RESTORING GERONIMO’S NAME AND PLACE
IN THE ANNALS OF AMERICAN HISTORY
Consciousness about my Apache Indian roots came to me late in my life not because I sought to occlude or exclude them but because I seldom, if at all, thought about them, even though my grandfather Atilano Campos was a significant presence in my life. Only now from the perspective of my present age (almost 89) do I wonder how my Apache grandfather Atilano Campos and my grandmother Eufracia Gasca made a go of their marriage. He (my mother’s father), the complexion of a well-polished meerschaum pipe and she (Eufracia Gasca, my mother’s mother), a diminutive women, fair, with flaxen hair, looking every bit the European Spanish woman matrimonially linked to a Huastecan Apache seemed truly like an odd couple. She, always referring to him as “ese indio”—that Indian—and he rolling his eyes and nodding his head almost imperceptibly in quiet resolve. They made of life in hard-scrabble times of Mexico a venue of success in a land far from their roots for their daughter Anita’s children—me, my two sisters, and my brother.
At the outset let me say that as Indo-Hispanic Chicanos we did not get here by turning the other cheek or by rolling over like good lap dogs for the approval of the dominant American society. With due credit and homage to the Conquest Generation of Mexican Americans (1848-1912) who endured great suffering and iniquities, their sacrifices have made our existence as Indo-Hispanic Mexican Americans of the 21st century (still a colonized people) more bearable though not less harsh. Our travails as an internal U.S. colony of Mexican Americans since 1848 have been punitive and infamous.
What Indo-Hispanic Mexican Americans of that “conquest generation” faced immediately after the dismemberment of more than half of Mexico’s national territory per the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (February 2, 1848) was a strikingly different political system, a philosophically different educational system, and a linguistically different national language from their own which was immediately anathematized by mainstream American society and its apodictic strictures. Though the territory of the Mexican Cession was larger than Spain, Italy, and France combined, the more than 3 million estimated inhabitants proffered with the newly acquired territory were not welcomed by mainstream Americans. Much of what was Mexican and Spanish in the territory of the Mexican Cession has been retained by American society—place names and occupation terms) but the people themselves—the Indo-Chicanos have been held at arm’s length.
The journey and evolution from Indians to Chicanos started in 1492 when Columbus found himself in the Americas, thinking he had made his way to Cipango (Japan). Columbus called the Indigenous people he encountered in the Caribbean islands “Indians” He could not know that these people and the Spaniards would blend into a population which the Mexican educator and philosopher Jose Vasconcelos in the 20th century would call la raza cosmica—“the cosmic people.”
Who could have foreseen the holocaust engendered by the Spanish encounter of Cortez and Moctezuma in 1519? At first glance that encounter seems like little more than two cultures meeting each other face to face for the first time. But that encounter augured calamity for the Indians and, ultimately, calamity for the Spaniards as well. Despite the historical outcome, if one were to pronounce a “winner” of that encounter, I would pick the Indians who are as much our forebears as are the Spaniards. The descendants of that confluence of encounters have survived in prolific numbers.
Regardless of the historicity of that encounter, like the creatures of “The Dark Crystal” (film) we cannot negate the duality of our heritage—somos indios y españoles—Indo-Hispanic mestizos. Like Joaquin in Corky Gonzalez’ poem, we must forge our future in light of that knowledge.
Of the western tribes of Native Americans considered as Apachean, the Navajos are the largest with a purported population of 280,000 occupying a large tract of land that intrudes into Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, more commonly known as the Four Corners Area. The Apachean tribes ranged principally in what is now Northern Mexico once Northern New Spain until 1821 and then Mexico until 1848.
Apachean history is replete with conflict with Spain, Mexico, and with each other in internecine warfare. Apaches warred with other Mexican tribes, they warred with the Spaniards, then the Mexicans, and finally with the Americans. Between 1820 and 1835 alone, some 5000 Mexicans died in Apache raids, and hundreds of settlements destroyed.
While the Navajo identify themselves separately as Diné, the People, Apacheans, on the other hand, identify themselves as N’dé, an inversion of Diné though they are ostensibly from the same haplo-group.
Migration theories abound about the presence of humans in the Americas, the most notable and enduring—though perhaps meretricious—is about the Bering Strait Crossing.
