The author S. M. Barrett, Superintendent of Education, Lawton, Oklahoma met Geronimo an Apache Indian in the summer of 1904. The two developed a subsequent friendship and in late summer 1905 Barrett asked Geronimo if he could write up some of what they had talked about. At the time, Geronimo had been held as a prisoner of war for over 20 years and hadn’t been allowed to tell his side of the story for publication. Geronimo said he’d allow Barrett to write his story only if he got paid and if the officers in charge didn’t object. Of course the officers objected vigorously because they had deep feelings that Geronimo should be hanged.
Barrett appealed to President Roosevelt and was granted permission to publish Geronimo’s story. Barrett secured the necessary paperwork for Geronimo to tell his story in his own way without any negative impact to the Apache tribe. The War Department wanted to see the manuscript before publication to ensure its accuracy. When the manuscript was sent for approval, the War Department strongly objected to certain sections.
To understand the story, the reader has to recognize the age that Geronimo was living in. It was a time of lawlessness. Geronimo was born in Arizona in June 1829 and he started to formally dictate his story in 1906 so his story spans over seven decades, the last two of which he was a prisoner of war. During the seven decades there were many changes occurring in the US.
First, you have a self-governed race, the Apache tribes, who had been living freely on the land in the West. They lived off the land and had a system that worked for them. In the early to mid 1860s you had the Civil War between the Northern and Southern states and in the late 1800s you have colonization taking place. Intense change is taking place; there is movement from lawlessness to lawfulness, self-government to being governed by others. You have flawed relationships developing because some of the soldiers representing the US government make promises to the Apache tribes that they renege on. So you have distrust between the two.
The autobiography, Geronimo’s Story of His Life by S. M. Barrett includes all the written correspondence to secure permission to write the book. To make the project a reality, Barrett hired Asa Deklugie, an educated Indian – and son of Whoa, Chief of Nedni Apaches to act as an Apache interpreter. The story starts off beautifully with a creation story of how the Apache Indians came into being, and there is even a David and Goliath story where the underdog, a young boy name Apache, defeats the powerful and mighty dragon.
There are six Apache sub-tribes and Geronimo belongs to the Be-don-ko-he tribe. Geronimo talks about the various Apache sub-tribes and the kind of relationship his tribe had with them. In setting the story, Geronimo talks about Usen (God) giving them land and the food they needed to survive.
The Apache tribes had their own spiritual practices and code of beliefs which they adhered to, and those who didn’t adhere risked being banished from the tribes. They understood healing and knew which herbs to use for which illnesses, they also knew how to hunt and fight. The Apache tribes also had their own rites of passage for a boy to be considered a man. When Geronimo was 17 years old he succeeded in his initiation tests to be considered a man and was able to participate in fighting and other manly adult activities.
Like most traditions, if a young man wanted to marry he had to get permission from his beloved’s father. After paying No-po-so the requested number of ponies for his daughter’s hand in marriage, Geronimo was free to marry his sweetheart Alope. No wedding ceremony was necessary after he made his payment.
When Geronimo was about 29 years old, he and his tribe went into Mexico to trade. They established camp and left a few men to guard the women, children and supplies. While they were away, Mexican troops from another town invaded their camp, destroyed their supplies, stole their ponies and arms and killed many of their women and children. Many of the Apache Indians who had gone to trade lost loved ones that day, but Geronimo lost everyone – wife, child and aged mother.
He was very angry and consumed with feelings of revenge – he was prepared to die while trying to exact his revenge against the Mexicans. Geronimo developed an intense hatred for all Mexicans, and over a period spanning several decades, Apache Indians and Mexicans plundered and killed each other. It was quite a bloody and deadly affair between them.
Geronimo’s Story of His Life gives you a glimpse of the Apache tribes through the eyes of Geronimo. You see their culture, the way they survived and how the tribes interacted with each other. You also see how people support and collaborate with each other. The book is very graphic in details about the fights and there are many mentions of scalping. By way of the soldiers, the US Government promises the Apache tribes land and didn’t act in good faith. So was it the fault of the government or the soldiers? There were a few soldiers who acted honourably and Geronimo mentions them in his autobiography. The War Department objected strongly to some of the things that Geronimo had to say about some of the Army Officers in charge.
What I liked about S. M. Barrett’s approach to the autobiography is that he didn’t just accept what Geronimo told him, where possible he tried to verify accounts and he stated what he uncovered. While reading Geronimo’s life story, you see his weaknesses as well as his strengths. For example, the Mexican troop killed his entire family, but Geronimo wanted revenge against all Mexicans, not just the offending party. His need for revenge was very intense, and that was his driving force for a long time in his life. We could be quick to judge Geronimo while reading his autobiography, but can we say how we would react if our entire family is slaughtered, especially during a period of lawlessness when there were no courts to hear the case?
Geronimo’s Story of His Life by S. M. Barrett is a tough book to read but it’s one worth reading because we get an understanding of a race that is seldom depicted favourably in films and in the media. You also get a glimpse of what it was like during the period of the American frontier. I read Geronimo’s Story of His Life because it was one of the books on the list “Using Rare Books to Inspire Learning” that Gene Waddell, archivist at the College of Charleston compiled for Against the Grain.
Some of the lessons I learned from reading Geronimo’s Story of His Life include:
- Revenge is never a good thing.
- It’s important to honour your word.
- Treat others with respect.
- Do not force your will on others.
- Try to work things out amicably.
- Give thanks and share what you have with others around you.
- Take time to celebrate your victories.
- The world is more than you, think about others.
- People live what they know until they learn differently.
- Past behaviour is often a predictor of present and future behaviour.
I recommend Geronimo’s Story of His Life by S. M. Barrett and you can download an electronic version in multiple formats from Gutenberg.org.
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