Dear Daily Camera Editors:
In a submission to your Tuesday, May 17 edition, Kenneth Cohen says that the military’s assigning to Osama Bin Laden the code name “Geronimo” was an example of persistent stereotyping of native Americans. While it is true that Indians have served our country honorably and well as code talkers and in many other ways, “honorable” is not an adjective I would link to Geronimo. As documented in historian Marc Simmons’ book Massacre on the Lordsburg Road, Geronimo and his Apache cohorts were responsible for the murdering of dozens of innocent people, including both and native Americans, Mexicans, and even their own kin. This was especially true of Geronimo’s subtribe, the Chiricahua, known to be vengeful, arrogant, brutal and merciless. Far from being the exaggerations of a biased white press, the Chiricauhan atrocities have been recounted in the testimonies of surviving Apaches, including Geronimo himself, who came to regret the killing of children. Geronimo as healer? I don’t think so.
For me, this is personal: on a March day in 1883 in a remote part of southwestern New Mexico, an Indian band led by Chiricahuan chief Chato happened upon Judge H. C. McComas, his wife Juniata, and their child, Charley Ware McComas. The parents were slaughtered, their naked bodies left to rot by the side of the road. The band then made off with five-year-old Charley, whose fate since has never been determined with certainty, but who was likely “assimilated” into the tribe. Why is this personal? Juniata McComas was the sister of Eugene F. Ware, my great-grandfather. The Ware name passed through generations to me – it is my middle name.
The problem, from my perspective, is not that Geronimo has been the victim of negative stereotyping, but that he and others of his generation have benefited from positive stereotyping: native Americans of his era are romanticized in literature, art, movies, and sanitized histories. Author Simmons put it well: “There exists,” he writes, “an unfortunate tendency today to engage in sentimental reflection and selective indignation, imagining that the noble Indian was living peacefully in his small Garden of Eden when bumped from Paradise by acquisitive and immoral intruders with pale faces. The truth of the matter is that native life was hard, brutish, and dangerous in the extreme and that, more often than not, war was the centerpiece of tribal life. In the matter of savagery, there is enough guilt for all sides to have their full share.”
The dark history of the Apache should not, of course, taint the picture of native peoples today, any more than the dark history of white Americans should taint the picture of their descendants. The past of virtually every race and ethnic group in the world is colored with periods of shame. While it is incumbent for all peoples to view their history honestly, it is equally our responsibility to not blame contemporaries for past transgressions; but rather to embrace each other as fellow passengers on this planet and continue humankind’s march toward a much brighter, more harmonious future.
Spencer Ware Nelson