Friday, January 27, 2006

Geronimo: His Own Story by Geronimo

Geronimo: His Own Story by Geronimo, Taken Down by S.M. Barret (5/5)

Geronimo: His Own Story is an endlessly fascinating autobiography that belongs in the pantheon of other great American works of autobiography and memoir. This book should take its place alonside other great works of personal non-fiction such as The Autobiography of Malcom X, A Moveable Feast, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and (arguably the best of the bunch) The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. This is a strong statement, but after reading this short autobiography it's at least an idea that should be entertained. I found things in this book that I was not expecting, and it ended up being a far more complex and intriguing portrait of Geronimo than I had previously entertained. The most fascinating side of Geronimo that comes across in these two-hundred pages is not Geronimo the warrior but Geronimo the diplomat.

S. M. Barrett’s introduction tells us that after Geronimo finished what he wanted to say he would not take questions or add anything more, but merely stated “‘Write what I have spoken.’” These are the actions of a man who has a very specific purpose he is pursuing. After reading Geronimo’s story I believe his purpose in publishing his tale was to accomplish in peace what he was unable to in was—he wanted to deliver his people back to Arizona.

Geronimo dedicates his story to Theodore Roosevelt, because, in his words, he “knows I speak the truth;…he is fair minded and will cause my people to receive justice in the future; and because he is chief of a great people.” Even before his story has started Geronimo strikes a cordial tone. Not only are Geronimo’s words flowing with accolades, but they are also giving Roosevelt something to live up to. By stating that Roosevelt is “fair minded and will cause my people to receive justice in the future” he is almost challenging Roosevelt to live up to this description.

Much of the fighting in Geronimo occurs between the Apache’s and the Mexicans. Geronimo doesn’t try and hide his feelings about the Mexicans, stating not only that he as “no love for the Mexicans,” but also that if he was younger, “and followed the warpath,” he would “lead into Old Mexico.” In fact, his battles with the Mexicans take up a slight majority of the book. He does not make any similarly broad statements when speaking about Americans. Whenever Geronimo criticizes American policy he makes certain that he focuses his criticism on the officer in charge rather than American policy as a whole. Geronimo realizes that merely lashing out at an unfair, but time honored, practice of breaking U.S. treaties would alienate his audience and hurt his cause.

The rhetorical technique Geronimo uses in telling his story is rather matter of fact. This is in stark contrast to some of the more melodramatic works that were popular around the turn of the century. Certainly this highlights a difference in two cultures, but it is also indicative of how Geronimo goes about trying to achieve his goal. Instead of histrionically telling his story he presents it in what seems to be an objective and reasonable voice. When Geronimo gave himself up to the U.S. Army one of the conditions was that his band of Apaches would be sent to Florida with the rest of their families. When the U.S. breaks this condition Geronimo flatly states that this “treatment was in direct violation of our treaty made at Skeleton Canon.” He lets the action speak for itself. If he railed against the injustice committed then he would have turned off a mostly white audience. After all, it was their government who was responsible for breaking the treaty.

I won’t make this into a thesis (although I probably could). Geronimo: His Own Story is a wonderful portrait of one of American History’s most courageous heroes. In the book I was surprised to find out just as much about Geronimo the diplomat as I did about Geronimo the warrior. I’ll end this with Geronimo’s words: “There is no climate or soil which, to my mind, is equal to that of Arizona. We could have plenty of good cultivating land, plenty of grass, plenty of timber and plenty of minerals in that land which the Almighty created for the Apaches. It is my land, my home, my fathers’ land, to which I now ask to be allowed to return. I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountains. If this could be I might die in peace, feeling that my people , placed in their native homes, would increase in numbers, rather than diminish as at present, and that our name would not become extinct.”

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