Friday, November 12, 2010


It's Native American Heritage Month! Learn a few facts about the famous Apache warrior Geronimo in Geronimo: A Biography. We've given you an inside look at the book below.

Geronimo is a name familiar to many, but few actually know much about his life and times. At the end of the 19th century, articles about his whereabouts and his exploits filled American newspapers, and settlers in the southwestern United States lived in terror of his name. One of the last remaining bands to be confined to a reservation, Geronimo’s Apache people ranged freely throughout the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, raiding as they went. Eventually, the United States had to call on the full force of their military in order to capture Geronimo’s tiny band, and even then, they could not accomplish the task without Apache scouts to assist them. Geronimo’s ability to outwit the U.S. military for years, and his eventual capture and imprisonment, were the subjects of many newspaper and magazine articles and military memoirs of that era.

There is a large written record about Geronimo penned by his enemies, but even more interestingly, Geronimo lived long enough to have his autobiography published early in the 20th century. Such an account, of course, is central to any biography about the man. I have read and re-read his autobiography and pondered the difficulties involved in writing such an account through an interpreter, recorded by the hand of a stranger who was of the conquering culture, and published only with the permission of the U.S. military, while being held as a prisoner of war. Surely these conditions would have an effect on the words written and the truths revealed, but what kind of effect? Can we believe Geronimo’s autobiography or not? Fortunately, there are other corroborating accounts given by Apaches who were alive at the time, as well as the incomparable scholarship of Angie Debo, who published her definitive biography of Geronimo in 1976. These all tend to confirm the basic truth of Geronimo’s autobiography, albeit a truth based on his own understanding of events and that differed from other people’s truths. Factual errors were minimal, and questions arise more about that which was omitted from Geronimo’s account, rather than that which it contains.

Geronimo remains as much a mystery now as when this journey began, although there is little doubt that such an intelligent, charismatic, and complex leader would have made a mark in the historical record during any time in which he lived.

Though we will probably never know the precise date or place, sometime in the early 1820s, a boy child was born to Taklishim, son of the chief of the Bedonkohe band of Chiricahua Apaches, and Juana, an Apache of whom little is known other than her Spanish name, in a canyon near the headlands of the Gila River. A modern scholar has placed Geronimo’s birth place near the present day town of Clifton, Arizona. Geronimo’s birth date, often given as 1829, has been proven incorrect by scholars (it was earlier in the 1820s), and his birth place, which he referred to as “No-doyohn Canyon,” in Arizona, has never been located, although Geronimo most certainly knew where it was.

Traditionally, Apache children were told where they were born and knew their birthplace despite the nomadic lifestyle of the band. Whenever the band’s travels brought them back to the birthplace of a child, the child rolled on the ground toward each of the four directions. This traditional practice continued throughout the child’s life and sometimes into adulthood.  The boy child born to Taklishim and Juana was named Goyahkla, the accepted translation being “He Who Yawns.” It was an incongruous name for such an energetic man, who loomed larger than life and was probably at one time the most feared and best known American Indian in the southwestern United States.

Born into a close-knit Apache band consisting primarily of extended family members, Geronimo was probably attended by a midwife and female relatives at his birth. According to traditional custom, there would have been a cradle ceremony when he was about four days old, where a cradleboard, or tsosch, was carefully created just for him out of oak branches and sotol stalks by a shaman. Cradleboards usually had a canopy to protect the baby’s face from the sun, and special items, such as a bag of pollen or a piece of turquoise, were hung from the canopy to protect the child. The baby did not actually use the tsosch for several months, until its neck was strong enough for the child to hold up his head. But the ritual placement of the new child into his cradle and the surrounding social ceremony welcomed a new child and expressed the tribe’s hope that the child would live to occupy the cradle a few months hence.

Although he didn’t discuss it in his autobiography, it is likely that Geronimo also had a “First Moccasins” ceremony, given when a child began to walk. This event was marked with a feast of fruit and meat, and was overseen by a shaman who put pollen on the tiny ceremonial moccasins. These were placed on the child, who was usually between seven months and two years old, and with the assistance of a shaman, the young child was encouraged to walk a few steps into each of the four directions. 

Geronimo’s father, Taklishim, was the son of Mahko, a chief of some repute in the Bedonkohe Apache tribe. Geronimo probably grew up hearing stories about the great chief Mahko from his father, admiring stories of battles, of prisoners and horses taken. The stories would probably have spoken of the vast lands that Mahko and his people ranged on horseback. These stories would have been repeated to the young Geronimo, who listened to them well, but little realized that his world would become an entirely different world—one that the great Mahko would never have recognized.



By Mary A. Stout
Greenwood, 2009

The first biography of Geronimo aimed at the high school and undergraduate student audience, this book provides a balanced account of Geronimo’s life in the context of key historical and cultural events of his lifetime.

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