Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place (The Civilization of the American Indian Series)

Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place (The Civilization of the American Indian Series)

by Angie Debo

ISBN: 9780806118284

Publisher University of Oklahoma Press

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Specific Groups

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Geronimo placed his birth date in June, 1829, but he was almost certainly born a few years earlier. As the old warrior tried to organize the sequence of events, Barrett apparently attempted to arrange them according to the white man's calendar. Now, by matching his experiences with known historical dates, it is possible to construct a more accurate chronology. Jason Betzinez said that his mother and Geronimo grew up together as children. Her birth date can be fixed at approximately 1823 by her memory of Halley's Comet and "The Night the Stars Fell." It can also be established by contemporary evidence that Geronimo had a wife and three children in 1850 or earlier.

To his birthplace Geronimo gave the Apache name of No-doyon Canyon and located it near the headwaters of the Gila River in what is now southeastern Arizona, then a part of Mexico. At other times he stated simply that he was born in Arizona. But by modern nomenclature the Gila does not head in Arizona, for of the branches that unite near the present-day town of Clifton to form the main stream, one now carries the name into New Mexico. Daklugie accordingly moved the location upstream to the three forks of the river near the present Cliff Dwellings National Monument in southwestern New Mexico.

Geronimo could not have been mistaken about the site. Apaches regarded their birthplace with special attachment. The child was always told of the location, and whenever in its roving the family happened by, he was rolled on the ground there to the four directions. This observance took place throughout the growing years, and even adults sometimes rolled in this manner when returning to the spot where they were born. But Geronimo or his editor could have been mistaken about the state. Even that seems improbable, however, for the Apaches soon became aware of such political subdivisions in dodging military forces. One can only say that Geronimo was born in the early 1820's near the upper Gila in the mountains crossed by the present state boundary, probably on the Arizona side near the present Clifton.

His father was Taklishim ("The Gray One"), the son of Chief Mahko of the Bedonkohe Apache tribe. His mother, although a full-blood Apache, had the Spanish name Juana. Possibly she had been captured and enslaved by the Spanish. For centuries there had been a pattern of Apache raids on Spanish settlements and Spanish capture and enslavement and occasional escape of Apache women and children. As an adult, Geronimo spoke Spanish, which he might have acquired from his mother or which he might have picked up from his contacts with the Mexicans.

Geronimo never saw his grandfather, Mahko, who died when Taklishim was a young warrior. The chief had two wives, and after his death the principal one, whose name is not now remembered, continued to exert a strong influence within the tribe. She was the mother of five of his six children who grew to adulthood. One of these was Taklishim and another was a daughter whose daughter, Nah-thle-tla, became the mother of Jason Betzinez. Mahko's other wife had one daughter, the mother of a notable woman named Ishton, the mother of Asa Daklugie.

The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Mahko were taught to revere his memory. Geronimo grew up listening to his father's tales of the chief's great size, strength, and sagacity, and of his wars with the Mexicans, at that time under Spanish rule. Betzinez described another aspect of Mahko's life. He was peace loving and generous, raising much corn and owning many horses, which he traded with the Mexicans, and storing corn and dried beef and venison in caves, which he shared with the needy of his tribe. Probably both characterizations are true. The Bedonkohes were relatively undisturbed in their mountain fastness during Mahko's lifetime, and at such periods trading relations might be established with the Mexicans, but there were traditions of old wars and raids. The young Geronimo thrilled to the stories of these exploits, while the gentle Betzinez listened to his mother's accounts of the chief's kindness and peaceable pursuits. Daklugie struck a fair balance. As he heard it, Mahko, although a great warrior, fought only when attacked, but there was one story of an epic battle with another Apache tribe.

It is impossible to untangle completely the tribal divisions of the Apaches with whom the Bedonkohes were associated. Ethnologists have evaded the problem by classifying them all as Chiricahuas, and this generalization has often been used in official records. In earlier times all who lived in the jumbled mountains of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico had been called the Gilas, with no differentiation of tribes and bands. But to Geronimo's people the Bedonkohe tribe was a well-defined unit, though apparently there was no successor to Mahko. Its members always kept their tribal affiliation distinct but made temporary connections with related tribes and intermarried freely with them so that only nine or ten full-blood Bedonkohes were living when Geronimo dictated his memoirs in 1905.

