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BOOK REVIEW : A Modern-Day Look at a 19th-Century 'Cultural Tragedy' : ONCE THEY MOVED LIKE THE WIND: Cochise, Geronimo and the Apache War by David Roberts Simon & Schuster: $24, 320 pages

August 25, 1993|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Once They Moved Like the Wind" is a history of the Old West, but David Roberts pointedly invokes words and images of mid-20th-Century warfare in telling the story of Cochise, Geronimo and "the last band of free Indians to wage war against the United States government."

Thus, for example, Roberts characterizes the reservation at Bosque Redondo in New Mexico as a "concentration camp," and he calls Kit Carson's campaign to drive the Navajo into the reservation a "scorched-earth mission." The Army's strategy of conquest and internment of native peoples, as Roberts puts it, was a "Final Solution." And over and over, he describes the ambushes and skirmishes between the Apache and the infantry with phrases that are intended to remind us of the guerrilla wars of our own times--especially Vietnam.

"Chase them and they slink into the ground or somehow vanish," recalled one veteran of the Indian wars. "Look behind and they are peeping over a hill at you."

The long, slow war between the Apache tribes and the encroaching American settlers began as early as 1861 and lasted until 1886, when a remnant of 34 men, women and children of the Chiricahua tribe found themselves pursued by some 8,000 American and Mexican soldiers. Ultimately, the Apache surrendered--but, as Roberts shows us, they were defeated by weariness rather than force of arms.

"The combined military might of two great nations," observes Roberts, "succeeded in capturing not a single Chiricahua, not even a child."

Roberts digs into a century or so of myth and misinformation, and he comes up with a lucid and plain-spoken history of what was intended by both sides to be a war of extermination. As it turns out, the struggle for the frontier was a war in miniature--rarely did an Apache war party exceed a couple of dozen warriors, and the single largest foray by the Apache consisted of barely 200 men.

Roberts insists that he is not a revisionist, but he tries hard to humanize the warriors and chiefs who are known to us nowadays as storybook figures. For instance, he looks into the soul of an Apache chief named Mangas, and wonders if there was "something of King Lear in him . . . something of Socrates."

And, in fact, when Mangas was captured, tortured and murdered by a squad of American soldiers, his captors cut off his head, boiled it down, and sent the skull to a phrenologist who reported that the "savage" possessed a "cranial capacity larger even than Daniel Webster's."

Roberts is evenhanded in describing the atrocities committed by the Apaches and the Americans against each other. But somehow he manages to give the impression that the cruelty of "civilized" soldiers and settlers was more sinister than the acts of violence committed by the Indians.

Scalping, for example, was practiced by both sides, although the Americans were more likely to scalp their victims because they needed these portable trophies to collect the bounty that was often paid for each dead Indian. One rancher fed cornmeal spiked with strychnine to a band of Indians who accepted his hospitality, and even Apache babies were fair game when the killing started: "Nits make lice" was the "eugenic aphorism" that the settlers used to justify the murder of infants.

The Apache, by contrast, favored torture by fire or lance cut, and the warriors often turned over their victims to the women of the tribe, "who were reported to be even crueler torturers than the men." But Roberts insists that he discerns a crucial difference in the Apaches' approach to the infliction of pain.

"Revenge, for an Apache, was not a lawless rampage of individual will, but a sacred social duty," Roberts intones. "What we call torture had for Apaches something of the character of a sacramental act."

The surrender of Geronimo and the internal exile of the Apache people, as Roberts points out, did not lead to genocide but rather to debasement and dispersion. The brave warrior-chief was turned into a sideshow freak: "The army led tours for citizens who behaved as if they were visiting a zoo." And Geronimo himself was soon reduced to selling his autographs for a quarter apiece.

"On train journeys, he cut the buttons off his coat and sold them each for a quarter," writes Roberts, "then between stations he sewed new buttons on. His hat went for five dollars."

Roberts concludes that the encounter between the native peoples of the Americas and the Anglo settlers was a "cultural tragedy," and he ends the tale on a wistful note: "Eighty years on, it seems unfathomable that white Americans could have found no way to coexist, in all the empty magnificence of the Southwest, with a mere twelve hundred Chiricahua."

But what is truly unfathomable, especially after reading "Once They Moved Like the Wind," is how the saga could have turned out differently. Roberts demonstrates that the "Manifest Destiny" was an irresistible force, and the native dwellers of the Americas--no matter how brave or clever or tenacious--stood no real chance of either accommodating the newcomers or expelling them.

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