It’s Arizona in 1886: the United States has all but tamed the Wild West, but one Native American rebel stubbornly refuses to surrender. Geronimo, the last insurgent, rides across the desert with his wily band of renegades. Some 5,000 U.S. soldiers have been dispatched to apprehend him, but still he evades capture. Few people know his life story, but according to his followers, he is an extraordinary man with supernatural gifts…
The Apaches were a people defined by their ferocious resistance to Mexican colonists and, after the westward expansion of the U.S. border, American settlers too. Geronimo was the most famous and ruthless of Apache warriors – the last in a long line of spirited freedom fighters. He was also a medicine man, a malcontent and a fearless leader of outlaws.
Indeed, few things were as important to an Apache as freedom – especially freedom from laws, governments and hierarchies. Apache society had no central leadership, no class system and no overarching political structure. Every Apache was free to go wherever he chose and to follow whoever he wished. Wild and free, they were a people characterized by rugged individuality.
Of course, the Apache heartlands were themselves as untamed as their indigenous inhabitants. Spanning northern Mexico and the Southwest United States, the patchwork of lands collectively known as Apacheria included rambling mountain ranges, lush valleys, evergreen forests, plains, vertiginous canyons and mile upon mile of flat, scorching, wide open desert.
However, the ancestral homeland of the Apaches was most likely in the far north of the continent. Indigenous peoples in Canada and Alaska, for example, speak forms of Athabaskan – the same linguistic family as Apache languages. As such, the Apaches are thought to have migrated to the Southwest between 500 and 800 years ago and settled into several distinct but related tribes.
However, the basic unit of Apache society was not the tribe but the band. The Apache band was a fluid structure that could form, re-form or disperse at will. It was, in fact, the ideal type of organization for guerrilla warfare. The changeability of the band, its loose structure and roving mobility lent the Apaches a distinct advantage over their enemies – especially when those opponents were hampered by slow-moving bureaucracy, such as the Spanish Empire.
For centuries, Apacheria marked the northern borderlands of the Hispanic New World. And after Mexico gained independence in 1821, it marked the outer limits of two fledgling nations – the U.S. and Mexico. It was a lawless, volatile, far-flung place that defied easy colonization. White settlements were common targets for Apache raids. And elsewhere, Apaches clashed with neighboring Navajo and Comanche groups, their sworn enemies.
A son of the Chiricahua tribe, Geronimo was born in No-Doyohn Canyon on the Gila River in Mexico in June 1829. His original name was “Goyahkla” meaning “yawner”. However, Geronimo soon proved anything but sleepy. During his first hunt as a boy, he ate the raw heart of his prey. And according to Apache tradition, this act guaranteed his future success as a killer.
By the time he was 17, Goyahkla had led four raids, fulfilling the necessary requirements to become an Apache warrior. It is said that he earned the moniker “Geronimo” during one such raid. According to some historians, a Mexican soldier may have unwittingly provided the new name while screaming out for the divine assistance of Saint Jerome, or San Jeronimo.
Raiding was a way of life for the Apache, but not all incursions were violent. Sometimes a foray could involve quietly rustling a few cows. Other times, assaults were undertaken as acts of revenge. Such raids could be brutal and merciless. At worst, they culminated in the wholesale slaughter of entire settlements or military outposts.
Nonetheless, Apacheria was not always steeped in blood. Episodes of peace punctuated periods of war, particularly during the last days of the Spanish Empire. The young Mexican republic was less successful at placating the Apaches, however, as the struggle for independence had left the country fractured and volatile. Ultimately, Mexico did not have the economic or military resources to control its northern frontier.
As Apacheria descended into chaos, the government in Chihuahua City resolved to hire mercenaries – gangs of immigrant Anglo-Americans among them – to quell the troublesome Apaches. The government paid a fee for each dead Apache, contingent on the presentation of his or her severed scalp. Naturally, the cycle of revenge intensified. And attacks by both sides became increasingly barbaric.
In 1846, however, the Mexico-Apache war was interrupted by seismic geopolitical shifts. To the east, Anglo-American lawmakers were gripped by a momentous political fever. On the one hand, “manifest destiny” beckoned the U.S. to expand westward over the continent. On the other, the idea of “American exceptionalism” fomented discourses of cultural and racial supremacy.
On April 25 Mexican troops attacked a U.S. military contingent occupying a disputed zone on the southern border of Texas, itself a former territory of Mexico. In response, the U.S. declared war on Mexico on May 13. The two sides were poorly matched and the U.S. easily prevailed over its ill-prepared and politically unstable neighbor.
