GERONIMO WAS BORN in 1823 at the headwaters of the Gila River east of the border of present-day Arizona and New Mexico.I His Bedonkohe (pronounced Bed-on-koh-hey) Apache name was Goyahkla, meaning “One Who Yawns.” But he wasn’t bored or boring. He was defiant, independent, and exceptional. The story of how he got his later name is a good one. In a revenge attack against the Mexicans, the young warrior Goyahkla fought like a fiend, rushing in repeatedly from cover, killing an enemy with every charge, and stealing the dead man’s rifle. Each time he came at them, the Mexicans cried out in terror, “Look out, Geronimo!”—mispronouncing his given name or calling out for the help of Saint Jerome (which translates in Spanish to “Geronimo”). His Apache people took up the battle cry, and “Goyahkla” became “Geronimo.”1
During his raids and escapes across the American Southwest, the mention of his name had the power to enrage the highest brass of the U.S. military—including presidents—and to terrify white settlers who bolted their doors and windows and scribbled frantic letters to the White House begging for protection. Over time, Geronimo’s name has come to symbolize courage, daring, wild abandon, and leadership. Revering his courage, World War II paratroopers shouted “GERONIMO!” as they leaped from airplanes into battle.
The first time I ever heard the name “Geronimo” was as a small child watching Bugs Bunny. I think it involved Yosemite Sam yelling “GERONIMO!” as he was preparing to pull one of his courageous and daring stunts. The last significant time I heard the name Geronimo was when U.S. Navy SEALs moved in to kill Osama bin Laden. The mission was code-named “Geronimo,” which caused considerable controversy. I can’t think of another historical figure whose name has withstood the test of time and been used in as many contexts as Geronimo’s. His name is consistently associated with courage, ingenuity, and resourcefulness.
THE CHIRICAHUA APACHE BANDS AND THEIR RANGE
Geronimo was a member of the Bedonkohe band of the Chiricahua Apache. The Chiricahua—the most warlike of all the Apache tribes—were split up into local bands, each band following one or more chiefs. Before the whites came, the Chiricahua range included what is today called southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and the northern parts of the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua.
Geronimo’s Bedonkohe band was flanked by three other Chiricahua bands. Farthest south, below the border that in 1848 would divide the United States and Mexico, dwelled the Nednhi (Ned-nee) band. They inhabited the harsh, rugged terrain of the Sierra Madre in northern Sonora—a place Geronimo would come to deeply love and where he would spend much time. Southwest of the Bedonkohe—comprising the Dragoon and Chiricahua mountains and valleys in southeastern Arizona—lived the Chokonen (Cochise’s band—he would become their greatest chieftain). The Chihenne (Chee-hen-ee) band lived to the east, between the Mimbres River and the Rio Grande. They were called the “Red Paint People.”
The main bands were allies, and if necessary, they banded together in wartime when large numbers of warriors were needed. There were also subgroups within these main groups, with the Warm Springs band the most prominent of many Chihenne subgroups. All of the bands had similar life-ways, cultural practices, and language.
Not all the Apache tribes were friendly, however. The White Mountain Apache to the west—the largest division of the Western Apache—sometimes scrapped with the Chiricahua Apache; they raided each other’s lands and even stole each other’s women.
But throughout most of Geronimo’s life, these groups all got along peacefully. During Geronimo’s lifetime, the entire Chiricahua tribe at its height—including all bands—numbered just three thousand people. (There were probably never more than ten to twelve thousand Apache living at any one time in their entire history.) The population in Geronimo’s day became severely depleted due to warfare, and later, as they succumbed to incarceration and disease.
GERONIMO GREW UP on the middle fork of the Gila River, near the famous Gila cliff dwellings in southwestern New Mexico. Geronimo and his people camped there, protected by towering canyon walls. By now the buffalo were all but gone, and the Apache had become mountain people, tough and adaptable, able to thrive in mountains other humans found unlivable. In winter they’d move to the lower valleys to hunt. Though nomadic, the Apache did tend small tracts of beans, corn, melons, and pumpkins, stashing their harvest in secret caves for the lean, harsh winters. Geronimo’s family lived in clusters of dome-shaped brush houses called wickiups, roofed with yucca-leaf strands. They also sometimes slept in taller, peak-shaped tepees like those used by Plains Indians.
