Geronimo and the Cruel, Beautiful, West

Yesterday’s post on the continued presence of derogatory team names and mascots in American professional sports was, in part, prompted by my reading of Geronimo‘s autobiography.  It is a short book, an easy read, and comes with an excellent introduction by Frederick Turner. (Geronimo: His Own Story, As told to S. M. Barrett, with introduction and notes by Frederick Turner. Meridian Books, New York, 1996; other than some long quotes in previous histories, this is the first sustained narrative by a Native American that I have read.)

As with most histories of Native Americans, I am left a little numb: the familiar stories of dispossession, a series of betrayals, endless dissembling, and in the case of Geronimo, like some other great chiefs, the humiliations of imprisonment and camp life. By the time Geronimo–after surrendering and becoming a ‘prisoner of war’–has converted to Christianity, started selling bows and arrows at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, and posing for photographs, we are sick of it all.  Death must have been a merciful release from that protracted punishment.

In some previous posts on the American West, I had noted, in passing, the contrasts that that land holds for us: the beauty of its landscape and the cruelty writ large into its history. A couple of eloquent passages  from Turner’s introduction that describe the denudation of the West’s natural inhabitants bring that contrast alive for us.

First, the flora go:

But even the native grasses were being exterminated as the West was made over into farms and ranches: 142 million acres of the continent’s heartland that for millennia had been thronged with big bluestem, blazing star, wild indigo, black Sampson, butterfly milkweed, compass plant, prairie smoke, Scribner’s panicum, golden alexander, shooting star, and prairie dock.

Only the West could inspire descriptions– those startling names!–like that. But it inspired a savage response as well.

And then, writing of California,

In 1848, when gold was discovered in that area, and it was annexed as a state, there were approximately one hundred thousand Indians there; by 1859, that figure had been reduced to thirty thousand; and by the turn of the century there were only a fifteen thousand of the race once described by a devotee of the American way as a ‘set of miserable, dirty, lousy, blanketed, thieving, lying, sneaking, murdering, graceless, faithless, gut-eating skunks as the Lord ever permitted to infect the earth, and whose immediate and final extermination all men, except Indian agents and traders, should pray for.’ To an appalling extent the prayers were answered.

Geronimo died far  from home. In his autobiography he expressed his final wishes:

It is my land, my home, my father’s land, to which I now ask to be allowed to return. I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountains. If this could be, I might die in peace, feeling that my people, placed in their native homes, would increase in numbers, rather than diminish at present, and that our name would not become extinct.

His wish was denied.

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