The war concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The terms included a radical re-drawing of international boundaries. In effect, Mexico relinquished nearly half of its national territory. The U.S. gained the entire Southwest, including vast swathes of Apacheria. Six years later, the U.S acquired even more Mexican land with the so-called Gasden Purchase.
Of course, the region’s social dynamics were completely transformed by the westward expansion of the United States. With a new international border now running through its heart, Apacheria was effectively destroyed. Anglo-American settlers started pouring in, closely followed by gold prospectors. In response, the Apaches intensified their raids and ambushed westbound wagon trains.
War with the Americans raged for ten years, but in the end, Chief Cochise, who was Geronimo’s father-in-law, sensed the futility of resistance. He brokered for peace and negotiated a reservation on traditional Apache lands. However, shortly after Cochise died, the U.S. government tore up their agreement and relocated the Chiricahuas to San Carlos Reservation in Arizona.
Naturally, Geronimo refused to accept such a bitter humiliation. He escaped from the reservation, ran wild across the countryside and terrorized settlers. But the U.S. Army invariably caught up with him and, after years of cat-and-mouse drama, returned him to his appointed place at San Carlos Reservation. Of course, that was hardly the end of it.
Geronimo made his third and final escape from the reservation on May 17, 1885. Accompanied by 135 faithful followers, he rode up to 70 miles per day to evade capture by the U.S. cavalry – and the turncoat Apache scouts who served them. It was the last of the Indian wars and neither Mexican nor American civilians were spared Geronimo’s fury.
For Geronimo was not merely driven by a love of freedom, but also by an insatiable lust for revenge. Back in 1851 he had left his camp to conduct some trade in the settlement of Casas Grandes. When he returned, he found his wife Alope and their three children dead. They had been murdered in a Mexican military strike conducted by Colonel Jose Maria Carrasco.
Geronimo subsequently described the moment when he found them. He said, “I stood until all had passed, hardly knowing what I would do. I had no weapon, nor did I hardly wish to fight, neither did I contemplate recovering the bodies of my loved ones, for that was forbidden. I did not pray, nor did I resolve to do anything in particular, for I had no purpose left… I was never again contented in our quiet home.”
Apache custom requires that the possessions of dead people are burned, lest their ghosts linger in the world of the living. Geronimo torched his family’s belongings, then took off into the wilderness to grieve. It was there, at his darkest moment, that the Apache fighter apparently experienced an unearthly epiphany.
According to popular legend, he heard a voice which he identified as a spiritual protector. The voice said that special powers had been bestowed upon him, including the power of invulnerability. It said, “No gun will ever kill you. I will take the bullets from the guns of the Mexicans… and I will guide your arrows.”
Spiritual power played an important role in Apache culture. The Apaches believed that a host of abilities could be bestowed upon individuals or entire tribes for the purposes of healing, protection or success in hunting and warfare. Geronimo was believed to possess the supernatural capacity to see far-away events, create storms and heal the sick, as well as dodge bullets.
Naturally, Geronimo and his followers derived great courage from the belief that no gun could ever kill him. In his first act of revenge, he gathered a band of 200 men and slaughtered his family’s killers. He then embarked on an unprecedented murder spree. Over the years, he was shot and wounded several times, but his “special powers” never let him down: no gun ever did kill him.
Of course, Geronimo’s rampage across the Wild West earned him a fearsome reputation. The newspapers covered his antics closely, elevating his notoriety to a national level. As such, he was a persistent source of embarrassment to the federal authorities. As a son of the land, he knew the region’s complicated terrain inside-out. He was near-impossible to catch.
Nonetheless, after a five-month pursuit involving 5,000 U.S. soldiers and 3,000 miles of rugged terrain, General Nelson Miles trapped Geronimo in Skeleton Canyon, Arizona and forced him to surrender his Winchester rifle for the last time. Miraculously, Geronimo and his band avoided being hanged. Instead, they were sent into exile.
Bundled into a heavily-armored boxcar, Geronimo and his followers were transported hundreds of miles to Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida. Their sentence included hard labor, but the Apaches were ill-suited to the Floridian climate. According to The Washington Post newspaper, they died “like flies at frost time.” Furthermore, Geronimo was forced to suffer the indignity of serving as a tourist attraction. Hundreds came to gawk at him in his prison cell.
Meanwhile, the children of Geronimo’s followers were rounded up and dispatched to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania for “re-education.” At the time, racial discourses suggested that Native American children could be “de-cultured” and thus delivered from a state of “savagery” to “civilization”. Sadly, however, a significant proportion of the school’s pupils died in a tuberculosis outbreak.
