I was born in No-doyohn Canyon, Arizona, June, 1829,” Geronimo recalled from the distance of old age. “In that country, which lies around the headwaters of the Gila River, I was reared. This range was our fatherland; among these mountains our wigwams were hidden; the scattered valleys contained our fields; the boundless prairies, stretching away on every side, were our pastures; the rocky caverns were our burying places.”
Geronimo’s people, the Apaches, had not always lived near the Gila River. Their language was of the Athabaskan family, revealing roots far to the north, among the tribes of the Northwest Coast. The Apaches had migrated to the desert and mountains of the Southwest, probably under compulsion, for life was harder there. They reached the Gila River a few centuries before Geronimo’s birth, perhaps around the time Columbus reached the West Indies.
Geronimo was the fourth in a family of eight children. They were four boys and four girls. “As a babe I rolled on the dirt floor of my father’s tepee, hung in my tsoch”—cradle—“at my mother’s back, or suspended from the bough of a tree,” he said. “I was warmed by the sun, rocked by the winds, and sheltered by the trees as other Indian babes.” As he grew, he learned. “My mother taught me the legends of our people; taught me of the sun and sky, the moon and stars, the clouds and storms. She also taught me to kneel and pray to Usen”—God—“for strength, health, wisdom, and protection. We never prayed against any person, but if we had aught against any individual we ourselves took vengeance. We were taught that Usen does not care for the petty quarrels of men.”
Other lessons came from his father. “My father had often told me of the brave deeds of our warriors, of the pleasures of the chase, and the glories of the warpath,” Geronimo said. He and his brothers emulated what they heard. “We played that we were warriors. We would practice stealing upon some object that represented an enemy, and in our childish imitation often perform the feats of war. Sometimes we would hide away from our mother to see if she could find us, and often when thus concealed go to sleep and perhaps remain hidden for many hours.”
With age came responsibility. “When we were old enough to be of real service, we went to the field with our parents not to play, but to toil. When the crops were to be planted we broke the ground with wooden hoes. We planted the corn in straight rows, the beans among the corn, and the melons and pumpkins in irregular order over the field. We cultivated these crops as there was need.” Plots were modest in size. “Our field usually contained about two acres of ground. The fields were never fenced. It was common for many families to cultivate land in the same valley and share the burden of protecting the growing crops from destruction by the ponies of the tribe, or by deer and other wild animals.”
The crops set a rhythm for life. “Melons were gathered as they were consumed. In the autumn, pumpkins and beans were gathered and placed in bags or baskets; ears of corn were tied together by the husks, and then the harvest was carried on the backs of ponies up to our homes. Here the corn was shelled, and all the harvest stored away in caves or other secluded places to be used in winter.”
Another essential came free from nature. “We did not cultivate tobacco, but found it growing wild. This we cut and cured in autumn, but if the supply ran out, the leaves from the stalks left standing served our purpose. All Indians smoked—men and women.” Where other tribes smoked pipes, the Apaches preferred cigarettes, with the tobacco typically rolled in oak leaves. “No boy was allowed to smoke until he had hunted alone and killed large game—wolves and bears. Unmarried women were not prohibited from smoking, but were considered immodest if they did so. Nearly all matrons smoked.”
More labor went into a favorite beverage. “Besides grinding the corn (by hand with stone mortars and pestles) for bread, we sometimes crushed it and soaked it, and after it had fermented made from this juice a tis-win, which had the power of intoxication, and was very highly prized by the Indians. This work was done by the squaws and children.”
Nature provided the medicines the Apaches employed against disease and injury. “The Indians knew what herbs to use for medicine, how to prepare them, and how to give the medicine,” Geronimo said. “This they had been taught by Usen in the beginning, and each succeeding generation had men who were skilled in the art of healing.” Belief informed the healing. “In gathering the herbs, in preparing them, and in administering the medicine, as much faith was held in prayer as in the actual effect of the medicine. Usually about eight persons worked together in making medicine, and there were forms of prayer and incantations to attend each stage of the process. Four attended to the incantations and four to the preparation of the herbs.” Four was a number sacred to the Apaches.
In later years outsiders would call Geronimo a medicine man. He never claimed the title for himself, although necessity made him proficient in certain of the healing arts. “Some of the Indians were skilled in cutting out bullets, arrow heads, and other missiles with which warriors were wounded,” he said. “I myself have done much of this, using a common dirk or butcher knife.”
The boy continued to grow. “When I was about eight or ten years old, I began to follow the chase, and to me this was never work. Out on the prairies, which ran up to our mountain homes, wandered herds of deer, antelope, elk, and buffalo, to be slaughtered when we needed them. Usually we hunted buffalo on horseback, killing them with arrows and spears. Their skins were used to make tepees and bedding; their flesh, to eat.”