Geronimo recalled his childhood fondly: “As a babe I rolled on the dirt floor of my father’s tepee, hung in my tsoch [Apache name for cradleboard] at my mother’s back, or suspended from the bough of a tree. I was warmed by the sun, rocked by the winds, and sheltered by the trees as other Indian babes.”2 His mother taught him the legends of his people, stories about the sky and stars; his father told him of the brave deeds of their warriors, about hunting, and about the “glories of the warpath.”3
From Geronimo’s earliest memories he was a warrior. He and the other boys played hide-and-seek among the rocks and cottonwoods along the river, pretending to be warriors. They practiced sneaking up on made-up enemies—rocks or trees—and hid for many hours, utterly silent, practicing the stealth and patience they would need when they became warriors. This early practice would pay dividends later.
Geronimo’s entire boyhood was a long and rigorous apprenticeship in hunting, gathering, physical fitness, mental toughness, horsemanship, and warfare. To develop their deadly accuracy, the boys cut willow branches, then rolled little mud pellets in their hands and stuck them on the ends for spear points; these were whipped at birds on branches and rodents on the ground. They made slingshots from animal hide and sinew, and they shot bows and arrows from an early age, practicing hours on end for distance and accuracy. They were so into shooting their arrows that they sometimes stayed out all day, never stopping, not even to eat.4
LESSON: Serve an apprenticeship to develop excellence and a useful set of skills.
Geronimo could shoot a bow and arrow with skill by age five. He learned to hunt from his father and elder warriors, who taught him to crawl silently along the ground, snatching prey with his hands. To celebrate his first kill, he ate the animal’s raw heart, showing it respect and gaining his adversary’s strength. To stalk larger game like deer and antelope, he learned how to crawl along the ground for hours wearing the hide, head, and antlers of a deer or antelope as a disguise. He studied his prey’s habits, knew what they ate and where they grazed, knew their different tracks. He hunted rabbits, squirrels, turkeys, and grouse too. Geronimo learned to build small fires at night to lure bats, then heave his moccasins at the creatures in flight with enough accuracy to knock them to the ground—he’d then pounce on them and kill them with his bare hands.5
I really like the Apache technique for hunting ducks—it’s innovative. In early winter, when ducks tend to flock in huge numbers on lakes, the Apache would take hundreds of gourds—dried and hollowed-out pumpkins and big squash—and set them afloat on the lakes. The gourds would blow across the lake and the Apache would go over and retrieve them, then repeat the process. At first the gourds would startle the ducks and they’d fly off. But over time the ducks would get used to the gourds bobbing along the water and floating past. Once the ducks had learned not to fear the gourds, the Apache would take gourds and cut holes for the eyes, nose, and mouth. Then they’d wade neck deep into the water, with only their gourd-head poking out above the surface. They’d sneak up on the ducks while imitating the bobbing gourd motion with their heads; when close enough, they’d drag the ducks under water by their feet and stuff them in a bag. It was ingenious and highly effective.6
LESSON: Be physically better than others and take pride in your physical and mental well-being.
WARRIOR TRAINING WAS brutal. Geronimo had to wake up well before dawn and run up to the top of a mountain and back before sunrise. The goals were discipline, a strong mind, and legs and lungs so developed that no enemy could outrun the Apache warrior. These goals were realized. One elder put it this way to his young son: “Your mind will be developed. . . . Getting up early in the morning, running to the top of that hill and back will give you a strong mind, a strong heart, and a strong body.”7
Running was essential for the Apache way of life, and they worked at it endlessly. They were on foot more than on horseback because there were rarely enough horses to go around, and because they could sneak up on enemies better on foot. As they trained, the runs got longer and more difficult. Sometimes they had to carry heavy packs on their backs and, to prove their endurance and mental tenacity, remain awake continuously for a day and a night or even longer, without food. Part of this training included running many miles before daylight, then an icy morning plunge in a frozen stream in only their breechcloths, all before they were allowed to build a fire.
