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For those who are interested in sound history rather than legend, THE definitive biography of Geronimo
on November 17, 2012
It is fitting for Yale University's Lamar Series in Western History to have an entry by Robert M. Utley, who, if not the dean of Western historians, certainly is the dean of historians of American Indians. And this biography of Geronimo instantly becomes THE definitive biography, and is likely to remain so for decades.
Unlike many who write about the American Indians, Utley does not succumb to romanticized hero worship. Within the bounds of what is known or can reasonably be inferred, Utley produces responsible history. Utley's GERONIMO bucks the trend of popular history, in which the famous Indian warriors (for example, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Quanah Parker, and Chief Joseph) are presented as Noble Aborigines, "culturally pure innocent victims of American expansion" who valiantly waged war in a quixotic effort to save their homelands. Often Geronimo was little more than a brigand, a "murderous butcher" even. Utley concludes that Geronimo was "a not very likable man", who "within the constraints of Apache culture * * * was a human being with many strengths and many flaws." The image of him as the greatest of the Indian chiefs who fought "to save his homeland from takeover by the westward-moving white people" is "demonstrably untrue." In Utley's view, Geronimo was not even the greatest of all Apache chiefs - Mangas Coloradas was.
However, the revisionism of GERONIMO, if revisionism it is, does not go so far as to glorify or justify those ever "westward-moving white people". In Utley's book, there are a few honorable emissaries of the European-American forces of civilization, but far too often the conquerors conducted themselves with greed, mendacity, and callous cruelty.
The most interesting part of GERONIMO is the Epilogue, in which Utley summarizes Geronimo's life and discusses the myth of Geronimo and how it came to be. The preceding 262 pages cover the details of Geronimo's life, as well as the broader history and culture of the Apaches. That account is extremely thorough - much too thorough for me as a relatively casual reader. At times the prose takes on literary qualities but for the most part it is only serviceable. GERONIMO is sound history, but it does not make for a particularly enjoyable reading experience.
P.S.: I noticed one inexplicable gaffe. Utley writes that the Mogollon Mountains, in which Geronimo spent much of his life, are "the highest and most rugged range in New Mexico, [rising] above eight thousand feet, with more than five peaks soaring above ten thousand." The Mogollons are indeed rugged, but they are by no means the highest range in New Mexico. In the Sangre de Christos, in the foothills of which I live, there are dozens of peaks higher than ten thousand feet, including the highest mountain in New Mexico, Mt. Wheeler, at 13,163 feet.