Balanced assessment of a brave fighter with flaws
IN the US, and the West in general, the name of the Apache warrior and charismatic leader Geronimo remains dominant in folk memory.
But why is it that Geronimo is the Native American name lodged more deeply in the public mind than any other? Geronimo, bizarrely, was the codename of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, a fact that angered some Native Americans.
In his enthralling narrative of Geronimo’s life, Robert M. Utley alternates between the perspectives of white Americans and Apaches to create a highly nuanced understanding of the character and motivation of a warrior whose ferocity as a fighter and abilities as a shaman were legendary.
Unlike Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Pontiac, Geronimo, who was born in 1823, was never a chief but rather an unofficial but extremely influential leader who boasted eight wives and many children.
Muscular, squat, fierce-looking, stubborn, afflicted with a mild form of syphilis and, at least to his followers, seemingly possessed of the powers of healing and prophecy, Geronimo was above all an Apache fighting-man par excellence.
It was not until his capture in 1886, when he was 63, that he came to widespread public attention. This is despite the fact that for years he had been raiding and making war on Mexicans and white Americans.
As Utley makes clear, Geronimo had every good reason not to trust American and especially Mexican troops, who were pitiless in their pursuit of him and other lesser-known Indian raiders.
The corresponding reality is that, besides stealing stock and other forms of plunder, Geronimo’s raids on Mexicans and white Americans often involved butchering large numbers of people. Indeed, 30 years of such systematic and barbaric slaughter of men, women and children, often involving torture and mutilation, Utley cogently argues, form a major characteristic of Geronimo’s complicated persona.
His prominence among his enemies and followers alike came not just from his prowess and bravery in battle, but from the great abilities he was thought to possess to prophesy victory in combat and especially to foresee when and where enemy soldiers would appear. These “powers” meant that many of his followers – as well as his opponents – were afraid of him.
Utley reveals that it wasn’t the cleverness of their opponents that most often brought the Apaches – including Geronimo – undone, but the hugely deleterious effects of their addiction to alcohol and, to a lesser extent, to mescal. Intoxication often rendered them helpless in countering their white opponents. This meant that from time to time, when their defences were down, Geronimo and his followers were taken by surprise.
One of my favourite photographs of many remarkable illustrations that grace this highly readable and visually appealing book is one taken in 1884. It shows a weatherbeaten Geronimo, then 61, bearing arms.
Another is that of Geronimo’s great adversary, Major General George Crook, replete with flowing beard, taken near Fort Bowie in 1886, riding his favourite form of transportation – a mule – and carrying, as always, a shotgun.
Crook knew more about Apaches and their warfare than any other senior officer. Specifically, Crook understood that often only Apaches, turned by him to work for the government, could catch other Apaches.
It was two Apache scouts who, in 1886, helped induce Geronimo to surrender. Two years later, in May 1888, he became a prisoner of war at Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama – where, like many other Apaches, he suffered from malaria.
In October 1894, he and his two surviving wives and children were transferred to Fort Still in Oklahoma, which was to be his final home. In March 1905, he was invited to Washington to attend the inauguration of President Theodore Roosevelt, who thought very highly of him.
Sadly it was the effects of chronic drunkenness, coupled with alcoholic binges, that on February 17, 1909, cost him his life. He had been a prisoner for 23 years. Geronimo was buried in the Apache graveyard on Cache Creek at Fort Still.
Avoiding previous stereotypes that have tended to paint Geronimo either as a downright thug or an absolute hero, Utley’s biography reveals that, within the constraints of Native American culture, this brave, yet sometimes vacillating Apache warrior had as many strengths as weaknesses. The fascination with this man who became a symbol of Native American resistance, and of a conquered culture, remains.
By Robert M. Utley
Yale University Press, 384pp, $39.95 (HB)
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Weekend Australian February 9-10, 2013 , Review, Books pp 24-25