Justice Department lawyers have moved to dismiss claims against the government in a lawsuit over the remains of the legendary Apache warrior Geronimo.
In February, a group of Native Americans claiming to have descended from the 19th century military leader sued the government, as well as Yale University and the Order of the Skull and Bones, in an attempt to retrieve Geronimo's remains. After his death in 1909, Geronimo’s body was buried at the Fort Sill United States Army Base in Lawton, Oklahoma. But according to popular lore, members of the Yale secret society broke into his tomb and stole his skull, which it now keeps on display in New Haven.
In their suit, the plaintiffs demanded the government and Yale hand over all of Geronimo’s remains, including those buried at Fort Sill, and pay punitive damages. The suit was complicated last month, however, when another group claiming to have descended from Geronimo filed its own complaint, asking that his remains not be removed from the fort. It asked that the government conduct a full genealogical investigation to determine who were Geronimo’s rightful heirs.
This week, Justice Department lawyers argued in court papers that the government could not be sued in this instance because it had not waived its right to sovereign immunity. They also attacked the statutory basis of the suit. The plaintiffs based their suit on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. The law requires government agencies and taxpayer funded institutions to return certain Native American artifacts to tribal descendants.
The government points out that the law only applies to objects that have actually been removed from a burial site. Geronimo’s grave has never technically been excavated, they argue, notwithstanding any undergraduate pranks.
The Justice Department’s motion would dismiss the claims against the government, not against Yale or the Order of the Skull and Bones.