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Book Review: The Only One Living to Tell, a Story Long Overdue


Hoomothya, or Wet Nose, was among the few survivors of the Kwevkepaya, one of four Apache tribal branches grouped under the rubric of Yavapai. He was just a young boy when most of his tribe was killed in 1872 in the Skeleton Cave Massacre, which one witness called “the most signal blow ever received by the Apaches in Arizona.” The boy witnessed the deaths of his father, two siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandfather.

Thus begins the incredible story of The Only One Living to Tell: The Autobiography of a Yavapai Indian (University of Arizona Press, 2012), edited by Gregory McNamee. Picked up while hiding in the woods, Hoomothya was adopted by a U.S. soldier named James Burns and renamed Mike. He spent the rest of his life torn between two worlds: Over the years, he would run into cousins and other family members but would never totally connect. Neither did he feel at home in the white man’s world.

Much of the memoir is written from the viewpoint of the child Hoomothya in a flat, factual voice that belies (or perhaps underscores) what must have been the extreme trauma of those early years. That duality is heard from the start: “I cannot say exactly when or where I was born, because I belonged to an Apache Indian family whose parents were not educated, so that I could not find any records of my birthplace. Only educated people keep records of their children so that they can know where they were born, and besides, there are no older Indians left alive now. All of my people were killed by the soldiers and by Indian scouts who worked for the government.”

The narrative follows eddies and currents rather than a straight line, and at times it’s difficult to determine if Mike Burns was present at events or not. While this makes for a challenging read, it seems to be the best way to convey such information. The times were complex; loyalties and alliances were always shifting; danger was everywhere.

Crisscrossing the country, the adult Burns obtains, and weaves for the reader, a complicated picture of life during the Wild West—brash soldiers, Indian scouts torn between survival and maintaining traditions, and a fair amount of indiscriminate killing. Burns gathered information wherever he went for a uniquely Native perspective, one sorely lacking from that time. Perhaps as a result, despite numerous attempts, he could not get his book published before he died in 1934. But at last, the story of Hoomothya, his people and their times can be told.