Geronimo's Cadillac

by Vaughn Croteau
(with apologies to Michael Martin Murphey)

July 3, 2004
Almost 15 years ago I was waiting in a hallway of the Federal courthouse in Phoenix when I came upon a document mounted on a wall, a part of a display of historical records. I was one of a handful of people, mostly relatives and friends, who were waiting for the public arraignment of what later came to be known as the Arizona Five, a handful of environmental activists who were to be charged with acts of sabotage and conspiracy. On the wall in a plexiglass case was an aging paper dated sometime in the late 1880's. It was an arrest warrant for Geronimo, a Chiricahua Apache leader, for the crime of murder.

At the time I was struck by some ironies of the moment. Though a hundred years apart the events that brought me to the courthouse that day were not so different. On one side was Behemoth- the state, asserting the prerogative to judge and incarcerate. Standing opposed and in chains were people who had stood and thought to strike against the institutions of this state.

There were obvious differences too, the people who were waiting for their pre-trial hearings had lived as a part of the very society that now accused them. I suspect that Geronimo would have felt little sympathy for them and would have as readily roasted their giblets as he might have any other interloper on the land that he and his people called home. Geronimo would have probably laughed scornfully at the way the accused were captured, their actions concealed by nighttime darkness til the helicopters swooped in and lit the way for the FBI agents to apprehend three of the four people scrabbling at the base of a utility pylon. One was apprehended flat-footed, still strapped to the plywood boards that would have obscured his footprints had he the opportunity to hotfoot it out of there as planned. One of the four, the only woman of the group, did manage to slip into the surrounding desert and avoid capture, making it back to her hometown almost 100 miles away by the next day. The fifth defendant was arrested in his own bedroom, awakened by troopers with drawn weapons. The thing that none of them knew until later was that they'd been set-up by an FBI informant.

Geronimo wasn't captured, the small band of less than 100 Chiricahua Apaches he led had evaded more than 1000 US soldiers in the vast landscape of southeastern Arizona, northern Mexico and the bootheel country of New Mexico. He surrendered under honorable terms, an aging man tired of running and fighting and probably fully aware that his fight for his land and people could not be won against the tide of invaders that wanted, at best, to see his people relocated to reservations to become wards of this advancing state. Even then, after what was an honorable surrender, the terms of the agreement were violated. Geronimo and his people were shipped off to Florida where many died and only a few survived to return to the same region they'd been taken from as prisoners.

In my own life I've found that the historical and anthropological view has helped me to keep my perspective on human affairs- history to show that there's really little new under the Sun, and anthropology to bring human behaviour into simplest and common terms. The Apache people themselves were relatively recent arrivals to this country they called home, migrating into the region only a few hundred years before the Spanish arrived. Other native people were living in the region when the Apache arrived and the oral history suggests that warfare and raiding was the main extent of their relations. History suggests that the Spanish and Mestizo colonisers had very similar relations with the Apache. There was enough killing, thieving and injustice between the participants that it seems the blame is probably equally shared in the generations of bloodshed of the region. In more recent history, 150 to 200 years ago, settlers came from the East, another people who would call the same land home but for the ones who already did.

Geronimo reportedly killed dozens of people- native, Hispanic and Anglo. He had done this within a context in which he felt he was fighting for his home, his people, and a way of living. By the time the US government had sworn out an arrest warrant for him it was pretty much a given conclusion that the land in question was now under its control. Only 50 years prior this would not have been the case. It was only a few hundred years prior when Cortez landed at Vera Cruz in Mexico, overthrew and killed Montezuma and began the Spanish reign over a land that came to include Geronimo's home; which he in turn had wrested from some earlier inhabitant. Geronimo never was allowed to return to the home he'd fought and killed for, he died on a reservation in Oklahoma.

Seeing bits and pieces of the show trial of Saddam Hussein yesterday reminded me of the time I stood before that scrap of paper, the arrest warrant for Geronimo displayed in a Federal courthouse. Behemoth would have people believe that these scrips held some almighty irrefutable sway. Geronimo's 'crimes' didn't occur in a vacuum; history shows that there was abundant give-and-take in those events. A dispassionate arbiter would find that both sides shared the culpability for the bloodshed. Where the irony ensues is that history tends to show that whatever faction is currently in power dispenses 'law' on its terms, rarely dispassionately, and is anything but eager to admit any complicity or culpability. There is always a context, and I suppose that's what the philosopher who Bush claims to admire had in mind when he reportedly suggested that the blameless could dispense just punishment.

I mentioned earlier that the historical and anthropological view helped me to find overlying 'order' to everyday events. This may be true, but fortunately there are also less understood forces at play, sometimes a bit of kismet, a glimpse of that golden thread. That detail is this: Geronimo's skull was rumored to be removed from its grave by an earlier member of the Bush family to be displayed with Skull and Bones relics. I'd almost bet that someone was already dusting off a bit of shelf space in the crypt in case any new acquisitions happened to appear...

© 2004 V. Croteau
All Rights Reserved

(Vaughn Croteau wears many hats- one of which is that of the editor of The Plug Nickel Times & Press)




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