Saturday, March 28, 2009

Geronimo and the End of the Apache Wars

Geronimo was a dare-devil apache warrior who fought pitched battles against the Mexican and American soldiers. He was a godly figure for his people who looked up to him for inspiration and protection. His ability to put up stiff resistance against the occupiers with a just handful of men raised his stature to a mythical level.
For his people, he was a "Shaman of War returned from the past." He was thought to possess divine magical powers with which he could "light a circle" when surrounded by the enemy or summon "a whirlwind to put the fires out so the Indians can escape."

He could look into the future and predict about impending successes or failures, dangers and calm. A true son of Mother Nature, this 'Indian Messiah' could communicate with the plants and bushes that seemed to respond well to his mysterious queries.
Geronimo was an embittered man whose wife and children were murdered by the occupiers. He became a great freedom fighter who was extremely heroic in his historic struggle against the foreigners who wanted to "to enslave and exterminate them". He was an 'Apache Moses' who led his men to the Promised Land.

Geronimo's reputation was much different about a century ago. He was despised as a brutal assassin and a ruthless murderer in southern Arizona and northern Mexico. He was a symbol of evil and bloodshed. He was dubbed as a "born butcher", "a pirate by profession, a robber to whom blood was sweeter than booty". The white men described him as an uncivilized bad smelling, manner less sadist.
He was considered to be a cruel savage, a mindless barbarian who lacked reason. On the contrary, the Mexicans thought themselves to be "gente de razón -- people of reason." In spite of such a deep rooted deep hatred against Geronimo, his enemies were forced to give him a grudging respect due to his dare-devilry.

He was a fierce fighter and "a resourceful field commander." Most of the paperback publications of the time delineated his character with assumed names like, "The Butcher, Diablo, Diablito, Satanio" etc. He was painted as "a smoky window of hell, a beaked nose, a thin slit of lipless mouth". Nevertheless, each one of them acknowledged the fact that he was awfully expert in the art of gorilla warfare and was smart enough to keep his enemy on the tenterhooks for a very long time.

Geronimo's image started to take a positive turn in the beginning of 20th century when America started to deal with the guilt feeling of slaughtering the innocent Indians for their land and resources. Geronimo was now looked upon as a "gentle, old, and wise" man who was forced to wield arms in defense of his rights.

He became an ultimate symbol of resistance against unlawful might of perfidious white villains. Geronimo's character started to emerge as that of "a freedom fighter, a peace-loving, home-loving, independent desert dweller, violent only in defense of his life and land."

People started to realize that Geronimo was a simple, clear-hearted man without deceit, intrigue or guile. He was completely innocent about the sinister business strategies employed by the.... white men to cheat the Indians. He was untutored and intuitive in his actions unlike the invaders who were so crafty and scheming.

As the time passed, the image of Geronimo as a hero overshadowed his image as an anti-hero. Forrest Carter's novel in the second half of 20th century conclusively transfigured and transformed the notorious image of Geronimo into that of a venerated hero. Now, the focus shifted to the "brutish soldiers' rampage about the West gleefully slaughtering peaceable Indians and taking special delight in shooting down helpless women and children."

Sixth Cavalry officer Charles Gatewood's description of Geronimo at the time of his surrender does not size up with the fiendish picturization of Geronimo in the past. He seems more positive than negative or an anti-hero here. He is shown to be a pretty reasonable, wise old man who knows what is best for him and his people. He is shown to be matter of fact and emphatically rebuffs the Mexicans whom he doesn't trust at all.

He is seen as a fearless, brave man ready to meet any challenge in life, "After shaking hands, the Mexican shoved his revolver around to his front & Geronimo drew his half way out of the holster, the whites of his eyes turning red". He is a gentleman who can cease to be one when provoked or threatened; this also explains his revenge and a long-drawn war against his oppressors. As such, he seems to be an innocent man who "followed our commander wherever he went, as if fearing he might go away, leaving his captive behind."

Apache warrior Samuel E. Kenoi talks about Geronimo as "a human tiger" who was always prepared to "go out on the war-path." He paints Geronimo as a restless fellow who is always ill at ease and worried about the prospect of an impending enemy attack. Kenoi's description of Geronimo doesn't contribute much to his status as a hero and delineates him more as an anti-hero.

Talking about Geronimo, he tells a fellow Indian, "I know we would not be in our present trouble if it was not for men like him, and you honor him for that." In spite of all this he is shown to be forthright, honest and truthful. He told General Miles in front of whom he eventually surrendered:

"I know some of your big generals. You become generals just because you are good liars. Why I tell you that you are a liar right in the midst of your troops is that you never have caught me shooting. And now, General Miles, I have come with my men to you with good will, but I know just what you are going to do. You will say this, I know: 'I have caught Geronimo while he was shooting and made him surrender to me."

Kenoi pooh-poohs Geronimo's visions and supernatural powers as "his foolish ceremony".

The Carrasco massacre of the innocent, unsuspecting Indians left a deep scar on young Geronimo's psyche. General Carrasco's crime against humanity went unpunished. The court refused to punish him for the murder of guiltless women and children.

On the contrary, he was given a hero's welcome by people when he took away Indian prisoners, many of whom were later sold into slavery. In Carrasco Massacre, "Geronimo's mother, wife, and children were among the victims and that his lifelong hatred of all Mexicans was the result of this loss".

An iron entered into his hitherto kindly soul. Geronimo became a formidable Apache war chief and inflicted heavy losses on his enemies, especially the Mexicans against whom he had a severe personal grudge. Sweeney writes, "Over the years Geronimo has become a symbol of heroic resistance, and the massacre of his family has been cited many times to justify his transformation from a man of peace, living in harmony with nature and his neighbors, into the terror of the Southwest and northern Mexico".

The 'mythic' good or evil Geronimo with inherent contradictions in his character has always been an enigma for the critics. To some he is a hero and to others an anti-hero, to some an axis of evil to others an angel!

The fact is Geronimo's perception as a hero or a villain depends entirely upon which side do you belong to. If you tend to sympathize with the Indians for the gross injustice white men heaped on them, Geronimo would definitely seem to be a positive and an honorable character to you. And, if you are a staunch supporter of the pioneers and the white men, Geronimo would certainly seem to you a villainous and an evil character.

The 'mythic' qualities of Geronimo minus magical powers may have some essential truth about them. One must not forget that intuition and wisdom have their own magic. Geronimo's character must have been a combination of good and bad qualities. Had he been too angelic, he would have failed to put up such a fierce armed resistance against a mighty enemy. Had he been devilish alone, there would not have been so many positive vibes about him in the air or in the pages of history.


Sonnichsen, C.L. Geronimo and the End of the Apache Wars . Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990

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