Friday, June 17, 2011

Cowboys and Indians

“I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures.” — Geronimo

No different from many young boys growing up inspired by tales of cowboys and Indians, my childhood play often centered on mock battles between ‘redskins drunk on firewater’ and ‘white soldiers who spoke with forked tongues.’ We had our heroes and villains, brave warriors and General Custers, and those on the Indian side had war paint courtesy of Mama’s Apache Red lipstick. We watched the TV shows that inevitably portrayed the Indians as bad and the whites as good God-fearing Christians. One particular Indian’s ferocity made him into legend among his own people as well as whites. Labeled by some as ‘the worst Indian who ever lived,” Apache leader Geronimo was always a part of our boyhood games.

June 16 was the ‘infamous’ warrior’s birthday. Let us hope that students are learning in their American history classes these days that infamy existed on both sides of the fence, that like so many of his Indians brothers, Apache or otherwise, Geronimo got the short end of the stick.

Geronimo, or Goyathlay (“one who yawns”) was born in 1829 in the area of western New Mexico, at that time still Mexican territory. He was a member of the Chiricahua Apache. The name Geronimo was given to him by Mexican soldiers, possibly after Saint Jerome, though the reason is not clear. Some histories report that his numerous successful raids into Mexico led people to believe that his powers were supernatural, that he was invulnerable to bullets. To the Apaches, Geronimo embodied the very essence of Apache values—aggressiveness and courage in the face of difficulty. The Chiricahuas were a migratory tribe following the seasons, hunting and farming. Raids and vengeance were an honorable way of life among the southwestern tribes and when food was scarce it was customary to raid neighboring tribes.

In 1858 Geronimo returned home from a trading excursion to find his wife, mother and three children murdered by Spanish troops from Mexico. This event fired in him a hatred of Mexicans and whites and he vowed to kill as many as he could. Leader of the last American Indian fighting force to hold out against the United States, fighting insurmountable odds he became the most famous Apache of all. In the eyes of pioneers and settlers of Arizona and New Mexico at the time, he was a bloodstained murderer, an image that endured until the second half of the twentieth century. His raids were linked to a brother-in-law named Juh, a Chiricahua chief who because of a speech impediment allowed Geronimo to speak for him. Never a chief himself, he was a medicine man, a seer and both in and out of battle a spiritual and intellectual leader. The Apache chiefs depended on his wisdom.

The US government chose to view all Apache in the literal meaning of the word, which in English means ‘enemy.’ In 1875 by order of the government all those west of the Rio Grande were moved to the San Carlos Reservation, a dusty and barren wasteland called by many “Hell’s Forty Acres.” Geronimo escaped three times, always taking with him a band of warriors, women and children. At one point as many as 5,000 soldiers and 500 scouts were tracking Geronimo and his band. In 1882 he was back on the reservation, but escaped once more in 1885. He surrendered in 1886 and he along with 450 Apache men, women and children were sent to confinement in Florida. The next move was to Oklahoma in 1894. A prisoner of war never allowed to return to his homeland, Geronimo was thrown from his horse while riding home one cold night in 1909 and lay all night before a friend found him. He later died of pneumonia, his last words voicing regret that he had ever surrendered to the whites.

For those interested in more about the native American legendary figure, try Geronimo’s Story of his Life.

1 comment:

  1. My memory says we can down on the side of the Indians more often than not. Maybe it was those nighttime raids on plum and pear trees and sneaking through the secret passages of Coco's Lumber Company. But maybe one good thing since, say the 1960's, has been a sometimes more balanced view of how things were. Sad, sad, a mark on all others, that the Indians still live in such poverty and squalor.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America