Who was Geronimo? How do we separate myth from reality?
Much was made of the fact that Geronimo’s name was used as a code word for Osama bin Laden in 2011. The resulting firestorm from the use of that unfortunate epithet resulted in the creation of this article, which was designed to address a few questions. Among them: What should we know about this hero, and what do others need to know to understand that he is a true hero? And what books can we point out to those who need a primer?
If you look at a famous and tragic photo of Geronimo from 1903, the annotation says, “Geronimo is the most terrible man in the history of two hundred years of bloody Indian fighting.” Where do we find the words to unwind this twisted, one-sided narrative, and how do we set the record straight once and for all? A brave warrior, he was. A man fighting for his people, he was. A hero who was both courageous and humble, he was without a doubt. To this day, his memory inspires many indigenous people, and it is our duty foster understanding of Geronimo’s story.
More than two dozen books chronicle or otherwise address the life of this fierce champion of his people. Not all are credible or informative. But those that are range from his autobiography, to reminiscences by his captors and adversaries, to histories that paint the bigger contextual picture of Geronimo’s times. There are even student books, including an activity book. These selections are very different, but they have one thing in common: None portray him as a terrorist. Indeed, they reveal a man of principle, conviction and loyalty, a family man who struggled to protect his territory and culture from invading forces. The best place to start is with the testimony of the man himself.
In 1905 Geronimo, born and known to his people as Goyathlay, sat for a series of sessions with Stephen Melvil Barrett (who went by S.M. Barrett), the superintendent of education in Lawton, Oklahoma. Barrett recorded Geronimo’s memories at length after lobbying President Theodore Roosevelt for permission, going over the heads of officials who thought Geronimo did not deserve to have his side of the Apache story told because of his ferocity in battle. Geronimo insisted on relating events “in his own way” and demanded “assurance that what he has to say will in no way work a hardship for the Apache tribe,” according to Barrett’s introduction. The result, told through Apache interpreter Asa Deklugie, is a first-person account of the warrior’s life and times, Geronimo’s Story of His Life (Duffield & Company, 1906). The volume includes the intricate correspondence entailed in arranging it (what today might have taken the form of an e-mail string).
The making of the book says as much about the man’s character as the story itself does, at least as recounted by Barrett. There was, for instance, the time that Geronimo, sick with cold and fever, rode through stormy weather to keep his appointed interview. “I recognized the old chief riding furiously (evidently trying to arrive as soon as the interpreter did), his horse flecked with foam and reeling from exhaustion,” Barrett wrote. “Dismounting he came in and said in a hoarse whisper, ‘I promised to come. I am here.’?” Barret “explained to him that I had not expected him to come on such a stormy day, and that in his physical condition he must not try to work.
He stood for some time, and then without speaking left the room, remounted his tired pony, and with bowed head faced 10 long miles of cold north wind—he had kept his promise.” Geronimo starts his story from the beginning: the emergence of the Apache people from a land of darkness and wild beasts, the slaying of a dragon and the entering of the light that allowed humans to thrive. He chronicles the “Subdivisions of the Apache Tribe” and moves on to his own origins, in No-doyohn Cañon, Arizona, in June 1829 (although subsequent accounts suggest he was born elsewhere).
The slim volume (160 pages, as published sans intro by Leonaur Limited in 2010) has taken many incarnations. Aside from the original edition, available on Google Books, there are the 1970 and 1996 versions edited and with an introduction by Frederick W. Turner, published by the Penguin Group. Presciently, Dover Publications released the title on May 2, 2011. Geronimo also needs to be understood in his historic framework. Several books, written by contemporaries and modern scholars alike, shed light on the environment in which Geronimo operated and on his conversion into a warrior after Mexican troops slaughtered his mother, wife and children.
The campaign to capture him and subdue his soldiers is artfully described in The Geronimo Campaign by Odie B. Faulk (Oxford University Press, 1993). There is also the 1929 account by Lieutenant Britton Davis, published in 1976 with a foreword by Robert M. Utley as The Truth About Geronimo (Bison Books), which bears witness to the events as they happened. Near the end of the 25 years during which Geronimo eluded capture by U.S. and Mexican troops, his chief nemesis was Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood.
They “respected one another in peace and feared one another in war,” according to a publisher’s write-up of Gatewood and Geronimo, by Louis Kraft (University of New Mexico Press, 2000). Kraft details their relationship and Gatewood’s role in Geronimo’s surrender. But no one could tell it better than Gatewood himself. This he did in Lt. Charles Gatewood & His Apache Wars Memoir (Bison Books, 2009), edited by Kraft. New Mexico Magazine called it “a treasure trove of information on the Apache Wars.” The broad historical brush is applied in a famous trilogy by Edwin R. Sweeney, which ends with From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874–1886 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2010).
Geronimo’s life after capture is detailed in Angie Debo’s 1982 biography, Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place, in which is detailed his September 5, 1886, surrender, along with 16 warriors, 14 men and six children, to Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles. Shipped to Florida with those family members and nearly 400 tribesmen, he lived, incarcerated, until his death in 1909 from pneumonia. Over the years the Apache children were sent off to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Geronimo’s legacy has also left a mark in school curricula, with textbooks, nonfiction books, an activity book or two and even some young-adult fiction. Geronimo: Apache Renegade (Sterling, 2010) details many battles for readers ages 9 to 12; the activity book Geronimo: Fierce Apache Warrior, by Carole Marsh (1,000 Readers, 2003) is a fill-in-the-blanks picture book.
And then there is Joseph Bruchac’s Geronimo: A Novel (Scholastic, Inc., 2006), a fact-based tale told from the standpoint of Geronimo’s adopted grandson. Unlike the infamous bin Laden, whose agenda seemed centered on killing, the notorious but celebrated Geronimo craved only closure. “It is my land, my home, my father’s land, to which I now ask to be allowed to return,” he said. “I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountains. If this could be I might die in peace, feeling that my people, placed in their native homes, would increase in numbers, rather than diminish as at present, and that our name would not become extinct.” He never got his wish. He died imprisoned on a reservation in Florida. As for the name becoming extinct? In this instance, the phrase “be careful what you wish for” might spring to mind.
This story was originally published on May 4, 2011.