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Inconvenient Truths and Self-Serving Myths About Geronimo

Geronimo was a skillful warrior who led the last Indian force to formally submit to the United States.

Richard Slotkin, author of Gunfighter Nation, defines myths as traditional stories utilized to sum up and assign meaning to our history. Mythologist Joseph Campbell, author of The Power of Myth and The Hero With a Thousand Faces, asserts that while most myths contain a hero and a villain, often they are both the same. Both are described as having a distinct set of values and a clear agenda. All of that (and more) applies to the man named Goyathlay but mythologized around the world as Geronimo.

Throughout history, men and women have risen to mythological prominence as heroes and villains through the aggrandizing of their deeds and abilities. As a result, men as divergent as Abraham Lincoln, Jesse James and Rasputin, and women as dissimilar as Mother Teresa, Marie Antoinette and Pocahontas are pop-culture icons. Mythologizing is a staple of our culture, of our very nature. But what happens when a person’s celebrated name is appropriated, not for monetary gain, but as a means of co-opting that person’s character, personality traits, reputation or identity for personal embellishment or power?

The recent use of the name of Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo in the mission that killed terrorist Osama bin Laden has raised eyebrows and controversy. Critics complain that naming Osama bin Laden was inappropriate, because it made the Indian leader synonymic with a hated enemy of the United States. As the headline for a story by journalist Mary Papenfuss pointed out: “Osama was no Geronimo. One was a terrorist; the other was a fearless protector of tribal lands.” Some defenders of the code name claim its use was an honor—a term of respect for the Apache hero’s expertise, strength and determination as a warrior.


RELATED: Know the Real Geronimo: Life of Native American Hero in Pictures

Jeff Houser, however, reminds us that there are more important aspects to this controversy than the debate over the propriety of co-opting Geronimo’s name. As the chairman of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, Houser is far more concerned about Geronimo’s legendary struggle for Apache rights than his reputation. “The government viewed Apaches as enemies, but the U.S. also had a trust responsibility to look after the tribe’s interests, yet they made them prisoners of war, withholding their freedom for 28 years,” he says. “The government made many promises to the Apache people which they failed to keep. I am more concerned about them honoring those agreements than honoring the man.”

Cherokee actor Wes Studi, who portrayed the Apache leader in the 1993 film, Geronimo: An American Legend, says he had preconceived notions about Geronimo before he took on the role. “I saw him as a great warrior who fought valiantly for his people against all odds, but as time went on I got a clearer picture of him through his relatives. I began to realize that much of what I knew of him was myth. He was a complicated person; a real person with real strengths and real weaknesses.”
Some argue that the appropriation of Geronimo’s name is the act of a dominant culture over a champion of a less influential culture for the purpose of self-empowerment, that it is some kind of “social exocannibalism.” Exocannibalism is a term anthropologists used to describe the actions of an antagonist who eats a part of their enemy (heart, brain, blood, etc.) in order to absorb that rival’s powers and abilities. By metaphorically consuming the persona of a formidable enemy, social exocannibals attempt to absorb the opponent’s strength, courage, vitality, prestige, and skills—qualities they desire to have themselves.

Perhaps the most bizarre manifestation of this theory comes from the secret Skull and Bones society at Yale University, which has long been rumored to be in possession of Geronimo’s skull. The rumor gained some validity in 2005 when historian Marc Wortman discovered a 1918 letter that claimed Bonesman Prescott Bush, grandfather of George W. Bush, had robbed Geronimo’s grave at Fort Sill and stolen his skull and other artifacts. The letter claimed that Bush had sent the objects back to “the Tomb,” the society’s Connecticut clubhouse, for display.

But Houser doesn’t believe the society has the remains of the Apache leader—the matter has been investigated twice, and a 2009 lawsuit brought by Geronimo’s relatives seeking to force the society to return the remains if they have them was ultimately dismissed. “I hold the claim as doubtful, and it doesn’t do any good to speculate about it,” he says. But he does understand the power of social exocannibalism, fact or legend. He says Apaches believe that disturbing a grave can have negative consequences. “Geronimo’s peers claimed he possessed a great deal of personal power. Grave robbers steal their victim’s power by dehumanizing them.”

Why They Yell ‘Geronimo!’
The answer’s not “social exocannibalism,” but it’s close.

Private Aubrey Eberhardt, of the U.S. Army’s Parachute Test Platoon, claimed it was admiration for Geronimo’s celebrated bravery and mystical power that inspired him to yell his name for the first time as he parachuted out of a plane at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1940. Having watched Paramount’s 1939 Western Geronimo the night before his jump, he summoned the courage of the Apache leader by yelling out his name as he leapt from the plane. His fellow paratroopers followed suit, and soon an official sanction of the practice followed. During World War II, the popular paratrooper’s song, “Down From Heaven” described the act of calling out Geronimo’s name as an expression of bravery and courage:

It’s a gory road to glory,
But we’re ready—here we go

In 1941, Major William Miley of the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion, sought out Geronimo’s relatives and asked and received their permission to display his name on the unit’s insignia worn on their dress uniforms.

