Monday, April 27, 2015

Geronimo Was A Parochial Bonehead

At a friend's house for dinner this wekend, I spent some time talking to a retired Navy SEAL. During a wide-ranging discussion, he recommended I read Geronimo: His Own Story. I found it on Audible and have been devouring it greedily. There's lots to be pulled from it and no doubt it will engender several blog posts, but a couple of key points are worth mentioning here.

First off, Geronimo was a menace to everyone around him. Everyone associated with him ends up dead except him. After his tribe suffered a massacre at the hands of the Mexican army, no doubt in retaliation for something of which Geronimo was unaware, he dedicates his life to fighting and killing Mexicans. His first several forays were disasters. Almost everyone in his command is killed and they brought back nothing. His tribe was nonplussed, but he kept at it, albeit with fewer and fewer volunteers for his raids each time.

After a while, he had some success, mostly against mule trains and villagers. Here's one such described in his own words.
Early the next summer (1866) I took thirty mounted warriors and invaded Mexican territory. We went south through Chihuahua as far as Santa Cruz, Sonora, then crossed over the Sierra Madre Mountains, following the river course at the south end of the range. We kept on westward from the Sierra Madre Mountains to the Sierra de Sahuripa Mountains, and followed that range northward. We collected all the horses, mules, and cattle we wanted, and drove them northward through Sonora into Arizona. Mexicans saw us at many times and in many places, but they did not attack us at any time, nor did any troops attempt to follow us. When we arrived at our homes we gave presents to all, and the tribe feasted and danced. During this raid we had killed about fifty Mexicans.
Along with the booty came Mexican troops. Several times they followed him back to his camp and attacked, but the Apaches were too much for the Mexican army and managed to drive them off each time. At no time did Geronimo figure out that by constantly raiding Mexico, he was getting everyone ticked off at him. He had no comprehension of a larger Mexican government or the size of the Mexican population. He saw each town as its own tribe and the concept of Mexico as a nation that went from the border to the Yucatan was beyond him.

His soldiers fought with bows and arrows and spears. The Mexicans had guns, which the Apaches captured and used until the ammunition would run out. Superior technology and improving technology didn't seem to register with the Apaches. Year after year, they kept hitting the Mexican hornet's nest as hard as they could.

In the field, the Mexicans were no match for the Apaches. However, because Geronimo couldn't comprehend the notion of a larger government, he suffered a major defeat when he made a treaty with a Mexican village, thinking that would protect him from Mexican soldiers. The villagers gave the Indians tequila, got them drunk, whereupon the Mexican army showed up and shot his band of raiders to pieces.

Geronimo had no concept of morality outside of his own. It was perfectly honorable to raid and steal and murder as long as it was done the right way. He had no problem wiping out whole farmsteads if they resisted when he and his goons showed up to rob the place. When it happened to him under different circumstances, he was aghast and complained of treachery.

The reader has a major advantage over the author when reading this book. The Apache's world was tiny in all respects. They had no idea how big the United States and Mexico were in geography or population. They never understood anyone else's motivations nor did it occur to them that there could be other motivations. Technology was a given, not something developed by Man, continually advancing. Rather than understand it, they made use of simple things they could steal like guns, but left everything else.

Geronimo's end and the Apaches' end, for that matter, were utterly predictable. American and Mexican settlers finally had enough of the attacks and rather than engage in Indian-style warfare with endless tit-for-tat raids and pillaging, they decided to simply wipe them out.

Much like How I Found Livingstone In Africa, Geronimo's book leaves you with a much deeper sense of history than what our kids are learning in school these days with their perpetual repetitions of White Man Bad, Everyone Else Victim. There's a lot to be said for reading books by the people who lived at the time instead of distillations of them by people who want you to think a certain way.

This one is definitely going in the kids' reading pile.

To Geronimo, Mexico was a couple of villages near the border.


tim eisele said...

Not just people who lived at the time, but the people that themselves figured in the history. I mean, someone who lived during the time of the Apache Wars, but wasn't personally involved, could misunderstand Geronimo just as thoroughly as anyone can today. But it looks like there's no serious question of whether Geronimo was being misrepresented by historians here - we can see for ourselves what he said.

K T Cat said...

One of the things I like best about the old history books is how guileless and unsophisticated they are. My daughter's history books are wall-to-wall with photos of oppressed women and minorities in Every. Single. Chapter. Sure, Geronimo is self-promoting like just about everyone else who has ever put pen to paper (myself included), but he lacks the modern techniques that help mask the author's point of view.

tim eisele said...

Along those lines, have you ever read the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini?

K T Cat said...

Outstanding suggestion! I just added it to my Audible wish list. Thanks!