Monday, March 01, 2010

Geronimo and the Twilight of Indian Resistance

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I describe the sad last days of Geronimo and the devastating impact of the Dawes Severalty Act on Native Americans.

The western Apaches would be the last Indian peoples to surrender to the United States government. Federal authorities attempted to pin Apaches down on one reservation in New Mexico and three in Arizona. In the 1870s and 1880s, Apache warrior bands rejected confinement and gained control over previously white-ruled territory, and raided ranches for cattle and other livestock. Meanwhile, a loose confederation of Cheyenne, Kiowa, Kataka and Comanche warriors joined the Arapaho in one of the bloodiest conflicts in the West, facing off against troops led by Gen. William T. Sherman in the Red River War of 1874-1875.

Years of pursuit by the American Army in the difficult desert climate, added to high casualties, eventually depleted Native American morale. Nevertheless, a decade-long series of small battles followed, with Geronimo leading Apache attacks on small white settlements across the hot and dry Arizona terrain. Geronimo resisted until only thirty of his once powerful warrior band survived. In September 1886, Geronimo finally capitulated, thus concluding two decades of intense warfare in the American Southwest.

Humiliation awaited Geronimo in his final years. Stripped of his right to hunt freely and needing to make a living, he became a chief attraction at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904 where he sold pictures of himself for 25 cents apiece. He also accepted an invitation to ride in President Theodore Roosevelt's 1905 inaugural parade. Depressed, Geronimo said in a newspaper interview that, "I want to go back to my old home before I die . . . Want to go back to the mountains again. I asked the Great White Father to allow me to go back, but he said no." The federal government had banned Apaches from returning to their traditional lands in Arizona. Instead, when Geronimo died in 1909, his remains were interred in Oklahoma.


Having stripped Indians of their land, the federal government now sought to shatter their ethnic identities. In 1887 Congress passed the Dawes Severalty Act, which authorized the president to distribute land to individual Indians provided they broke all ties to their tribes. The stated intent of the law was to turn hunting, nomadic Indians into small farmers and to bring them into the American economic mainstream. Nevertheless, greed played a big part in the drafting of legislation. Knowing that Plains Indians were unfamiliar with farming, white currency, and Anglo courts, and that the land they were given was poorly irrigated, sponsors of the bill realized that many of the Indian “farmers” would soon be forced to sell to speculators what had once been tribal land. The already small amount of land controlled by Indians shrank even further. In 1881, Indians controlled about 155 million acres. Just nineteen years later, in 1900, the land under Indian control had shrunk to 78 million acres.

By 1892, the Indian struggle for survival limped to an end in the Wounded Knee Massacre. Resulting from a white misunderstanding of a native religious movement with no apparent warlike intentions, the killings summed up four centuries of dishonor that began when Columbus encountered Native Americans for the first time in the Caribbean in 1492. The Indian population hit an all-time low by 1900, dropping to 237,000, but eventually recovered. About 1.9 million Indians were counted in the 1990 census. The Indian way of life, however, had been destroyed. Reservations would become pockets of poverty, bad health, and inadequate education throughout the 20th century and serve as symbols of infinite broken promises made by the United States government to the original inhabitants of North America.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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