Geronimo’s mythic status was a natural by-product of his incredible notoriety. Houser says he was an iconic figure long before his death and a popular focus of the media even back then: “There are hundreds of photographs of him, but how many are there of Cochise or Mangus Colorado?”

Studi believes that much of Geronimo’s fame was the result of his clashes with the American military. “I think the government iconized him more than anyone else. To stop hostilities in the Southwest, concessions were made on both sides. The military considered him a proficient opponent that they weren’t able to defeat—a foe worthy of their persistence.” Houser adds that Geronimo’s prowess on the battlefield was so impressive that his tactics were taught at West Point, further enhancing his mystique.

After World War II, Hollywood Westerns and TV shows intensified the western myth of Cowboys and Indians, yet Geronimo seemed to have faded from public memory until the bin Laden mission put him the headlines once again. Consequently, he was often regarded as little more than a caricature. Many young people have no idea that he was a real person, and those who do know of him have little understanding of the life he led or challenges he faced.


A Man Called Goyathlay
He was born in 1829 in Mexico Territory in present-day New Mexico and given the name Goyathlay. A Bedonkohe Apache by birth and grandson of Maco, he was a member of the nomadic Nedni band of the Chiricahua Apaches. Although their reason for doing so is unclear, Mexican soldiers who fought against him referred to him as “Geronimo.”

Goyathlay, a skillful warrior, led the last Indian force to formally submit to the United States. A shrewd and commanding leader, his daring exploits, elusive maneuvers and seemingly miraculous powers of endurance and escape elevated him to legendary status among Indians and non-Indians alike. Joseph Runningfox, Pueblo, who portrayed the Apache warrior in a 1993 made-for-TV movie, Geronimo, says he was a man like any other, with strengths, faults and idiosyncrasies. “He was a family man who provided for his family and was content in that way of living. Then one day, survival called him to the purpose of defense and he took his place,” says Runningfox, who says he was struck in his research for the role by how deeply Geronimo was affected by losses he experienced. His mother, wife, and three young children were killed by Mexican troops in 1858. To understand his motivations, Runningfox says he had to “drop into that sorrow.” He did so by visiting the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona. “I met the Apache people. I looked in their eyes, and what grabbed me was the way they all were affected by that loss.”

After decades of war with the Mexicans, several extraordinary escapes and continued resistance against the Americans, Goyathlay surrendered to Gen. Nelson Miles in 1886. He and 450 Apache men, women and children were transported to Florida for confinement at Forts Pickens and Marion. Eight years later they were relocated to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where Geronimo and his family pursued ranching.

The Yin, the Yang—and Those Buttons
Houser says there is a lot of ambivalence about Geronimo. To many of his people he personified Apache values: loyalty, determination, courage and aggressiveness. To non-Indians at the turn of the last century, however, he was a constant threat to their continued occupation of the region.

In 1904, he appeared at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, where he was exalted as a cult hero. Although billed as the last of the fierce warriors, hateful and resistant to progress, he spoke graciously of the experience in his memoirs. “I saw many interesting things [at the fair] and learned much of the white people. They are a very kind and peaceful people.” [It should be noted that when he said this he was a prisoner of war, and had good reasons to not provoke his captors.]

During the fair he posed for pictures, sold and autographed postcards. Houser says he was much more modern than most of his peers, and that he enjoyed the attention he received. A man of his time in many ways, he also enjoyed making money and demonstrated a nuanced understanding of the snarky jibe of his famous contemporary, P.T. Barnum, who once said, “Every crowd has a silver lining.” Studi recalls a story he was told while working on his film. “On his way to Florida, he wore an army coat that he had acquired. Wherever the train stopped and people crowded around to get a glimpse of him, he would sell the buttons off the coat as souvenirs. Then he would sew more on to sell to the next crowd.”

On March 4, 1905, Geronimo rode on horseback in full regalia with venerated leaders of five other Indian nations in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade. They were Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, Ute Chief Buckskin Charlie, Oglala Lakota Chief American Horse, Blackfeet Chief Little Plume, and the Brulé Lakota Chief Hollow Horn Bear. Note that Geronimo was the only man in that group who was not a chief. Roosevelt and his entourage beamed as the men passed by.

Presidential advisor Woodworth Clum objected to Geronimo’s inclusion, referring to him as “the greatest single-handed murderer in American history.” Roosevelt explained that he simply “wanted to give the people a good show.” More likely, however, the president wanted to boast of the success of Col. Richard Henry Pratt in his efforts to Americanize Indians, as marching with these legendary leaders were 350 uniformed cadets from Pratt’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

While still considered a prisoner of war and forbidden to return to his cherished homeland, Geronimo died on February 17, 1909. He reportedly left behind a savings account with $10,000 in it, a small fortune in those days, which suggests that he was able to negotiate his way as skillfully in white corporate America as he had on the battlefield.

Everyone Needs an Epitaph
Since his passing, the elements of miracle and mystery that swirled around Goyathlay created the legend of Geronimo. Through that transformation he became a hero of great stature to some and a bloodthirsty villain to others. Although the reality of the man lies somewhere in between those two, as Studi points out, “Everyone needs heroes and villains.”

This story was originally published on June 27, 2011.