One of the training tactics I found most interesting was this: Young boys had to run more than ten miles, up and down mountains, carrying water or rocks in their mouths the entire time; they could spit out the rocks or water only at the end of the run. This proved their endurance and toughness. The exercise also taught them to breathe through their noses.8 If they failed, they had to do it again—and again, and again—until they got it right. Geronimo did not fail. Later, as a trainer, he would teach this skill to others.
LESSON: The best are those who know they are tougher than their competition.
The Apache were tougher—much tougher—than we are today. Apache warrior training was often a matter of life or death, and only the strongest survived. Besides running for miles and miles in the heat and cold with a mouthful of water or rocks, apprentice warriors were encouraged to fight until they bled. Teams of four stood across from each other in rock-slinging competitions. It was like playing dodgeball with stones. The object was to teach quickness and evasiveness—boys had to duck and dodge to keep from being hit. There were casualties. If a rock hit you in the head, you were often severely injured or died. If one hit you in the arm, the bone often broke. Such training developed nimble, evasive warriors.9
Rock slinging progressed to arrow shooting in the training regimen. The trainer placed teams of boys about fifty feet apart. On the trainer’s command, they started shooting. The arrows were too small and light to be fatal, but sometimes they’d become embedded in their bodies. I like this quote from anthropologist Morris Opler, who lived among the Apache and studied their way of life and training: “I tell you they have fun too! They hardly ever hit each other. But I remember one boy who had been shot in the eye, and it put his eye out.”10 You just have to admire and revere such training, commitment, and dedication—especially at such a young age. Even this early, training was life or death.
BEFORE THEY GOT modern firearms, warriors used traditional weapons. They made five-foot-long bows from flexible wood like mulberry. The strings were stretched and dried deer sinew. They made arrows from three-foot cane shafts and fletched them with eagle or hawk feathers. The tips were sharpened and fire-hardened, then armed with obsidian or flint arrowheads. The Apache sometimes used poisoned arrowheads. There were a few ways of doing this. One was by cutting the heads off of rattlesnakes and squeezing venom from the fangs. Or they’d get poison juice from insects. My favorite is this one: They’d take a deer’s stomach, fill it with a mixture of animal blood and poison plants, and then bury it long enough for the contents to ferment and become toxic.11 The Apache were so well trained that warriors could fire up to seven arrows at an enemy before the first hit its target—at a range of more than 150 yards.12 You did not want to be hit with one of these. An informant noted, “A man hit with an arrow dipped in poison turns black.”13 He also died a horrible death.II The poisoned arrows were so toxic that the Apache had to be very, very careful handling them, making sure not to stick themselves while riding or running into battle. They usually waited until they were stationary and settled before busting out the poison and applying it.
LESSON: Always have the right tools for the job and know how to use all of them precisely.
THE NOVICE COMPLEX
Before an Apache could become a full-fledged warrior, he had to participate in four raids under the strict guidance of elders. It was a vital initiation period. There were very particular rules about the novice’s conduct and treatment. He had to learn specific warpath language that only warriors knew, and on his novice raids he was not allowed to do any of the stealing of horses or cattle, or any of the fighting if it broke out. He had to remain away from the enemy camp, usually up on a hill or bluff where he could watch what went on and learn how things were done. An elder—a guide or trainer—stayed with him to explain the raid’s tactics and strategies. During the raid, the novice was supposed to speak only when spoken to, and just listen. He could eat only cold food, and he had to stay awake until given permission to lie down and sleep. The novice did all the camp chores on a raid: fetched water, collected and cut wood, took care of the horses, and cooked all the food. The novice helped guard the camps too. The warriors watched the novice carefully—as did the elder in charge of his instruction. The novice wore a special cap or headdress with the feathers of four birds in it: quail, eagle, oriole, and hummingbird. The hummingbird feathers were to make him run fast and be hard to see as he moved, like a hummingbird. After returning from his fourth raid as a novice, if there was no objection from the warriors and if the novice performed all his duties with excellence, then he became a man and a warrior. On his fifth raid, he was sent to the front and allowed to participate fully. He could also now take a wife.
