Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

A new Wild West ripe for pillage beckons the US

The New York Times called Osama bin Laden "crafty, bloodthirsty, incredibly cruel and ferocious". A White House official dubbed him "the greatest single mass-murderer in American history". Is there any possibility the US Congress will one day change its tune and hail him as a man who "led his people in a war of self-defence as their homeland was invaded by ... the armies of the United States"?

Before dismissing the thought, consider this; the quotes above refer not to bin Laden, but to the Native American leader Geronimo, denounced during his life as the most fearsome terrorist of all, but in death deemed a fighter for the freedom of his people, eventually worthy of official adulation. A 29-cent Geronimo stamp was issued in October 1994.

Last Monday was the anniversary of Geronimo's death. He died at 79 from falling off his horse at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. It's said his last words were: "I should never have surrendered."

Geronimo wasn't the caricature noble Indian chief of certain guilt-tripped white-American accounts. He wasn't a chief at all, indeed, but an ordinary member of the Bedonkohe band of the Apache tribe, seen from boyhood as a good fighter and hunter. His instinctive response to oppression was to try to cut its throat.

Accounts of raids he led on interlopers – mainly Mexican – on Apache lands call for a sturdy stomach. In his autobiography, Geronimo: My Life, he confesses to having personally killed "many" people: "I did not count them. Some of them were not worth counting."

The sharply-focused fanaticism can be traced to a night in 1851 when he returned with his men from a night's drinking and trading to find their encampment in Janos, Sonora, splattered with gobbets and gore, scores of the elderly and women and children murdered and mutilated, or snatched away to slavery. His mother, wife and three children were among the dead.

He was captured three times as he marauded along the Mexico/Arizona/New Mexico border; three times he broke loose. His last dash for freedom came in May 1885, when he led a band of 42 warriors and around 90 women and children into Mexico.

More than 5,000 US cavalry, 3,000 Mexican soldiers and hundreds of scalp-hunters were to join the pursuit. At one point, more than a quarter of the entire US army was deployed against him. It was in this relatively brief period that the legend of Geronimo was made.

For 18 months, his little group traversed thousands of miles of desert and mountains, hitting and running, hiding and hunting. The leading historian of the American West, Robert M Utley, describes his achievement as "an unmatched record of resistance in modern military history".

Geronimo surrendered after his fighting force had been reduced to fewer than 20. Mexican commanders continued the pursuit for more than a year, convinced there must be hundreds of others still roaming the hills.

His deal with the US was that he'd be allowed to return to his old hunting ground along the Arizona-New Mexico border in exchange for a pledge to live within the white man's law. As ever, the white men spoke with forked tongue. Geronimo spent the rest of his days in captivity, depressed, frequently drunk, occasionally dragged out to be gawked at.

The US Navy Seals' assassination raid on Osama bin Laden's Pakistan hideout in May 2011 was codenamed "Geronimo". Confirmation of his killing was relayed to the White House in the message, "Geronimo KIA [killed in action]".

Geronimo's significance in American popular culture had grown and grown in the century since his death. Small boys of every generation whooped his name as they hurtled into fantastical battle.

The chorus of the US paratroopers' anthem, Down From Heaven, declares that, "It's a gory road to glory/But we're ready, here we go/Shout – 'Geronimo!' 'Geronimo!'"

There is a deep reservoir of unacknowledged guilt lurking here, as if mythologising Geronimo within the popular culture of white America might serve as symbolic amends for the huge historical wrong done to the Native American people, as if conferring a posthumous nobility upon the most hated and feared of all Native American fighters and taking his indomitable defiance of white America as a quality to be emulated by white America itself, as if this might expiate the guilt arising from the near-extermination of the indigenous people of the continent.

Now half the world is seen by the rulers of white America as the new Wild West, fabulously rich in extractable treasure, but peopled by savages who must needs be subdued so civilisation might flourish.

Who's next for the stamp of approval, then?

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