Bridging Two Worlds

A Yavapai Indian survives the 1872 Skeleton Cave massacre and is taken in by soldiers who killed his family

Poor little Wet Nose was scooped up and taken in by the same soldiers who had directed the massacre of his entire extended family. It happened at Skeleton Cave, near the Salt River, in 1872—just another mass murder in the desert, another little-remembered horror of the Apache wars.

Wet Nose (in his language, Hoomothya), a Yavapai Indian, was about 8 years old when he became Mike Burns, adopted as a kind of hard-working mascot by cavalry soldiers fighting a variety of tribes across central Arizona out of Prescott's Fort Whipple and the Verde Valley's Fort Verde. Capt. James Burns, one of the perpetrators of the Skeleton Cave massacre, gave Wet Nose his new name, and even promised to take him to Ireland, the captain's homeland. But he died, and responsibility for little Mike fell to Capt. Hall S. Bishop, with whom the boy would later travel the West, fighting Indians and living the life of a frontier soldier. Mike Burns eventually went to school and returned to his beloved Arizona, where he died in 1934.

It wasn't uncommon in those days for young Indian children to be taken into the homes of settlers and soldiers. More often than not, these unfortunates worked like slaves while losing their cultural knowledge and identity, not truly part of the victor's camp and no longer a member of their own. It was exceedingly uncommon, however, for such a lost child to grow up and write an autobiography.

Though Burn's original tale was written, according to writer and editor Gregory McNamee, "in a language that is not quite English, interspersed with grammatical constructions that are not quite Yavapai," the finished book, as edited by McNamee, is a kind of terse masterpiece, shot through with an earthbound poetry that gives Burns' sometimes improbable memories the ring of truth. The manuscript had apparently been gathering dust for years at Prescott's Sharlot Hall Museum. McNamee, rather heroically, rescued it from obscurity.

Burns seems to have been something of a frontier Forrest Gump, always hanging around the edges of Arizona history. He was loved and often assisted in his early life by none other than Gen. George Crook, and he claims to have assisted Capt. John G. Bourke, the famed ethnologist and writer, with his classic 1892 book about the Apache wars, On the Border With Crook.

"I helped him with much of what he wrote, and he promised that when the book was finished and selling, I would get a share of the money," Burns writes. "I went to a lot of trouble to talk with old Indians about how they used to live, and the kinds of things they used to eat before the white man's food, such as flour, sugar, coffee, beans and potatoes, came into general use among the Indians."

Burns' tribe, the Kwevkepayas, was one of four different groups that had ranged over central Arizona for centuries when the white man came for gold in the 1860s. They lived in the pine-covered highlands around Prescott, in the lush Verde River Valley, along Date Creek, in the red rock country around Sedona and as far north as Flagstaff. Though these distinct peoples would later be referred to generally as the Yavapai, in Mike Burns' day, they were called Apache and hunted down as such.

"They were all different people, and they spoke different languages, with the same trouble that a white man meeting a Mexican has," Burns writes, though he calls himself an Apache throughout the book. From this vantage, it may be easy to read too much into Burns' struggles with identity. His was really the same struggle as that of thousands of Indians who worked as scouts for the Army, hunting down and killing their own people. People are people, in the end, and they almost always revert to "what's in it for me."

At one point, Burns is given the opportunity to return to the native life. He declines, choosing comfort over the unknown, as most of us probably would, too.

"At that time I was asked if I did not want to return to my people, but I went on with my business as if I had not heard, since I was satisfied where I was," Burns writes. "I had no relatives living, for they had all been killed on the Salt River, and I would have been lost among the Indians. Was there any use of my going back to them just because they were Indians and so was I? I had a good house to stay in, a good bed, plenty of blankets, plenty to eat, and only a little work to do. I didn't need anything. Life was comfortable. What more could anybody want? I'd like to know."

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