Geronimo, a Feared Warrior
Whose Skull May Be Missing
A century and three days ago today, the chief native American known as Geronimo passed away of pneumonia at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He died a prisoner, having surrendered to the U.S. in 1886. But revisions about the conquest of the West, the circumstances of his life and even his name had already started way before his death.
Even among other distinguished tribal chiefs, the man born in 1829 as Goyathlay occupies his own place in the origins of this nation. And as such, personifies the ambivalence, misconception and extreme brutality that marked its unification.
Geronimo fought both Mexican and U.S. armies and became know for his bravery and rebellious spirit. But as ‘Indians’ were considered then devoid of soul or natural rights, and as European descendants began to outnumber the native tribes of North America, their fate was already sealed even before the first clash between them started.
In his long and storied life, which outlasted some of his many wives and children, he went from feared leader in combat to the tamed, most valuable captive prize of the American army at that time. He managed to dictate his memories in the end and became a sort of a minor celebrity. But he was never to set foot again on the land of his birth, in Gila River, Bedonkoheland.
To many, the genesis of his rebelliousness, against what was perceived by native Americans as the occupation forces of European descendants, can be traced back to a bloody attack by a company of Mexican soldiers that killed his mother, first wife and three children in 1858.
But in perspective, all claims to the land natives had been living on for centuries before, and their disposition to fight until the last man, were no match to the growing power of the nascent nation expanding towards their territories.
It could be argued that the U.S.’s painful process of unification could’ve been different. But only if somehow the history of wars for land could be reversed. In reality, there’s a brutal similitude in all conflicts that ever pitted primitive cultures against technologically superior societies: the weaker side gets crushed beyond any dignity and their history gets quickly erased by the winners.
Geronimo came to age during the peak of violence that marked the tail end of the Apache Wars, when the American Indians were, for all purposes and intentions, crushed to death. And unfortunately, he lived to become a caricature of himself, old, disarmed and reduced to a touristic attraction.
Still, what his personal tragedy and cultural immolation represented has endured and inspired a century of rewriting and repositioning of the true importance of the native Americans’ heritage and legacy to the history of this country. One only hopes it doesn’t take another century for the full scope of their annihilation to serve as a lesson and the foundation to the future.
THE STOLEN SKULL
Another sad legacy of Geronimo’s after life is the suspicion that a group of privileged Yale students acted as grave robbers and made off with some of the bones of his body. Among the group, was Prescott Bush, a future U.S. Senator and the father of George H.W. and grandfather of George W., who, of course, became both presidents of this nation.
The group belonged to the Yale’s ‘secret society,’ Skulls & Bones, which both presidents later joined too. And the serious charge is that, while serving at Fort Sill in 1918, their grandpa dug up Geronimo’s remains and stole his skull and other relics.
A society’s document has surfaced a few years ago, that purportedly details the gory expedition to the fort’s cemetery, and a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Geronimo’s descendants. But since this is about a secretive and still highly influential group of individuals, it’s doubtful that any concrete proof of such disgusting deed will ever come to light.
Last year, Marc Wortman published a story on Vanity Fair about the rumored grave robbery and the then status of the lawsuit. He also documents the many obstacles for a case to be made, starting with differences of opinion and approach on how to go about it from the part of the warrior’s relatives.
No matter how many books and documentaries about the mostly heartbreaking but also full of courage and dignity history of native Americans come out every year, we seem to have this strong feeling that the real story hasn’t been told yet.
Geronimo’s autobiography is a vivid document of his incredible life, but is highly unusual, because there are very few other eyewitness accounts of the events marking the consolidation of this country. And even today, many of the passages lack the density of historical documentation to ring deep into our consciousness.
Or it may be even worst. As new generations, who identify Indians mainly with casinos and sadly, with alcoholism within their impoverished reservations, the typical urban, cosmopolitan, world-affairs aware U.S. citizen draws a blank when it comes to the historical perspective of native American life in this country.
Which is perversely depressing, as schools throughout the land fail to teach their history, preferring instead to reduce the incredibly complex development of this nation to terms invoking the brave cowboy lore versus the ignorant Indians. Just like how 16th century Europeans thought about the ‘noble savages’ they encountered and enslaved, through their pillaging conquests of the Discovery Era.
Geronimo, thus, personifies some of the most glaring contradictions about the early history of this country. Named Goyathlay, he was known as an Indian, as every non-European found in the New World, and warrior, but died as an exotic captive bird. And was already living in America even before the continent was named after a Portuguese navigator who never set foot this side of the hemisphere.
Still, his fierce expression is arguably the most recognizable face of native American chiefs, gracing T-shirts and coffee mugs. And his Hispanic name still evokes the bravery and courage of hundreds of thousands of people who’d kept this land as pristine as they had found it, hundreds of years before. That is, until we came into the picture and did our thing.