Thanks to the growing interest in Indian country and the accessibility of genealogical records online, there has never been a better time to investigate old family rumors about Native ancestry. And as with all genealogy, though it’s entertaining to dig up the roots of one’s family tree, even positive verification of a Cherokee grandmother or Choctaw grandfather often leads to as many questions as answers.

The best thing a curious person can do is start tracing your ancestry back using something like, or Or you can find a genealogist willing to help with the search—professionals are listed by specialty including Native American at If that isn’t something you’d like to do, local libraries can often help as well with research into your genealogy. Either way, you have to start tracing your lineage back and creating a family tree. That’s the best way to get started. That often means interviewing friends and elders who may be able to identify key dates, towns and lineages.

Their Apache ancestors were chased, hunted and herded into history. Shaped by decades of war, Geronimo, Cochise, Victorio, Lozen and Mangas Coloradas (and those they ran with) cultivated a genius for survival so their descendants could live on.

But live on, how? By letting the ancestral legacy of greatness and distinction define them, or by wearing the identity lightly? For the living descendants of the Geronimo family of Mescalero, New Mexico, the answer is both.

The first time Robert Geronimo became aware of his famous ancestor was in kindergarten.

“A kid comes up to me and says ‘I want to beat up a Geronimo.’ I said ‘I haven’t done anything to you, you haven’t done anything to me.’ The kid threw a punch and I returned it,” he explained, “and we both ended up in the principal’s office.”

From then on his grandparents taught him to read between the lines of accounts of his great-grandfather as a blood-thirsty killing machine, or even as a “chief” leading his people.

“It wasn’t a dictatorship, everyone there had a say in deciding what was going to happen,” Robert explained, “including the women. Caught between the Caucasian and Mexican forces, they had no choice but to fight. There was nowhere else to go.”

Robert holds a degree in math and computer science from Western New Mexico University in Silver City, and works in the Human Resources Department at the Inn of the Mountain Gods, the tribe’s resort and casino in Mescalero, New Mexico. His specialty is statistics, and he’s responsible for filing unemployment claims. There may be the occasional boring day, but he’s grateful to have shepherded his offspring to maturity.

“Geronimo had six wives and many children, but our line was the only one not killed,” Robert said.

His own son, Robert Samson, operates the mountain resort’s zipline and is happy with his job, even when guests sometimes scream “Ger-on-i-m-o!” as they’re flying through the air. “He just laughs, he’s cool with it,” his father said. Daughter Kristalynn Rose is a senior at the Art Institute in Phoenix, majoring in game design. Eldest Lauren Marie is mother to his 3-year-old grandson Wyatt McKinzey, and works in the Inn’s housekeeping department. Her passion is beading, learned from her grandmother.

As his kids were growing up, during car trips around the Southwest or at the holiday dinner table, Robert conveyed the main point about his family’s legacy: “We never wanted war, but we were exceptionally good at it.” And he insists they never surrendered. “The only reason they came in was because the cavalry threatened to kill everyone. And with good reason, they believed them.”

In Robert’s view Geronimo didn’t stop being a leader after imprisonment, quite the opposite.

“He became the best leader of all when he was in prison, a peacekeeper. Apaches wanted to tear each other apart because some had been scouts for the cavalry,” he explained. “Geronimo pacified them, told them ‘the past is the past.’”

If Robert could speak with his famous ancestor, he’d tell him: “Be proud, we’re still here, we’re not gone, we’re still alive and doing decently well.”

At 21, Hope Geronimo (Robert’s niece) is the youngest medicine woman among all the Mescalero Apache women, and she wonders if she’s received some of her ancestor’s spiritual gifts.

“He was somebody who had visions, I think I do sometimes,” she said. “I call out something and next thing you know, it happens.”

It feels to Hope as if her tribe’s traditional practices “picked her” and while she embraces that honor, the gift comes at a social cost.

“Something I’ve noticed, people have gotten scared of me. There’s times I can feel something’s going to happen, and when it does people freak out on me. So I’m quiet, I won’t say anything, keep it to myself. But I think that was something passed on from him.”

Hope Geronimo, a descendant of Geronimo and Robert’s niece, is the youngest medicine woman among all the Mescalero Apache women. (Photo by Kerri Cottle)

Photo by Kerri Cottle

Hope Geronimo, a descendant of Geronimo and Robert’s niece, is the youngest medicine woman among all the Mescalero Apache women.

Hope would not hesitate to seek him out as a teacher. “I have so many questions about everything, and he would explain it all to me.”

Her grandparents always taught her that Geronimo wasn’t primarily a leader—he was a medicine man. They also instructed her to include him in her prayers.

“Now that he’s a spirit, he’s a really powerful medicine man. I ask him to help guide me.”

It’s the tribe’s tradition to name a boy child after his father, so her son will not carry the name forward. “But he has Geronimo’s blood in him, no matter what anyone has to say.”

The dream Hope most dreams for her son is that he too will be involved in traditional practices. “On his dad’s side, the family owns a Crown Dancing troupe. I want him to be part of that. And with me doing this, and doing it more, he’ll always be with me.”

Hope doesn’t deny that she conducts both her parental and medicine woman duties with a grave sense of responsibility.

“I wouldn’t want to be a disappointment to my ancestors,” she said.

Keep an eye on for stories about descendants of Cochise, Victorio, Lozen and Mangas Coloradas.

American Indian heritage is a common perception among many Americans, and many people claim to be Native without truly basing their personal history on facts. Tribal nations such as the Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole and Chickasaw have been heavily documented and can trace family lineages back to the 19th and 18th centuries through censuses and lists such as the Dawes Roll.

Be warned: Many Native Americans will roll their eyes at family tales of the mythical ‘Cherokee Princess’ in one’s background, or to be told upon greeting a non-Native that ‘I’m part Cherokee.’ (Cherokee, for a variety of reasons, is the tribe most often associated with families’ genealogy myth-making.)

Most important, contemporary Indian nations have active lists and Native citizenship requirements. They know who belongs to their tribe. ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Who are your people?’ are the most common questions asked at events and pow wows, and there is often something akin to less than six degrees of separation among contemporary Natives. So, as a rule of thumb, ‘discovering’ you are Native or have Indian heritage somewhere in your genealogy bloodline is hardly enough to guarantee tribal enrollment or the benefits of social services (of which there are many myths and misunderstandings)—or, for that matter, the right to call yourself Indian. Tribal historians and enrollment officers can be contacted at individual nations if you need to learn more about a particular tribe’s requirements.

In the modern era, Native American history is rife with examples of families broken apart and separated as part of the boarding school era, the termination era (in which tribal nations were forcibly disbanded) and urban migration (forced off the land and into the cities). There are many stories about families who lost members during this historical trauma and have since sought out hidden branches of their family tree. Given the far-flung landing places for dispossessed people, family reunions are not uncommon in Indian country.

There are also many recovery and healing efforts involving the disproportionate number of children adopted out of Indian country due to misguided government policies. The search to find and heal such ‘Lost Birds’ is ongoing.

The intersection of African American and Native cultures, and the interactions between black Americans and Indians for hundreds of years is also fertile ground for genealogy research. Black Indians form a well-known pantheon in Native history as well, as well as a lively line of genealogical research.

The proliferation of over-the-counter and online DNA kits have also fueled interest in Native genealogy. The results of this method, however, can be far more complicated an ambiguous. Identifying certain strains of heritage through various haplotides is extremely fraught, and a degree of ‘Native blood’ does not often resolve very much. Building and verifying a family tree is the only real means of making sure of a particular tribal descent.


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Meet the Geronimos: Descendants Talk About Living With the Legacy