Sources: Opler, An Apache Life-Way, 137–139; Goodwin, Western Apache Raiding, 288–98; Mails, The People Called Apache, 260–262.
The lance (or spear) was made from a fifteen-foot-long agave stalk, sometimes wrapped with skin from deer legs, then sharpened to a fine point or tipped with knives or bayonets taken from enemies. Warriors also armed themselves with war clubs and stone knives for hand-to-hand combat.14
Every aspect of Apache learning and apprenticeship systematically trained men for warfare: shooting; dodging and hiding; tracking; learning to map their surrounding terrain mentally; and remembering geographic features, landmasses, and rivers in order to find their way back to camp. Apprenticeship hardened the young warriors and prepared them for raiding and war—which was a life-or-death proposition every time out.
Geronimo Becomes a Warrior
BY AGE SEVENTEEN Geronimo was so skilled he could shoot poisoned arrows with deadly aim while dangling from a pony’s neck. By then he had also completed four raiding expeditions, and because of his skill and bravery in attacking Mexicans and stealing their horses, he earned full warrior status. Geronimo had developed into an impressive young man—some described him as handsome, while others called his face mean-looking and scowling.
Warriors could take wives, so he courted Alope, a girl of the Nednhi Apache whom he’d been eyeing for a long time. Geronimo described her as “slender and delicate,” adding that “as soon as the tribal council granted me the privileges of a warrior, I went to see her father concerning our marriage. He asked many ponies for her. I made no reply, but in a few days appeared before his lodge with the herd of ponies and took with me Alope. This was all the marriage ceremony necessary in our tribe.”15 Geronimo didn’t say so, but he had most likely stolen the ponies from Mexico, his favorite raiding area.
Geronimo brought Alope back to his tepee. The Apache women built and maintained the tepees and wickiups, kept the camp organized, and did much more: They gathered food like piñon nuts, acorns, juniper berries, and mesquite beans; they collected and carried firewood, sometimes for many miles; they wove baskets and bowls from grasses and reeds (the Apache, being nomads, made very little pottery); they sewed saddlebags; and they made tiswin, their important corn liquor that they drank at major celebrations. The women were also skilled in medical treatments, from using chewed mescal to stop bleeding to making bone-fracture splints with slats cut from sotol cactus; these they wrapped around the break with buckskin strips.16
SEXUAL PRACTICES AND RELATIONS BETWEEN THE SEXES
The sex lives of the Chiricahua, like all aspects of their existence, were dictated by long-standing customs and traditions. The Chiricahua were modest and undemonstrative when it came to sex, though obviously you have to account for individual differences. Sex two to three times a week was thought “normal” for married people—less when the men were hunting or raiding or warring. Adultery was a serious offense, though more so for the women than men—and there were repercussions on both sides. Relations between the sexes on this matter got very combative and violent, even fatal. If a woman cheated, the husband sometimes resorted to violence, even beating her or, in extreme cases, snipping the end of her nose off to mark her as an adulteress (the idea was to make her undesirable to other men). Wives who caught their husbands usually just scolded them, though some punished their husbands by stabbing them while they slept. It’s said that Cochise’s youngest wife, jealous of his first wife, bit him on both hands and left big teeth-mark scars. If they couldn’t work it out, the couple would divorce. The Apache word for divorce meant “they walk away from each other.” If the woman wanted the divorce she just put her husband’s things outside the wickiup. He’d grab his belongings and start looking for another wife. If the husband wanted out, he told his wife he was going hunting and never came back to her. Neither had to have a very good reason for divorce, though some causes were sterility or frigidity. If the woman was frigid or sterile, the husband would leave. If the man couldn’t get an erection, it was thought caused by witchcraft. If he couldn’t be “cured,” the woman would divorce him.