The buffalo were formidable, but deer were wary. “It required more skill to hunt the deer than any other animal. We never tried to approach a deer except against the wind. Frequently we would spend hours in stealing upon grazing deer. If they were in the open, we would crawl long distances on the ground, keeping a weed or brush before us, so that our approach would not be noticed. Often we could kill several out of one herd before the others would run away. Their flesh was dried and packed in vessels, and would keep in this condition for many months. The hide of the deer was soaked in water and ashes and the hair removed, and then the process of tanning continued until the buckskin was soft and pliable. Perhaps no other animal was more valuable to us than the deer.”
The forests and valleys contained many turkeys. “These we would drive to the plains, then slowly ride up toward them until they were almost tired out. When they began to drop and hide we would ride in upon them and by swinging from the side of our horses, catch them. If one started to fly we would ride swiftly under him and kill him with a short stick, or hunting club. In this way we could usually get as many wild turkeys as we could carry home on a horse.”
Rabbits were stupid but quick. “Our horses were trained to follow the rabbit at full speed, and as they approached them we would swing from one side of the horse and strike the rabbit with our hunting club. If he was too far away we would throw the stick and kill him. This was great sport when we were boys, but as warriors we seldom hunted small game.”
The streams abounded with fish, but the Apaches let them be. “Usen did not intend snakes, frogs, or fishes to be eaten,” Geronimo explained. “I have never eaten of them.”
Eagles were hunted for their feathers. “It required great skill to steal upon an eagle, for besides having sharp eyes, he is wise and never stops at any place where he does not have a good view of the surrounding country.”
Courage was needed in hunting bears and mountain lions. “I have killed many bears with a spear, but was never injured in a fight with one,” Geronimo said. “I have killed several mountain lions with arrows, and one with a spear. Both bears and mountain lions are good for food and valuable for their skin. When we killed them we carried them home on our horses. We often made quivers for our arrows from the skin of the mountain lion. These were very pretty and very durable.”
The men of Geronimo’s family displayed their courage most clearly as warriors. “My grandfather, Maco, had been our chief,” he said. “I never saw him, but my father often told me of the great size, strength, and sagacity of this old warrior. Their principal wars had been with the Mexicans. They had some wars with other tribes of Indians also, but were seldom at peace for any great length of time with the Mexican towns.” Geronimo would follow in his grandfather’s footsteps against the Mexicans.
“Maco died when my father was but a young warrior, and Mangas Coloradas became chief of the Bedonkohe Apaches,” Geronimo continued. “When I was but a small boy my father died, after having been sick for some time. When he passed away, carefully the watchers closed his eyes, then they arrayed him in his best clothes, painted his face afresh, wrapped a rich blanket around him, saddled his favorite horse, bore his arms in front of him, and led his horse behind, repeating in wailing tones his deeds of valor as they carried his body to a cave in the mountain. Then they slew his horses, and we gave away all of his other property, as was customary in our tribe, after which his body was deposited in the cave, his arms beside him. His grave is hidden by piles of stone. Wrapped in splendor he lies in seclusion, and the winds in the pines sing a low requiem over the dead warrior.”
After his father’s death, Geronimo took responsibility for his mother. “She never married again, although according to the customs of our tribe she might have done so immediately after his death. Usually, however, the widow who has children remains single after her husband’s death for two or three years; but the widow without children marries again immediately. After a warrior’s death, his widow returns to her people and may be given away or sold by her father or brothers. My mother chose to live with me, and she never desired to marry again. We lived near our old home and I supported her.”
Geronimo came of age at seventeen, in 1846. “I was admitted to the council of the warriors. Then I was very happy, for I could go wherever I wanted and do whatever I liked. I had not been under the control of any individual, but the customs of our tribe prohibited me from sharing the glories of the warpath until the council admitted me. When opportunity offered, after this, I could go on the warpath with my tribe. This would be glorious. I hoped soon to serve my people in battle. I had long desired to fight with our warriors.”
He had another reason for being happy. “Now I could marry the fair Alope, daughter of No-po-so. She was a slender, delicate girl, but we had been lovers for a long time. So, as soon as the council granted me these privileges I went to see her father concerning our marriage. Perhaps our love was of no interest to him; perhaps he wanted to keep Alope with him, for she was a dutiful daughter; at any rate he asked many ponies for her. I made no reply, but in a few days appeared before his wigwam with the herd of ponies and took with me Alope. This was all the marriage ceremony necessary in our tribe.”
Geronimo set up a tepee not far from his mother’s. “The tepee was made of buffalo hides and in it were many bear robes, lion hides, and other trophies of the chase, as well as my spears, bows, and arrows. Alope had made many little decorations of beads and drawn work on buckskin, which she placed in our tepee. She also drew many pictures on the walls of our home. She was a good wife, but she was never strong. We followed the traditions of our fathers and were happy. Three children came to us—children that played, loitered, and worked as I had done.”
As a young man, Geronimo knew little of the world beyond his own people. Their battles were with neighboring tribes and Mexicans. Of the larger war for America, against the powerful tribe rising in the East, they were unaware. “During my minority we had never seen a missionary or a priest,” he recalled. “We had never seen a white man.”
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