“Scientifically, Douglas C. Wallace at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, posits a genetic tree based on mitochondrial DNA that identifies human lineages of the world descended from 10 sons of a genetic Adam and 18 daughters of a genetic Eve. These genetic sons of Adam and genetic daughters of Eve are classified as “haplo-groups.” Out of all this emerges a theory that Mesoamerica was colonized from Asia thousands of years before the Spaniards set foot in the Americas. Moreover, a part of this theory identifies the Olmecs as derived from haplogroup X: Xenia daughter of Eve, branching off some 36,000years ago” (Genetics and Human Migration Patterns, http://www.ramsdale.org/ dna10.htm).
“Mexico Before Cortez,” Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
That theory is at odds with the origin stories of the indigenous American people themselves. Some origin accounts indicate populations in the Americas dating back 20,000 years. Science or no science, the truth of the matter may remain a mystery.
When Cortez arrived in the Valley of Mexico (Tenochtitlan) there were more than 50 million people under the dominion of the Aztecs—generally referred to as Nahuas per the nahuatl language (lingua franca) they spoke. There is no data as to the population size of the Apacheans and other Indian groups that may have had contact with the Aztecs. Their contact with the Spaniards came later.
Vigil asserts that “most of the basic attributes of civilization were firmly established during the Aztec period, laying the foundation for further cultural and intellectual refinement” (27). This pretty much describes the stability of the indigenous pre-Columbian social order. Vigil and other contemporary Chicano scholars challenge the narratives that have depicted indigenous pre-Columbus cultures and societies as unstable, volatile, and barbaric.
Indeed, by the time the Spaniards arrived in the Americas, there were unificatory forces at work in building stable hegemonies in the various indigenous domains. In the Northeast of what is now the United States, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca forged an alliance that exists to this day as “The Great Law of Peace” (Mann, 371-378).
This is not to say there was no social stratifications. At the various levels of indigenous societies, there were strong indications of group identity, admittedly along traditional and ideological lines. Vigil posits that “as state-level societies, “they took on the responsibility of developing a collective ideology and destiny” (29). In other words, they thought of themselves as Aztecs, Mayans, and Apacheans.
An important element of Aztec society were the pochtecas (traders who traveled beyond the boundaries of the state—in other words, “foreign trade”). Interestingly, the term “pocho” as used today in Mexican Spanish identifies a Mexican who is beyond the pale both culturally and linguistically. Mexican Americans are regarded by Mexicans as pochos.
Aztec Pochtecas plied their trade throughout the Aztec empire and beyond. The likelihood is that a flourishing trade existed between the Aztecs and their dominion and the domain of the Apacheans.
In those first moments after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (February 2, 1848) when Apacheans and Indo-Hispanic Mexicans who came with the dismembered Mexican territory became Americans by fiat, these new Americans were faced with the euphoria of American expansionism. The United States was now a nation that stretched from sea to shining sea—from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The new states that would be carved out of the territory of the Mexican Cession would be Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma would also take in part of that territory.
One could say that the United States recognized that “the jewel was in the lotus” (om mani padme hum) as they surveyed the immensity of the newly acquired land. The Mantra—metaphor of Buddhist philosophy—om mani padme hum—is considered a blessing that imparts self-awareness to Buddhist adherents. For Americans who now possessed the lands of the Hispanic Southwest, the Lotus was the new land; and the jewel was indeed in the lotus. The wealth and riches of the Hispanic Southwest would magnify the nation as it rushed to embrace it to its bosom.
The flies in the ointment were the Mexicans and Apacheans. For Americans “there was little difference between Indians and Mexicans” (Vigil, 150). This meant Anglo Americans had little regard for the Mexicans and Indians who came with the newly acquired land and still laid claim to it per the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Therefore “the spirit of equality . . . applied only to the white race” (152). Mexican Americans and Indians were therefore in open season.
Resistance to the American occupation was branded by the American government as banditry by outlaws as it sought to overlay the American template of society on the Hispanic and Apachean Southwest, a template which bred smoldering and lingering hostility. Whites were determined to make “whites” of the Mexicans and Indians. Assimilation, however, lay in the offing for more than a century. Tooth and nail, Mexicans now Mexican Americans and American Apachean Indians resisted giving up their identities, giving up their language and their culture. Out of this cauldron of hostility there emerged a synthesis of language and culture, accommodating Anglos, Mexican Americans, and American Indians though the benefits accrued largely to the Anglos.