At least four tribes can be recognized among the Bedonkohes' close associates. East of them in southwestern New Mexico were two that often merged. The Mimbrenos (sometimes called the Coppermines) lived in the Santa Rita and Silver City region and the mountains to the southwest. The Warm Springs (Ojo Caliente) tribe, known as the Chihenne or Red People because of a band of red clay drawn across their faces, ranged between the Mimbrenos and the Rio Grande, but their heartland centered around the pleasant bathing pool and the clear stream that issued from San Mateo Peak on the canyon of the Alamosa River above the Mexican town of Cañada Alamosa, later known as Monticello. South of the Bedonkohes in the fastnesses of the Chiricahua, Dos Cabezas, and Dragoon mountains were the Chokonens or true Chiricahuas, and south of the Chiricahuas in the Sierra Madre of Old Mexico were the Nednais, wildest of all Apaches.

These related tribes had occasional contacts with other Apaches of New Mexico and Arizona. East of the Rio Grande were the Mescaleros, with whom the Mimbrenos and Warm Springs people were acquainted. To the north were the Coyotero and White Mountain Apaches, with whom their relations were never very close and sometimes hostile; and joining the White Mountains and Coyoteros were the Navahos, a kindred people no longer regarded as Apaches, with whom they sometimes visited and traded. To their west were many tribes of Apaches, some of whom they knew but whom they regarded as inferiors. Their name for them was Bi-ni-e-dine, meaning "Brainless People." One of these with whom Government policy was to bring them into unhappy proximity was a small nomadic tribe known as the San Carlos, which lived in the area between the Gila and San Carlos rivers.

Into this setting Geronimo was born. He was given the name Goyahkla, with the generally accepted meaning "One Who Yawns," why or under what circumstances is not known. One can guess that yawning was the habit of a sleepy baby, but no characterization could have been more inappropriate to the energetic spirit that marked his personality. Some aged Fort Sill Apaches suggest a name slightly different in pronunciation, with the meaning "intelligent, shrewd, clever." As an adult, he became known by the Mexicans as Geronimo, and this name was adopted even by his own people. The Spanish-Apache feud had been inherited by the Mexicans after their independence; and according to one story, in a battle with them he was fighting like a fiend, charging out repeatedly from cover, killing an enemy with every sally and returning with the dead man's rifle. Each time he emerged, the Mexicans began to cry out in terror, "Cuidado! Watch out! Geronimo!" (Perhaps this was as close as they could come to the choking sounds that composed his name, or perhaps they were calling on St. Jerome.) The Apaches took it up as their battle cry, and Goyahkla became Geronimo.

Of his babyhood, he said, "I rolled on the dirt floor of my father's tepee, hung in my tsoch (Apache name for cradle) at my mother's back, or suspended from the bough of a tree." Although one always thinks of the slight, brush-covered wickiup as the Apache dwelling, his mention of a tipi is probably correct. George Catlin painted tipis when he visited the Gila Apaches about 1856. According to Daklugie, it was only when his people were closely pursued during the wars that they adopted the wickiup, which could be easily set up and abandoned. He said they used deer and antelope hides with the hair left on for the tipi covering. It was placed hair side out and so cut with the natural direction of the animal's coat that the hair lay downward—a device that must have added much to the waterproofing of the lodge. Even at the present time a tipi is ceremonially used in the girls' puberty rites, a strong indication of its former importance in Apache culture. But the wickiup also has a long history. In its best form in time of peace it was a substantial, comfortable, dome-shaped dwelling built on a framework of poles. Even in its brush and straw form the Apaches stretched a skin covering over it when their location was relatively permanent.

In spite of their precarious existence, these Indians had a rich and complex ceremonial life. Geronimo's parents certainly must have employed a medicine man or perhaps a midwife to fashion his tsoch with prayers and ritual, placing amulets on it to guard him against early death. When he was four days old, or possibly a little later, he must have been placed in it with much ceremony in the presence of relatives and neighbors, after which all participated in a feast. The Apache child did not actually stay in his cradle until his neck became strong enough to support his head when he was a month or more old. Then he spent most of his time there until he became old enough to crawl around the camp. When the age of walking approached, perhaps after he was already walking, came the ceremony of putting on his first moccasins, again with a medicine man in charge, which was celebrated by songs, prayers, and dancing and feasting for relatives and friends. In the spring, usually the spring following this ritual, came the ceremonial cutting of his hair. All this Geronimo inherited as the child of a people who cherished their children.

As soon as he was old enough to understand, he also inherited Apache traditions. His father related exploits of war and hunting and events of recent history. His mother told him the origin myths of his people. She taught him to pray to Usen, a nebulous and remote Supreme Being often called Life Giver. But "We never prayed against any other person, ... we ourselves took vengeance. We were taught that Usen does not care for the petty quarrels of men." She told him the legends and exploits of supernatural beings, especially of White Painted Woman and Child of the Water, all connected with the emergence of the Apaches as sentient persons, and of the beneficent Mountain Spirits, who lived in hidden caverns and whose ceremonials and customs the Apaches duplicated. He must have learned also of witches, men and women whose malevolent Power brought calamity to individuals or the group.

