Paper Trail Of Tears

In Court, No One Can Hear You Scream "Geronimo!"

By Gregory McNamee

(Random House). Cloth, $25.

IN THE NINETEENTH century, the United States government tested the Chiricahua Apache people in battle. It won; after Geronimo's uprising, the Chiricahuas were removed from their homeland in southeastern Arizona, sent off to Florida, then Alabama, and then Oklahoma. Every Chiricahua man, woman and child was treated as a prisoner of war, write Washington-based attorney Michael Lieder and New Mexico novelist Jake Page, "whether or not they had participated in warfare against the United States or were then capable of doing so."

Books The Chiricahuas were finally merged with the Mescalero Apache band on a reservation in southern New Mexico. They were then forgotten, edged to bureaucratic extinction until 1946, when President Truman ordered the creation of the Indian Claims Commission to consider tribal rights over conquered territory. The commission took its time in deciding whether the Chiricahuas had established what it called "use and occupancy" in the lands that had been taken from them, and in evaluating the value of those lands, including the region of Bisbee, the site of billions of dollars worth of gold, silver and copper.

Not until the late 1970s did it allow that the Chiricahuas were indeed the rightful owners of that rich parcel of real estate. The government then awarded the Chiricahuas $22 million, the seventh-largest compensation issued by the commission in an aboriginal land claim--but a far smaller settlement, the authors argue, than they deserved for having been uprooted from their homes in the first place.

This all makes for meatier, and in the end far more moving, courtroom drama than any John Grisham potboiler, although the Chiricahuas' story is unlikely to make the bestseller list. Lieder and Page relate the tangled story of the Chiricahuas' legal odyssey in great detail, and very well--even if they downplay the internal divisions within the band that eased the federal government's victory in the first place, divisions that came into play again a century later when some Apache leaders attempted to lease a portion of the Mescalero Reservation to the federal government as a nuclear-waste dump. TW

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