Sources: Opler, An Apache Life-Way, 401–426; Stockel, Chiricahua Women and Children, 9–15; Sweeney, Cochise, 377.
Family and community were deeply important in Apache culture, and Geronimo’s tepee was right near his mother’s, whom he had cared for and supported since his father’s death. “Inside my tepee were many bear robes,” Geronimo said, “mountain lion hides, and other trophies of the chase, as well as my spears, bows, and arrows.”17 Alope decorated buckskin with beads traded for or stolen from the Mexicans, and she drew pictures on the inside walls of their home.
Soon they had three children and were living well in the Apache way, just as their ancestors had always done. They traded peacefully with some of the Mexicans as well as raided them when they needed food or horses. But the American Southwest was a contested area. Geronimo’s Apache territory bordered northern Mexico and the states of Chihuahua and Sonora to the south, and for centuries the Apache had raided the Mexicans when they needed food or horses.
Raiding versus War
RAIDING HAD BEEN the Apache way of life since the days before the Spanish conquistadors came. The Apache prided themselves on the stealth and speed of their raids, swooping silently through the darkness taking only enough food, provisions, and horses for their people to survive, then vanishing like wolves into the night. To the Apache, there was a huge difference between raiding and war. I like these distinctions and the different tactical approaches to each. Raiding meant “to search out enemy property,” and war meant “death to the enemy.”18 Raids were used to steal what was needed, usually livestock, but also guns and ammunition. War was waged to avenge the death of kin who’d died at the hand of an enemy. Before a raid, the men who were going would meet in a sweat lodge to discuss their plans. Raiding parties were small and efficient—usually just five to fifteen warriors. Using smaller parties was really smart. It allowed the Apache to avoid being seen or heard, either coming or leaving. Stealth and silence were crucial. The raiders crept slowly and quietly until they reached enemy territory. Then they ducked behind trees, rocks, or cactus—anything they could hide under or behind.
LESSON: Have a purpose in everything you do.
Geronimo and some of his warriors ready for war or raid. From right to left: Geronimo, Fun, Chappo (Geronimo’s son), and Yahnoza.
Once in striking distance of their target, they stayed silent and motionless until just before dawn. Two or three warriors then crept up to the enemy’s horses or cattle, picked out the animals they wanted, and, whistling quietly and using switches and rope and their outstretched hands, herded them to the other warriors at a chosen spot. There, mounted or on foot, they all drove the stolen animals toward home at breakneck speed, rarely stopping. To get away safely, they sometimes had to run and ride for days without stopping. If the Apache could conduct a raid without bloodshed, they would. Their strategy was to get in, then get out. They were tremendously efficient and successful at these raids.
LESSON: Be smart and disciplined, and develop the ability to communicate.
War was different. War parties were larger—up to a few hundred men if required and available. Sometimes different bands teamed up. The object of war was to kill for revenge. War parties brought along a shaman or medicine man to advise the war leaders and sometimes even convince them to retreat if victory wasn’t likely. Warriors were too valuable a resource to squander. The shaman also treated the wounded.
Warriors typically attacked a town or village where they were sure a kinsman had been killed. The war strategy was simple and efficient: scouts located the target and reported back to the leaders. Quietly, during the night, the entire force surrounded the target—and at first light the warriors launched an all-out attack, shooting arrows as they rode in hard, throwing spears, bashing with war clubs, and fighting hand to hand to the death. The object was to kill as many of the enemy as possible as quickly as possible, take any spoils, and then get out of there. Fast.19
Victorious war parties returned to celebrate and dance with their bands, breaking out the tiswinIII and partying for four straight days.
Massacre at Janos
IN 1846, WAR erupted between Mexico and the United States. The U.S. victory resulted in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and gave much of the Spanish Southwest—including California, New Mexico, and Texas—to the United States. The problem was, the Apache already lived there.