His group comprised an extended family. He said he had three brothers and four sisters, but as far as is known only one of these was an actual sister, all the others being cousins. There was no word in the Apache language to distinguish cousins from siblings. Indeed, a family of eight children was almost unheard of among the Apaches. Ideally, they spaced their children about four years apart by refraining from sexual intercourse until the previous baby was weaned at about age three (the same prohibition was observed to protect the unborn child during pregnancy). The man, of course, could have sex relations with another wife, but only the leaders could afford plural marriages. In the words of Opler's informants, he might "sneak around" and find "easy women," but throughout Apache society undue preoccupation with sex was regarded as a weakness. It is apparent, however, from the Fort Sill birth records, that this family planning was frequently disregarded. Still, whether from conscious spacing or from the deaths of children weaned before they were ready for adult food, Apache families were small. Thus, it is typical that Mahko, with two wives, had, as far as is known, only eight grandchildren. All seven of these "brothers" and "sisters" of Geronimo can be traced, and among his "nephews," who in their turn were sometimes called his "brothers," were his most trusted warriors. Throughout his life his family ties were very close.

"With my brothers and sisters I played about my father's home," he said. This home was a cluster of dwellings. Usually when a man married he became a member of his wife's family, obligated to contribute to their economic support, but—since he was usually young with few possessions—he was entitled to use their property in time of need. The lodges of the daughters were built close to the parental abode, and intercourse was restricted only by the inconvenient courtesy of mother-in-law avoidance, which the Apaches, like many other Indians, were careful to observe. Sons, since they joined the families of their wives, might live at some distance, although their children shared in the affection of the paternal grandparents. But circumstances sometimes altered this residence pattern, and it seems fairly certain that all the sons and daughters of Mahko lived in close proximity. Their children grew up in a time of peace, a condition rare in Apache history. As Geronimo recalled it, "During my minority we had never seen a missionary or a priest. We had never seen a white man. Thus quietly lived the Be-don-kohe Apaches."

In this undisturbed security the small boys and girls played together, imitating adult occupations, engaging in war games, hiding among the rocks and pines, making toys with great ingenuity or using those made by their parents, and hunting wild fruit and nuts. Geronimo seemed to remember with the greatest pleasure their excursions through the surrounding country. Then, in accordance with Apache prudery, the sexes began to separate at the age of five or six, and the fathers began to train the boys, and the women the girls, in their specialized occupations.

The little girls began to assist in carrying water, bringing in wood, gathering and storing wild food plants, and cooking the meals; and they learned to dress the skins and make clothing, build the lodges, and weave the baskets. They were trained to be strong and vigorous, rising early and practicing the swift and tireless running upon which their lives might depend. The boys helped care for the horses, practiced much with the bow and arrow, and learned to make weapons and tools. They were subjected to even more rigorous physical training than the girls, rising before sunrise and bathing in the creek even when ice had formed on the surface. They were required to race up the side of the mountain carrying water in their mouths and were made to spit it out on their return to show that they had breathed properly through the nose. They shot small game as soon as they could handle their weapons; by the time they were fourteen they hunted with the men. They were systematically trained for war—shooting, dodging, hiding, tracking, learning to map the terrain and find their way back to camp.

The Apaches had many contests in which these skills were used—arrow shooting, racing, wrestling—and there were also games of chance. There were other games with complex rules in which teams played against each other. The most important game was the hoop-and-pole game, in which each contestant tried to slide a pole toward a rolling hoop so that when the hoop toppled over it would rest on the end of his pole. This game was sacred, having been handed down from the animals before the emergence of the human race. The hoop and poles were prepared with great ceremony, and only men could play; women were not even permitted to come near the ground. All these games, whether of skill or chance, were accompanied by excited betting, for the Apaches were inveterate gamblers.

They also spent much time in feasting and dancing. Some of these social gatherings were connected with a ceremonial or religious observance such as the womanhood rites for a girl attaining puberty. More were purely recreational. "I was always glad when the dances and the feasts were announced," Geronimo remembered. "So were all the other young people." Men and women danced as partners in these social dances, which thus furnished some discreet courting opportunities in a society where the girls were closely supervised in their relations with youths of the opposite sex. Geronimo did not refer to the fierce intensity of the war dance preparatory to a war party or a raid. Apparently he had few such experiences in his sheltered youth. He would have many thereafter.

Excerpted from "Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place (The Civilization of the American Indian Series)" by Angie Debo. Copyright © 2013 by Angie Debo. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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