Judge orders transfer of Geronimo headdress to Interior Dept.

Friday, November 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ A federal judge has ordered the transfer of a ceremonial eagle-feather headdress said to have been worn by Apache leader Geronimo from the FBI to the Interior Department, a first step in returning the artifact to American Indian control.

According to folklore, Geronimo wore the elaborate body-length headdress at the ``Last Pow-wow'' of surviving Indian chiefs 94 years ago.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert E. Goldman said Interior officials already have said they favor returning the headdress to an American Indian tribe under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

But which _ if either _ of two competing tribes can prove its claim to the Geronimo war bonnet could take months more to sort out, Goldman said. One of the tribes is based in Oklahoma.

U.S. District Judge Berle Schiller ordered the transfer from the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia to the U.S. Department of the Interior on Monday.

The FBI seized the war bonnet after catching a Georgia man trying to sell it on the Internet in 1999. Trafficking in feathers of bald and golden eagles is illegal. The man agreed to forfeit the artifact in exchange for probation.

The Apache tribe of the Mescalero Reservation in southern New Mexico was first to file a claim. The tribe said Geronimo was the acclaimed ``war chief of all Apache tribes'' and the headdress would make a fine addition to their museum.

Two weeks later, the Comanche Tribe of Oklahoma put in its bid. The Comanches argue that Apaches did not wear long-feather war bonnets, but their tribe did and made the one seized by the FBI.

Even if Geronimo wore the headdress _ which the Comanches dispute _ the tribe said it would only have been on loan. The Comanches never would have given a non-Comanche an item of such religious and cultural significance, the tribe said.

The case has been filed in federal court in Philadelphia because that is where Leighton Deming, a lawyer, was caught trying to sell the bonnet to an undercover FBI agent for $1.2 million.

Goldman said Interior officials would advertise disposition of the headdress to American Indians, which could result in additional claimants.

If no tribe can prove its claim, the government will probably give it to a museum specializing in Native American culture, he said. The American Indian museum at Fort Sill, Okla., where Geronimo is buried, is the most likely candidate, he said.