Book Review: Imagining Geronimo, by William M. Clements

Imagining Geronimo: An Apache Icon in Popular Culture, by William M. Clements, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2013, $39.95

In March 1886, after more than a quarter century of raiding and evading in the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico, Geronimo and the remnants of his band of Chiricahua Apaches surrendered to U.S. forces under Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona Territory. Federal authorities quickly classified the Chiricahuas as prisoners of war and sent them east into exile. Anticipating eventual repatriation to Arizona, Geronimo instead spent the next quarter century shuffling between reservations in Texas, Florida, Alabama and Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), striving to improve his popular image, making heavily promoted public appearances and attaining a celebrity that persists to the present day. In Imagining Geronimo, William Clements explores the warrior’s image in history and popular culture and seeks to sift fact from fiction, a task the author admits “remains incomplete and already needs updating even before it sees print. [Geronimo] remains a nebulous figure from American history who, despite the somewhat limited nature of his accomplishments, has spoken to a range of opinions and mindsets.”

That range of opinions had begun to form by the time of the Apaches’ final surrender. Newspaper reports in the region plagued by Indian raids (often pinned on that “red devil” Geronimo, whether responsible or not) were especially vociferous in their cries for frontier justice. “He has been indicted for murder in several counties in New Mexico and Arizona,” opined the September 11, 1886, Las Vegas Daily Optic, “and the civil authorities should take charge of him, try him and hang him, and never let him go east to be lionized by the silly sentimentalists of that section.” A primary target of such regional invective was The New York Times, which the following month noted that “the Indian wards of the Nation are continually subjected to grievous wrongs at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them, and that it is not surprising that they occasionally rebel and go upon the warpath.” Eastern editorialists, while not excusing Indian atrocities, in effect said they didn’t blame the raiders. Chickens come home to roost.

The nexus of Geronimo’s decision for the warpath dates from a March 1851 raid by Mexican soldiers on a Chiricahua camp in northern Chihuahua during which the Sonoran troops killed the Apache warrior’s wife, children and mother. “[He] attributed his lifelong hatred of Mexicans to this massacre,” Clements writes, “and it laid the foundation for much of his later hostility toward Anglos.” But the author excuses neither Geronimo for his stated motives nor revisionists who would paint the infamous warrior as some sort of ecofriendly, progressive folk hero. “As a corrective, revisionism may often result in as extreme a perspective as that which it challenges,” Clements explains. “Alternate perspective on Geronimo, while often accepting positive attributes assigned to him…have sometimes ignored or rejected disturbing features of his image—for example, excusing atrocities as appropriate retaliation for similar acts committed against Apaches.”

Of course, Geronimo had already tried to reinvent himself, most visibly at the 1898, 1901 and 1904 world’s fairs, and as a featured participant in President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade. “Throughout the rest of his life,” Clements writes, “Geronimo’s most pressing concern was getting home, and he manipulated his image to attain that goal.” Thus he sought to appear the assimilated Indian, wore white clothes, hawked handicrafts and autographed photos, and seemingly even embraced Christianity. But he and his promoters worked at cross-purposes. “Those who promoted his public appearances usually wanted something much different from him,” Clements explains, “and often audiences came with expectations that matched those of the promoters.” Repatriation was a pipe dream. “By 1906 Geronimo realized that his attempts at projecting an image other than that of the ‘human tiger’ were doomed to fail. His role as public performer…had not produced a change in his status.”

Time would, however. “Though clearly savvy enough about his image to attempt to manipulate it,” Clements writes, “Geronimo himself could not have effected the transformations that changing tempers of the times have produced.” The author spends the last three chapters dissecting the warrior’s ever-shifting image as filtered through graphic arts, the written word and the silver screen. Incomplete as Clements may find it, his book is the most thorough examination of the Geronimo myth to date.

Dave Lauterborn

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