September 25, 2008

Geronimo the wife-beater?

Thom Ross, Western Artist and creator of "Buffalo Bill and the Indians on the Beach," talks about Indians:I get so tired of the clichéd images in Western art. Do you ever see paintings of Cole Younger playing croquet or an Apache beating his wife on a Friday night? NO! Indians played baseball, golf, croquet, ping pong and poker. The James Gang paused on their ride toward Northfield to watch a baseball game. One of the reasons Geronimo fled the reservation was because Apaches were not allowed to beat their wives. These are people we’re talking about, not marble monuments.I agree we should think of Indians as people, not marble monuments. I've noted some of their experiences with baseball and golf, if not ping pong and croquet.

As for the wife-beating claim, I searched for information about it. Here's a possible source for it--the only source I found:

General Crook and Counterinsurgency WarfareDavis was ordered to help promote farming and cattle raising with the newly surrendered Apaches. As part of another aspect of the acculturation process, Davis was ordered by Crook to prohibit the Apaches from drinking the alcoholic beverage tizwin and to stop the Apache males from beating their wives, a long-standing Apache custom. The Apaches at Turkey Creek soon became disenchanted with pressure being placed on them by Crook’s administration to change their traditional ways.Which eventually led to this:In the early afternoon of the eighteenth as Lieutenant Davis was umpiring a baseball game, a large number of Chiricahua Apaches, to include Geronimo, broke out from the reservation and headed towards Mexico.Comment:  If this is Ross's source, it's not nearly as clearcut as he makes it sound. Let's examine it:

  • The Apaches may have been drinking and beating their wives because the Americans were cooping them and forcing them to change their ways.

  • The Americans probably banned all sorts of Apache practices--for instance, their religious rites and dances. I'd be surprised if the Apaches didn't have many grievances against the Americans.

  • The most prominently stated reason for leaving the reservation was the policy against drinking, not the policy against wife-beating.

  • The document says nothing about whether Geronimo agreed with the others or what his motivations were. He may have fled for reasons unrelated to the drinking or wife-beating prohibitions.

  • It's also a longstanding custom for white Americans to get drunk and beat their wives. I wonder if General Crook corralled any white men who indulged in these practices and forced them onto reservations. I'm guessing not.

  • Al Carroll responds

    I asked correspondent Al Carroll what he thought of Thom Ross's wife-beating claim. Here's his response:To put it mildly, that's a colorful claim that gets endlessly repeated because the truth is so much more complicated.

    At best, that's a very distorted version of one of multiple reasons the band chose to escape their imprisonment. Here's a more accurate version, quoted from Thomas Sheridan's book History of the Southwest.

    "Accusations of corruption kept surfacing with the agents at San Carlos. Accusations of corruption kept surfacing, and in May Crook prohibited alcohol on the reservation, outlawing the brewing of tizwin, a fermented corn liquor favored by the Apaches. Under the guise of preventing wife beating, the military also began to interfere in the personal affairs of Apache families themselves. On May 15 the Chiricahuas demonstrated their contempt by getting drunk on tizwin and flaunting their disobedience. Two days later, Geronimo, Naiche, Nana, and 131 other Chiricahuas deserted the reservation."

    In small bands of sometimes as few as 30 or 40 people, where everyone depended so much on each other, adultery was a serious offense since it could so easily disrupt a tiny community. Adulterers were sometimes beaten, sometimes the tip of the nose cut off. That last part deeply offended some whites who had their notions of femininity tied up in female beauty.

    I certainly don't defend violence against women, but the purpose of the punishment was not to "keep women in their place." Apache women have a very strong role, and strong women such as Lozen are very much admired. The strong punishment was designed to keep harmony within the band. And the punishment was far more severe for a male adulterer. He could be executed.

    But this idea that Indian agents or the US Army being so deeply offended by violence against women? were white women treated at the time? Wife beating routinely happened in white American society, legally sanctioned up until the 1970s.

    It was the entire pattern of interference in every aspect of Apache lives, including family lives, that Geronimo and others objected to. The wife beating claim was just the cynical Indian agent and US Army excuse for that interference.
    So Al basically confirmed what I thought. Thanks, Al.

    For more on the subject, see Drunken Indians and Hercules vs. Coyote:  Native and Euro-American Beliefs.


    gaZelbe said...

    Another small bit of data that could further complicate this outrageous claim by Thom Ross:

    On March 5th, 1851 the Euro/Mexican army massacred 400 Chiricahua women and children, including Geronimo's mother, children and *wife*.

    The Chiricahuas were not placed on a reservation until 1872 at the earliest.

    Now it stands to reason that Geronimo could have remarried, but I haven't specifically read anything to that effect.

    So absent proof of another marriage, was Geronimo supposed to have escaped the reservation due to the Europeans condemning his treatment of his spouse more than 20 years previous?

    Regardless, Geronimo fled the reservation on three primary occasions, all of which due to pretty obvious reasons of significantly more substance than any particular condemnation of Apache interpersonal relationship behavior by the European overseers.

    Those reasons included: the reclamation of the initial and agreed upon Chiricahua reservation by the US Government (due to the usual reason: they found gold there), the suppression of the traditional Apache religion(freedom of religion my ass) and the assassinations of Apache holy men (Geronimo was a priest/medicine man, not a chief as is popularly thought), and personal threats against Geronimo and the Chiricahua chief whom he followed, Naiche.


    Being Kiowa, I don't claim to know all that much about any of the Apache groups. However as with this instance, I would suspect that very little research is required to disprove all if not most of Thom Ross' white supremacist ramblings and anachronistic Old West mythology.


    Rob said...

    Thanks for the info. I didn't know Geronimo's wife was killed. (I did know he wasn't a chief.)