Geronimo’s tribal homelands (called Apacheria) fell within the new boundaries. The treaty between the United States and Mexico stipulated that the U.S. authorities would restrain the Indians in the newly acquired lands from raiding Mexico. That turned out to be easier to agree to than accomplish. Without any say in the matter, Geronimo and his Apache had had their land taken from them. The Apache hadn’t signed any treaty, and the new boundaries were arbitrary to them. The Apache felt no allegiance to the U.S. and Mexican governments who’d made the deal. But these boundaries would end up lassoing and eventually tying a noose around their lifestyle, as they’d soon find out.
While the Americans and the Mexicans made deals and drew borders, the Apache continued to roam and raid and trade. The Mexicans also tried to make deals with Geronimo’s Chiricahua Apache to stop their incessant raiding. The Mexicans offered free food at “feeding stations” in northern Chihuahua—encouraging the Apache to use these rather than raiding.
But the state of Sonora refused to set up feeding stations, so many Chiricahua raids were focused there. Often these raids went uncontested, but sometimes the Sonorans resisted and fought back. Then there was fighting and bloodshed, and death on both sides. It created a raid-revenge cycle that went on for decades, broken only by brief periods of peaceful trading.
In 1851,20 when Geronimo was twenty-eight years old, his band went south into Mexico on a peaceful trading mission. On such missions the Apache sent messengers ahead to a town, explaining that they came in peace and only wanted to trade. If the town’s officials agreed, then the Apache would come in and trade. It was a handshake agreement for a peaceful exchange.
The Apache camped outside a village called Janos; the men went into town to trade, leaving their horses, weapons, and the women and children under a small guard. When they returned to the camp after trading, Geronimo and the other men were met by wailing women and children. They cried that Mexican troops from some other town had killed the guard, captured their horses and supplies, and massacred many of their people. Stunned, Geronimo found that his aged mother; his young wife, Alope, and his three small children had been brutally slain.
Though Geronimo wanted to perform a proper burial ceremony, there wasn’t time—the attacking Mexicans were still nearby, and the Apache were greatly outnumbered. The great chief Mangas Coloradas ordered a retreat to the north, to their homes in Arizona. They needed to leave the dead where they lay. Geronimo hurriedly cut his long hair and spread the strands by his family as a sign of his mourning, then turned away. As the warriors and survivors retreated, Geronimo stood and stared, as if dead himself. “I stood until all had passed,” he remembered. “I did not pray, nor did I resolve to do anything in particular, for I had no purpose left. I finally followed the tribe silently, keeping just within hearing distance of the soft noise of the feet of the retreating Apaches.”21
The massacre of his family was one of the defining moments of his life. During the first march and while they camped that night, Geronimo spoke to no one, and no one spoke to him, for, as he put it, “There was nothing to say.”22 The Chiricahua considered showing one’s emotions to be a sign of weakness, and they believed that deeply felt feelings, if shown, might later result in hasty actions.
After three days of walking, they arrived back at their settlement. Geronimo entered his tepee. “There were the decorations that Alope made—and there were the playthings of the little ones. I burned them all, even our tepee. I also burned my mother’s tepee and destroyed all her property.”23 The Apache did not keep any of the property of a deceased relative. Their unwritten tribal customs forbade it, because they believed that otherwise the children or other relatives of one who had much property might be glad when their father or relatives died. The practice also avoided ugly family feuds over spoils.
Geronimo’s heart ached. He traveled alone deep into Chiricahua country and prayed. After a long time he heard a voice calling his name, “Goyahkla!” Four times it called to him. Then it spoke: “No gun can ever kill you. I will take the bullets from the guns of the Mexicans, so they will have nothing but powder. And I will guide your arrows.” Geronimo knew that he had been given a form of Power, something the Apache believed in deeply and accepted without question. Power was bestowed on certain people as special gifts—some got the gift of healing, some could predict weather, some understood animals, and some could foretell when enemies were coming before they arrived.24 Geronimo had the Power to foretell events and even to know details of specific events that were happening great distances away. He also had the Power of healing and, of course, the useful Power that no bullet could kill him.