After a stint in Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama, Geronimo and his 300 followers were then confined to the Comanche and Kiowa reservation near Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1894. He remained there for more than 14 years, although he was permitted to travel outside on special occasions such as 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
Among the fair exhibits was a reconstructed “Apache Village” with Geronimo as its centerpiece. The exhibit was an opportunity for Americans to witness cultural activities performed by women from the Pueblos, including pottery production and corn-grinding. They could also pose for photos with Geronimo and request his autograph.
Geronimo did not seem to be particularly offended by his role as a living museum. In fact, he seemed to be fascinated by many of the fair’s exhibits, including a magic show where a woman was stabbed with multiple swords and did not die. Smithsonian magazine quoted him as saying to a writer, “I would like to know how she was so quickly healed and why the wounds did not kill her.”
Furthermore, Geronimo’s experiences at the fair apparently caused him to revise his opinion of white people. According to his dictated memoirs, he now considered them “a kind and peaceful people.” He said, “During all the time I was at the fair no one tried to harm me in any way. Had this been among the Mexicans I am sure I should have been compelled to defend myself often.”
Following the fair, Geronimo took a job with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show. Under the supervision of federal guards, he played the role of a “savage” chief who had slaughtered countless innocent civilians. He was, according to the line-up, “The Worst Indian That Ever Lived.” Of course, the show would be considered politically incorrect by today’s standards, but Geronimo was happy to participate. It earned him good money.
Geronimo’s most high-profile public engagement was the presidential inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt in March 1905. Along with five Native American chiefs clad in headdresses and face-paint, he participated in a horse parade on Pennsylvania Avenue. According to one journalist at the time, the event was staged to demonstrate that the U.S. and Native America had “buried the hatchet forever.”
Geronimo subsequently met Roosevelt in person.According to the New York Tribune newspaper’s uncharitable account of the event, Geronimo made a “pathetic appeal” to return to the Southwest, tears “running down his bullet-scarred cheeks.” However, the old rebel was not well-received. Roosevelt reportedly told him, “You killed many of my people; you burned villages…[you] were not good Indians.”
According to the New York Tribune, Geronimo reacted by gesturing “wildly”. A staff member intervened and told him, “The Great Father is very busy.” He was then escorted from the room. Predictably, Geronimo was never allowed to return to Arizona. Of course, he had so many enemies there, he may have been murdered if he had ever gone back.
In February 1909, Geronimo was riding towards his house when his horse threw him. Unable to get up, he spent the night on the cold ground. The next day, a friend rescued him, but he was sick and frail. Six days later he died. “I should never have surrendered,” he said before he passed away. “I should have fought until I was the last man alive.”
Although Geronimo was widely feared in his day, some applauded him as a wily freedom fighter, a rebel, a hero and a protector of Native American ways. That said, others viewed him as a stubborn old fool, an abuser, a drunk, a gambler and a murderer. But modern historical analyses rarely pigeonhole him as either a hero or a villain, but rather as a complex figure who did both good and evil.
One thing is certain: Geronimo’s acts of resistance have earned him immortality. He will forever be remembered as a fearsome warrior – a wily rebel who dared to defy the United States. Few other folk heroes are so emblematic of freedom. Geronimo lived it, breathed it and fought for it. His spirit lives on.
But of course, there are countless other tales that offer fascinating glimpses into the lives of Native Americans. This series of black-and-white photographs, all of which depict members of Alberta’s First Nations, remains as a powerful record of this forgotten past.
By the time that European settlers first crossed the Atlantic in the 15th century, the indigenous peoples of Canada had already established complex societies. Often matriarchal in structure, these communities used oral storytelling to pass down their knowledge and traditions through the generations.
At the time, many different tribes inhabited western Canada in the region that is now Alberta. Among them were the Blackfoot people – a loose confederacy of three groups who enjoyed a close affiliation – and the Cree, whose descendants make up the biggest population of Native Americans in the country today.
Although the French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived in Newfoundland in 1534, it would take more than two centuries for colonization to spread further west. First, European fur traders began seeking out new opportunities in unchartered territory. Then, inevitably, the migrants followed, founding their first settlement in 1788.
When the settlers arrived in Alberta, First Nation people were flourishing in the region. As nomadic hunters, they roamed the plains in search of bison, their main source of food. Initially, tribes such as the Blackfoot would stalk and kill these beasts on foot, before learning how to use domesticated horses in the 18th century.
Sheltering in temporary encampments that could be packed up and moved, groups such as the Blackfoot and Cree were able to follow the bison wherever they went. And the great beasts were not just used for food, either. As well as providing meat, their carcasses were a source of everything from leather to fuel.