It was into this scenario that Geronimo Goyaalé of the Bedenkohe Chiricahua Apache entered as a 16-year old. Born in 1829 (June) at the headwaters of the Gila River in Arizona (then Mexico), circumstances roiled his life. Mexicans killed his wife and children. That began Geronimo’s rampage in pursuit of revenge.
Essentially, the Geronimo legend as the most reviled Indian in American history stems from his defiance to be corralled in a reservation. That resistance and his yearning to be free created the cat-and-mouse game between Geronimo and the American army. The Army’s inability to subdue and contain him and his followers gave rise to the Army’s fury in pursuing him and his renegade band, branding him as American Enemy #1.
In actuality, Geronimo sought the way of life projected by Thoreau’s Walden, a search deeply rooted in the psyche of Native America pervaded by ideals of liberty and freedom. “Indian life . . . was characterized by a level of personal autonomy unknown in Europe” and its coercive and class-ridden societies (Mann, 375). Unable to deal with these “absolute notions of liberty,” British colonials anathematized the Native American way of life with conclusions that ‘The savage does not know what it is to obey” (Ibid.).
Others opined that as a threat to a well-ordered society, the Native American way of life had to be obliterated. The most acerbic commentary pointed out that “there is nothing so difficult to control as the tribes America. All these barbarians have the law of wild asses—they are born, live, and die in liberty without restraint; they do not know what is meant by bridle and bit” (Ibid). British colonials did not know the meaning of personal autonomy. The anti-authori-tarian view of the Apaches did not distinguish between toff and peasant.
It was the American Army’s pursuit that turned Geronimo into a media celebrity and his name into a watchword for revulsion. Geronimo wasn’t really his name. One source suggests that the sobriquet “Geronimo” was a turn-of-phrase of the name Jerome.
With the desire for revenge festering, about one year later [after the murder of his wife and children] Geronimo directed a pitched battle near Arispe, Mexico. The fight lasted nearly two hours and Geronimo was so ferocious that the terrified Mexicans called on Saint Jerome, Geronimo,” for help. The name Geronimo remained with him for life.
The truth of this explanation remains dubious. But for the moment it suffices. Geronimo finally surrendered to the American army in 1885—he was 56 and tired of war. He surrendered officially to General Miles on September 4, 1886 at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona.
Geronimo and other Apaches, including the Apache scouts who had helped the army track him down, were sent as prisoners to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio Texas. The Army held them there for about six weeks before they ere sent to Fort Pickens, in Pensacola, Florida, and his family was sent to Fort Marion. They were reunited in May 1887, when they were transferred to Mount Vernon Barracks near Mobile, Alabama for seven years. In 1894, they were moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. In his old age, Geronimo became a celebrity. He appeared at fairs, including the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where he reportedly rode a ferris wheel and sold souvenirs and photographs of himself. However, he was not allowed to return to the land of his birth. He rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade.
The derring-do of Apache desperados ended his life in 1909 ignominiously as a circus attraction. This does not diminish his life as an Indian activist. If anything, it points to the reprehensible attitudes of Anglo-Americans toward Native Americans at the time, attitudes still with us today. It’s time to bring Geronimo home to New Mexico where his remains [and skull] belong and to cleanse his name of the calumny heaped upon it by a government and yellow-press that regarded its Indian wards more as savage brutes than human beings.
The solace Geronimo sought was the solace inherent in the philosophy of First Americans, the philosophy of freedom—to be free at one with mother earth. This freedom was the glue that held together the Great Indian Alliance of Northeast America, the League of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca, despite being fragile and fissiparous. Important to note is that the League was founded on the consent of the governed (Mann, 372), a key principle of the American Constitution.
Copyright 2015 by Dr. Philip De Ortego.
WORKS CONSULTED AND CITED
Mann, Charles C., 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Random House (Vintage Books), 2006.
Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de. “Mexico Before Cortez,” Historia Chicana, October 25, 2012.
Vigil, James Diego, From Indians to Chicanos: The Dynamics of Mexican American Culture. (2nd Ed). Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press 1998.
All photos in this blog are in public domain.