Much of Apache religious life centered around the all-powerful Ussen, the Life Giver, the supreme maker of the world, creator of their Apache lands and source of all supernatural power. Within that supernatural power, the Apache had access to particular kinds of individual abilities, which often came to them through four-day fasts that induced hallucinations and dreams that bestowed Power. Those who gained their Power in this way—through visitation via fasting, prayer, an important event (like the massacre of Geronimo’s family)—became highly revered and respected by their peers. Power was meant for doing good: to heal the sick, to “see” enemies approaching, to “know” when it was time to leave. Power was beneficial—to heal, warn, or guard. There were other types too. The warrior Juh had the Power to handle and organize his men—he had leadership Power. Chief Chihuahua had Power over horses: He was said to be able to calm and ride the wildest of all horses easily, and he could heal wounded ones—he once cured a horse dying from a rattlesnake bite. Geronimo had multiple aspects of Power, and these helped him become the great leader he was.
But Power was complicated, even to those wielding it. Said Juh’s son, Daklugie, “Power is a mysterious, intangible attribute difficult to explain, even by those possessing it. It was, even above his courage, the most valuable attribute of a chief.”
Of Geronimo, Daklugie went on to say, “I don’t know if Geronimo ever told his warriors that he had supernatural protection, but they were with him in many dangerous times and saw his miraculous escapes, his cures for wounds, and the results of his medicine.”
Sources: Ball, Indeh, 61; Mails, The People Called Apache, 122–123. Opler, An Apache Life-Way, 204–205.
It was another defining moment for Geronimo, and he knew what he had to do. He vowed that day to take revenge on the Mexicans—and this vengeance would fuel him for the rest of his life.
Remember That Everyone Is a Product of His or Her Environment. Geronimo was shaped by his landscape, his people’s history and traditions, his religion, and his core beliefs. It’s hard—if not impossible—to rip people from their environment and expect things to go smoothly. The U.S. military tried to yank Geronimo and his people from their environment, and that didn’t go very well, as we’ll see.
Embrace Discipline, Practice, Daily Routine. We can learn a lot by observing the Chiricahua discipline, practice, and daily routines—which were all a part of their daily lives and all related and interconnected. Even back then, the Apache culture already had training methods that are still in modern times proven to be effective. Anything that they wanted to be good at, they practiced and trained for with as much precision as possible. Especially impressive is how they competed at everything. Also, they were tougher than other people because they practiced it. To be tough you have to do tough things. Then they went beyond that and practiced preparation for emergency situations like hunger, sleep deprivation, and finding alternative food sources.
At a young age they began learning and developing as many of these skills as possible, and they incorporated all these skills into their daily routine.
Respect Family. The family was the very core of Apache society. The Apache people were deeply devoted to family, and most of Geronimo’s decisions were driven by his core commitment to his family. Geronimo’s father, Taklishim (“The Gray One”) was the son of a great chief named Mahco, a man of tremendous size, strength, and wisdom, and Geronimo heard many stories of his grandfather’s exploits in battle. After Mahco died, for reasons that are not clear, a Bedonkohe named Teboka, and not Taklishim, became chief. This explains why Geronimo did not become a chief, since chiefdom usually passed from father to son. Still, Geronimo’s father was well respected and revered, and when Taklishim died after a long illness, Geronimo, the family relatives, and friends dressed him in his best clothes, painted his face for the afterworld, wrapped him in a special blanket, loaded him on his favorite horse, and, carrying all of his belongings, took him to a cave deep in the mountains. They placed his body on the ground among his possessions, then sealed the entrance with stones to keep it undisturbed and hidden.25
When his father died, Geronimo took over the care of his mother, Juana, supporting her and the rest of his family from the time he was about twenty years old. Care of one’s parents was an expected duty; if an Apache neglected his parents in any way, if he denied them food or shelter at any time, he was banished from the tribe. Banishment was the worst form of punishment because most members of a band were immediate family members, and banishment meant being forever disassociated from your family. Banishment prohibited the joining of any other Apache band as well—so it was a great dishonor. They were on their own. We should all learn from that kind of dedication to family. It was an inherent code of honor and expectation to take care of one’s family.
