New Mexico journalist and historian Sherry Robinson of Albuquerque started her writing career reporting on the Navajo Nation for the Gallup Independent. She later focused on the Apaches, visiting important sites, reading the books of Eve Ball (Indeh: An Apache Odyssey and In the Days of Victorio) and going through Ball’s papers at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. The Apache oral histories collected by Ball (1890–1984) provided the base for Robinson’s 2000 history Apache Voices: Their Stories of Survival as Told to Eve Ball. Her latest book, I Fought a Good Fight: A History of the Lipan Apaches (see review), is based on Robinson’s own thorough research of the Lipans, whom no other writer has fully explored. She tracked down and interviewed descendants of the early Lipans, who once roamed Texas hunting buffalo, trading, fighting and forming various alliances. Robinson spoke with Wild West about her work.
Why is oral history so important to you?
I use as much oral history as possible because only then do I have the voices of my subjects. The trouble is, there isn’t that much oral history from Apaches, and using oral history requires a lot of checking. Any of us, in retelling a story, can be forgetful or fuzzy about dates and details. Sometimes an event has been told and retold so many times it’s more myth than fact. At other times oral history reveals an undocumented event, like the Lipans’ presence at the Alamo. Oral history is best, I think, when it provides a commentary or viewpoint. For example, the Lipans’ version of Colonel Ranald Mackenzie’s raid in 1873 is riveting and tragic.
How did Apache Voices come about?
On an archaeological tour of Apache sites in southwestern New Mexico I saw some of the beautiful places where the Warm Springs Apaches lived. The tour leader, attorney and rancher Tom Diamond, introduced me to Eve Ball’s books, which I enjoyed. Like many women who read Ball, I was fascinated with Lozen, the warrior woman, and wanted to write about her. I found Eve’s papers at BYU, took a week off work and immersed myself in old files. Eve had interviewed Apache elders from the Mescalero Reservation over several decades and hadn’t used all her material. When I realized that, my mission changed. The result was Apache Voices.
Was writing about Apaches a challenge?
The biggest challenge is writing about people who don’t especially want to appear in any more books or films. Because so much nonsense has been written about Apaches, they’re understandably suspicious of yet another four-eyed scholar who wants to write a book. So you can’t just stroll onto the reservation and expect people to open their doors. It was only because my Lipan sources found Apache Voices factual they were willing to speak to me.
Why did you focus on the Lipans?
In the process of writing Apache Voices, I came across occasional mentions of Lipan Apaches. I wasn’t familiar with them and got curious. When I could find very little information, it became an invitation to write. Journalists are always drawn to the untold story. I figured this would be a small group and a short project, but the more I learned about Lipans, the more the project grew. Their history is complex and every bit as compelling as those of the better-known Apaches.
Did Lipans and Mescaleros interact?
Lipans and Mescaleros were close allies from the 1700s on, but their beliefs and habits are somewhat different, as is their language, and they occupied different territories. They were fast friends, but each band had different allies, and the Lipans had many non-Apache allies. Lipans, who lived the farthest east of all the Apache groups, had as much in common with Plains tribes as they did with other Apaches.
Did you find any surprises?
In my other life I’m a business writer, so I was pleasantly surprised at what avid traders the Lipans were and how clever and persistent they were in cultivating new trading partners (and sources of guns). I’m so used to reading descriptions of Apaches as smallish and wiry that it was a surprise to find repeated descriptions of Lipans as tall, handsome people. And we always hear about Apaches fighting from ambush, but the Lipans also were capable of European-style combat. Most Lipans spoke passable Spanish, but many were quite eloquent. The most prominent chiefs were often natural statesmen, and the women were strong. One Spanish account I greatly enjoyed was about the wife of a chief who stood in council and spoke in a powerful voice. I could go on and on.
Did anything surface in your research you were unable to document?
The Lower Lipans living near Austin and Corpus Christi are well documented, but the more elusive Upper Lipans on the Pecos and Staked Plains are less known. Lipans spent a great deal of time in Mexico, and their presence there deserves further work. Lipans had a relationship to the Kiowa Apaches (also called Naishan), and I’d like to know more about that. I tried to track Lipans’ whereabouts through time, but there were some place names used in old documents that I wasn’t able to identify.
Any significant research moments?
I had a great many lightbulb moments. One of the biggest was in piecing together the evidence of an Eastern Apache confederacy. As far as I know, I’m the first to write about it. I also tracked other Eastern Apache groups—confederacy members and Lipan allies—through time. All those people the Spanish and French encountered didn’t just evaporate. Another was discovering Apaches living under the noses of the Comanches when many a historian has written that Comanches pushed Apaches out of the southern Plains and wiped them out. Hardly.