Balanced assessment of a brave
By Robert M. Utley Yale University Press, 384pp, $39.95 (HB)
IN the US, and the West in general, the name of the Apache warrior and charismatic leader Geronimo remains dominant in folk memory.
But why is it that Geronimo is the Native American name lodged more deeply in the public mind than any other? Geronimo, bizarrely, was the codename of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, a fact that angered some Native Americans.
In his enthralling narrative of Geronimo’s life, Robert M. Utley alternates between the perspectives of white Americans and Apaches to create a highly nuanced understanding of the character and motivation of a warrior whose ferocity as a fighter and abilities as a shaman were legendary.
Unlike Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Pontiac, Geronimo, who was born in 1823, was never a chief but rather an unofficial but extremely influential leader who boasted eight wives and many children.
Muscular, squat, fierce-looking, stubborn, afflicted with a mild form of syphilis and, at least to his followers, seemingly possessed of the powers of healing and prophecy, Geronimo was above all an Apache fighting-man par excellence.
It was not until his capture in 1886, when he was 63, that he came to widespread public attention. This is despite the fact that for years he had been raiding and making war on Mexicans and white Americans.
As Utley makes clear, Geronimo had every good reason not to trust American and especially Mexican troops, who were pitiless in their pursuit of him and other lesser-known Indian raiders.
The corresponding reality is that, besides stealing stock and other forms of plunder, Geronimo’s raids on Mexicans and white Americans often involved butchering large numbers of people. Indeed, 30 years of such systematic and barbaric slaughter of men, women and children, often involving torture and mutilation, Utley cogently argues, form a