By 1870, weaponry from Europe and liquor from various American traders had begun to make their way west, infiltrating and wreaking havoc on the First Nation tribes. Furthermore, the settlers hunted large amounts of the region’s native bison, leaving many indigenous people on the brink of starvation.
Further weakened by European diseases, Alberta’s First Nation tribes were unable to defend their native lands. Instead, they accepted a series of treaties that granted land rights to the settlers in return for access to reservations and governmental support. And almost 150 years later, these agreements continue to dictate the position of indigenous tribes in Canadian society today.
Historically, the First Nation people of Alberta lived in lodges comprised of a family or group inhabiting a single dwelling – a teepee, for example. Up and down the country, these lodges continually merged with other groups, creating what was known as a band. Generally headed by a male chief, each band would hunt together and defend itself as a unit, although individual lodges and people were free to move on.
At the same time, Alberta’s native inhabitants could be divided into different tribes – bands and lodges who shared a common culture and language. And although allegiances would form between them, there were no overall leaders in place. Instead, chiefs from various bands would meet together, using consensus decision-making to represent the interests of their own lodges.
Over time, the problems brought by the settlers forced some bands to join forces in self-defence. Dubbed confederacies, these groups included the Blackfoot (consisting of members of the Piegan, Sikisika and Kainai Nations) and the Iron Confederacy, whose members hailed from the Stoney, Assiniboine, Saulteaux and Plains Cree people.
Although these two confederacies started out as allies, their relationship eventually descended into all-out war. And on October 25, 1870, the Battle of the Belly River saw both factions take part in what would be the last big conflict between First Nation tribes to be fought on Canadian soil.
Although the Blackfoot emerged victorious, both confederacies had reached a peaceful agreement within a year of the battle. And today, Alberta’s many different First Nation tribes and bands live in relative harmony across the land. However, their numbers have been decimated over the years.
A decade after the Blackfoot and Cree fought each other in Alberta’s Cypress Hills, a boy named Harry Pollard was born over 1,000 miles away in Ontario, Canada. His father, James, had been a photographer, and Harry soon found himself following a similar path.
In 1899 Pollard became one of many settlers to seek their fortune in the west, where he established a studio in Calgary, Alberta. There, he took photographs that captured the changing world around him. For example, he compiled an impressive collection of images of the Klondike Gold Rush, which saw some 100,000 prospectors rush to north-west Canada in search of the precious metal.
However, some of Pollard’s most arresting photographs are those that he took of Alberta’s First Nation people throughout his career. In fact, these black-and-white images continue to provide a fascinating insight into what life used to be like in western Canada, and how much that has changed over the years.
In his images, Pollard managed to poignantly capture the transition between the old world and the new. For example, one shows a man from the Nakoda, or Stoney, Nation sitting astride a
horse, surveying the view before him. Taken in 1910, it dates from a time when First Nation people had already signed vast tracts of their ancestral lands over to the settlers.
By contrast, other photographs show Alberta’s First Nation people going about their daily lives, engaging in traditions that have remained the same for generations. At an Assiniboine camp, Pollard captured children relaxing in the shade of their teepee homes. Elsewhere, he snapped three Kainai Nation women – known as Takes a Gun, Heavy Face and Double Strike – carrying goods on sledges pulled by dogs.
In one photograph, two men from an unidentified tribe are shown on top of a hillock of land, gazing into the distance. Known as Many Shot and Black Kettle, they carry weapons that would traditionally have been used for hunting bison. By the time that this photograph was taken, however, this practice could no longer be relied upon to yield food.
In an image thought to date from about 1900, a man known as Lone Walker is shown demonstrating a traditional bow and arrow. According to Blackfoot legend, these weapons were gifted to their people by Napio, the creator. After placing man and woman on the Earth, the story goes, he populated it with buffalo for them to hunt.
In another of Pollard’s images, five Siksika Nation men are shown gathered outside a teepee. Apparently, they were part of a council that would meet to make decisions on issues that affected the tribe. In the background, viewers can make out the skin of the temporary structure, emblazoned with elaborate designs.
A type of tent constructed from wooden poles and animal skins, the teepee was the dwelling of choice for many First Nation people across Canada. In the summer, it provided shelter from the baking heat, while in the winter it kept families warm as temperatures dropped. Moreover, it was relatively simple to pack up and move when the tribe decided to relocate.
Interestingly, it wasn’t just men who played vital roles in First Nation communities during Pollard’s time. And in one image, the photographer captured an unidentified woman smoking meat over a fire. Historically, this process was used to preserve food, allowing tribes to store it for extended periods of time.
