America's Indian

Goyahkla, generally known by his Mexican name, Geronimo, is the star of a new biography

Goyahkla, the One Who Yawns, was not a nice man.

You may know him by his Mexican name, that name you yelled as you jumped from some boulder or rooftop when you were a kid: Geronimo!

For a long time the star of every nightmare of every settler, America's most famous Indian has in recent years become a symbol of righteous resistance, a noble savage "fighting to save his homeland from takeover by the westward-moving white people," according to historian Robert Utley, whose new biography of the Chiricahua warrior and shaman aims to disabuse us of such "demonstrably untrue" notions.

Our current attitude relative to Geronimo has been shaped by a combination of guilt and what Utley calls "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee syndrome," referring to Dee Brown's hugely popular chronicle of the conquest of the American West from the Native American perspective. I think of all those tourists wearing T-shirts with that C.S. Fly photograph from 1886 on them: Geronimo and four other warriors standing in the desert, dignified and resolute, holding their rifles—and printed beneath that image the words "Homeland Security." That's the kind of nonsense that Utley is attempting to revise here.

Truth is, Geronimo was mostly fighting for Geronimo, and even his own people knew that.

"I have known Geronimo all my life up to his death and have never known anything good about him," one Chiricahua declared late in his life, according to Utley. The best Utley can say about Geronimo's character is that he was "complex and contradictory," which is all one can say in the end about almost anyone who achieves renown.

The portrait of Geronimo that emerges from Utley's close reading of what appears to be every single document with any connection to the Chiricahua Apaches is not flattering. He gives Geronimo his due as a sometimes brilliant strategist, a fearless fighter and a devoted family man, but otherwise shows him to be a cruel, lying, paranoid drunkard. Once, he got drunk and berated his nephew with an unexplained fervor that later caused the boy to commit suicide. It was this event that inspired the first of Geronimo's two famous flights from the San Carlos reservation, according to Utley.

Indeed, drunkenness was a constant issue for Geronimo and it played a large part in many of the key events in his life, including his death, Utley writes.  It was partly the promise of liquor that drew him to the Mexican ambush in 1851 in which his first wife, his mother and his three small children were killed, setting off decades of bloody revenge attacks on both sides. And it was liquor that Geronimo had been after in 1909 when he fell off his horse in Oklahoma. He died about a week later, 23 years after becoming a prisoner of war.

The most interesting thing about Geronimo is the idea that he possessed a kind of "power," a notion that most Chiricahuas believed in, and one that caused many of them to fear the shaman, medicine man and spiritual leader more than they loved him.

"Geronimo came into prominence, not from his prowess in battle or personal bravery but from the great powers he was thought to have," according to interpreter George Wrattan, who lived among the Chiricahuas for years and is quoted by Utley. "He would prophesy victory in battle, meeting soldiers, defeating them, then getting something else; these prophecies which came true so often that his word could become law. His own people were afraid of him."

So why is Geronimo such an icon today? Why is he the only American Indian leader that most of us know by name? According to Utley, we can mostly blame (or thank) the newspapers, who covered his actions relentlessly for two years after his second breakout.

"The white citizens of Arizona and New Mexico endured a decade of Apache depredations, 1876-86," Utley writes. "Hundreds died as Apache raiders swept down on farms, ranches, villages, mining claims, and travelers to exact an appalling toll of plunder, destruction, mutilation, and death. Their bursts of anguish and outrage, reported, embellished, and falsified by Southwestern newspapers and expressed in appeals to presidents, members of Congress, governors and other of prominence, attracted the notice of all Americans."

Utley's revisionist biography of Geronimo, while somewhat lacking in a strong narrative core, probably gets closer to the actual truth of who Goyahkla was than most other books on the subject. And while the overriding impression one gets from reading Geronimo is that its subject is largely unknowable, the depth of Utley's research, his impressive command of the military history of the Southwest and his sharp eye for detail will likely make this book the standard by which all other works on Geronimo will be judged for years to come.

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