed with finding the chink in the code of silence.
It's because of the mistrust for anything cloaked in secrecy that America has, he said.
What is disturbing about a society that collects skulls and bones is the fact that a moral dilemma exists as to whether it is appropriate to archive someone's ancestor as an object used in initiation rituals and then remains on display in a basement tomb for all members to casually observe.
In 1986 some members of the Skull and Bones Society contacted members of the Apache Nation, the San Carlos Apache specifically and told them the Skull and Bones Society had Geronimo's skull on display.
The story was told how a written journal detailed the raid on the Chiricahua Apache's grave at Fort Sill, Okla. And that Patriarch Bush led the dig. The society refers to older members as patriarchs and the Bush was President Bush's grandfather Prescott Bush.
The alleged grave desecration took place in 1918, before federal or state laws were in place to protect such activity against American Indian burial sites. Today, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act applies to all funerary objects held by any organization that receives federal money. Other laws apply on the federal level against cemetery desecration and the Native American Religious Freedom Act of 1978 may apply in some cases, legal experts claim.
Ironically NAGPRA was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, a member of the Skull and Bones Society.
"NAGPRA does not apply at all on the private sector," said Michael Darrow, tribal historian and NAGPRA representative for the Fort Sill Apache.
"There aren't many marketable items (in Oklahoma) that come from graves. Grave robbing in other areas is a significant problem on federal and state land," he said.
Looters throughout Indian country receive very low fines compared to the marketable value of the human remains that are sold on the market.
Tim Mentz, tribal historic preservation officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said when looters are caught they receive nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
Mentz and other tribal historic and cultural representatives are in negotiations with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to establish agreements that will identify and protect the cultural, spiritual and sacred sites of the upper Missouri River Basin.
Tribes only need to make a request in order for identified funerary objects to be returned. But in many if not most cases, NAGPRA representatives from tribes say that litigation takes place. Kennewick Man in the northwest is a prime example. Human remains were found, then determined to be of American Indian origin and scientists fought to study the remains while tribes interjected traditional oral history into the equation and tried to claim the remains only to be exposed to litigation.
States have laws that prevent such looting, but again, Darrow said the fines are so low the reward of selling the object is much greater.
The Skull and Bones Society, with powerful leaders like the president, former president, former Secretary of State Averill Harriman, presidential candidate John Kerry, some of the Rockefellers, former Supreme Court justices and leaders in corporate America, condone behavior based on either implied grave robbing or at the least displaying human remains as objects of adoration.
Elders among the San Carlos Apache would not speak of Geronimo. It is part of the culture to not speak of leaders who have passed on. But, it is the belief of the Fort Sill Apache, where Geronimo died and where his family resided that the skull at the Skull and Bones Society is not that of their revered and historic leader, Darrow said.
It may be a skull of another of the Chiricahua leaders, Mangas Colorados. Darrow said Colorados' body was mutilated after he attempted to form a peace accord. Military personnel heated bayonets and put the hot steel to Colorados' feet to keep him awake and when he stood up they shot him claiming he attempted to escape.
The military order was to not let Colorados live through the night.
Subsequently his head was severed, boiled and then sent to the scientific community in the east. It was claimed that the Smithsonian had the skull, but has no record of it. No records exist to track the skull, and it just disappeared.
The Fort Sill Apache are not attempting to reclaim the skull the society alleges is that of Geronimo, but some on the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona are. Their claim is that Geronimo wanted to be buried in his homeland, near the mouth of the Gila River.
Geronimo died in 1909 at Fort Sill and was buried there by his family. His wishes, according to his biography, were that his people were to be released from bondage and returned to their homeland, but he wanted to remain with them, the Chiricahua. He was a member of the Bidanke band of the Chiricahua.
Darrow said meetings among the Apache and with the states are under way that will create laws to protect sacred and burial sites, "It's just a start," he said.
What is needed to change attitudes that human remains of American Indians are not artifacts or toys or things for holding is education, Darrow said. "A generation of education, I don't see any other way around it," he said.
Darrow said archaeologists laid claim to American Indian items as if the items belong to them, as if they had ownership. "It will take years for museums and archaeologists to realize they should have a new attitude."