Meanwhile, another important part of First Nations society was the medicine lodge. And in one photograph dated approximately to 1910, Pollard captured a rare glimpse inside this hallowed place. Showing members of the Siksika Nation gathered inside a tent, the image hints at the solemn nature of the ceremonies carried out within.
Elsewhere, Pollard captured many images of First Nation people on horseback. However, groups such as the Blackfoot did not start utilizing these animals until the 18th century. Before that, families would usually rely on dogs to pull their belongings on sleds as they migrated across the plains.
In many of the photographs, men wear elaborate headdresses decorated with feathers and beads. Known as war bonnets, these adornments were seen as a mark of great respect within First Nation tribes. In fact, they could only be worn by those who had been deemed worthy of the honor.
In one image, a man from the Nakoda Nation can be seen wearing a grand headdress decorated in the typical war bonnet fashion. Known as Walking Caribou, he likely earned this adornment through a number of brave and heroic deeds. But today, sadly, the details of these acts have been lost – and only his haunting image remains.
Similarly, another photograph depicts a member of the Tsuu T’ina Nation known as Joe Big Plume. And just as his name suggests, his war bonnet boasts a number of tall feathers too long for the camera to capture in their entirety. Unusually, he is also shown wearing a large Victorian medallion, although again the significance of this has been lost.
Interestingly, war bonnets were far from the only type of adornment worn by Canada’s First Nation tribes. In one image, for example, a member of the Kainai Nation can be seen wearing a simple band bearing two feathers. Unlike other headdresses, these embellishments were not earned through war and instead were used for decorative purposes.
In other photographs, both men and women from various First Nation tribes can be seen wearing many different iterations of traditional dress. For example, one snap dating from about 1910 shows a man known as Wolfe Robe. And in place of a war bonnet or traditional hat, he boasts earrings, a necklace and a thick fur hat.
In another, a chief of the Piikani Nation is depicted wearing a heavily beaded tunic as well as a headdress that appears to be made of felt or wool. Associated with the Blackfoot people, this tribe has often been at the forefront of the struggle for indigenous rights over the years. But back when this photograph was taken in about 1910, they could not have predicted how much their world was still to change.
Although many of Pollard’s photographs depict First Nation people in elaborate traditional dress, some capture them in less formal moments. In one image, for example, a man from the Nakoda Nation is shown wearing a suit-style jacket with his hair in braids. But despite the more relaxed style of dress, he still cuts an imposing figure.
In another image, Pollard captured a shot of Betty Hunter, a woman from the Nakoda Nation. Dressed in patterned clothing and with her hair in braids, she has a distinctly feminine appearance. However, women were typically expected to join in with manual tasks in the community, such as processing meat and tanning animal skins.
According to records, one of the most important aspects of the First Nations calendar was the Sun Dance, traditionally held in spring or summer. And in one photograph dated to roughly 1910, Pollard snapped members of the Siksika Nation preparing for the festivities. In the background, poles are being raised to form the lodge where the celebrations will take place.
Traditionally, the Sun Dance marked a time of abundance after the winter, when the buffalo gathered and food was plentiful. And although the exact ceremony varied between tribes, it generally involved a long ritual during which participants neither ate nor drank. Apparently, the goal was to achieve spiritual enlightenment by appealing to a divine power.
In another photograph, also showcasing the Siksika Nation, a Beaver Woman can be seen smoking a pipe outside a dwelling. According to Blackfoot lore, such women and men were the keepers of Beaver Bundles – a ceremonial package associated with tobacco rituals. And as such, they were seen as important members of the tribal community.
Interestingly, smoking was far more than just a way to pass the time for some First Nation tribes. In fact, many Blackfoot people would count ceremonial pipes among their most prized possessions. And because they believed that the smoke would help their prayers to reach the creator, the objects formed a key part of many rituals.
Of course, another fascinating part of First Nations culture is the naming traditions of various tribes. In one photograph, for example, Pollard captured an elderly Siksika man known as Far Away Voice. And while the exact story behind this evocative name has been lost to time, it likely reflected an important story or achievement that his elders wished to mark.
Today, there are 48 bands of First Nation peoples throughout Alberta, spread across nine distinct tribes. Among them, Kainai, or Blackfoot, is the most widely-used language, followed by Cree and Chipewyan. Additionally, Dene, Sarcee and Stoney are all spoken in modern First Nations communities.
While roughly half of Alberta’s First Nation people live on reservations across the province, the rest have been assimilated into various communities and cities – particularly the capital of Edmonton, which is home to about 20,000 individuals of Native American descent. But with so many settling in displaced urban environments, is the world captured by Pollard doomed to disappear?