APACHE WORLDVIEW AND CORE BELIEFS
For the Chiricahua Apache, Ussen created supernatural powers and provided certain people access to these powers. Shamans and other individuals connected to the supernatural (as Geronimo was) conducted various ceremonies for improving luck in battle, healing, confusing or defeating enemies, and many others. The most important of all Chiricahua Apache ceremonies was the girl’s Womanhood Ceremony. The Chiricahua had numerous creation myths to explain the origins of their world. The two central figures in these myths were White Painted Woman and her son Child-of-the-Water. Some of these myths involve great floods. Geronimo recalled one creation story in which there was a battle between the birds and the beasts over light and darkness. The birds desired light, the beasts darkness. The birds won. White Painted Woman was one of the last people alive after the battle, and she gave birth to a son. She hid him in a cave to protect him from the last living beast, a dragon. The boy left the cave to face the dragon, slaying the beast with his bow and arrow. The boy was then named Apache. Lore tells that all Chiricahua descend from this boy warrior.
Sources: Stockel, Chiricahua Women and Children, 3–5; Stout, Geronimo, 5–6; Opler, An Apache Life-Way, 196–197; Barrett, Geronimo, His Own Story, 49–53.
The Apache were polygamous, with prominent leaders like Geronimo able to take multiple wives. Throughout his life Geronimo was married to nine women and had numerous children. He supported and loved them all, as well as their many children and grandchildren.
Understand Faith and Power. After his family was slain, Geronimo heard the voice of his god Ussen, and he listened. The spiritual experience gave him direction and made him fearless in the field—and why wouldn’t it? His faith, his spiritual core, allowed him to handle a difficult situation and go on, making some sense out of the hardship. He did not act rashly, or on the spur of the moment. He planned and pursued his goals and objectives for decades, guided always by his inner faith. Power was bestowed upon special people, sometimes obtained or received through long fasting and meditation. It might take the form of an animal, a tree, a plant, or a mountain—and this Power, this medicine, served as a guide or consultant for the rest of his life. Geronimo knew this: However you acquire Power, guard it with your life and wield it wisely. You don’t know whether you’ll ever get more, and it could also be taken away. Power can be called a lot of different things: intuition, déjà vu, sense of destiny, spiritual experience, or faith. All are hard to articulate but clearly very real to a lot of people. The Apache took such things very seriously.
Leave an Impression. Geronimo always left an impression. When he flew about the battlefield in a killing frenzy, he left Mexicans chanting his name in awe. Geronimo chose an extreme way to go about making an impression, but folks definitely remembered him. Mentors Cochise and Mangas Coloradas, who were impressed by his leadership skills, noticed him too. Getting noticed like this allowed Geronimo’s fast ascent among his peers, granting him more status as a shaman, guide, mentor, battle leader, negotiator, and translator. He earned these positions based on merit and performance, for an Apache tribe was an authentic meritocracy. His first impression had made him unforgettable.
I. The exact place of Geronimo’s birth is unknown and contested. See the map at the front of the book. Historians are split—some say Arizona, some say New Mexico. Geronimo himself said Arizona, but back then it was neither Arizona nor Mexico—it was Apache country. See S. M. Barrett, His Own Story, 3–4; Debo, Geronimo, 7–8. His birth date is often cited as 1829, but it was more likely 1823.
II. I wondered about this turning-black condition and read about poisoned arrows used by tribes along the Amazon. A conquistador on Francisco Orellana’s Amazon expedition in 1541 got hit in the foot with an arrow treated with the toxins of poison tree frogs, and witnesses reported that “the wound turned very black and the poison gradually made its way up the leg, like a living thing.” When the poison reached his heart, he died (Levy, River of Darkness, 177).
III. Fermented corn liquor. (See tiswin sidebar on pg. 66, Chapter Four.)