The reader goes through The Apache Wars, by the prestigious American historian Paul Andrew Hutton (Desperta Ferro, 2023), as if he did it on horseback after a band of tough and elusive Mescaleros or Chiricahuas on their way to cross the Rio Grande or enter the Sierra del Diablo. You turn the pages swallowing and feeling all the danger of these indomitable warriors and the overwhelming impression of a fascinating and inhospitable territory, a wasteland and hostile, of extreme climates, of deserts and rugged mountains, in which in each gorge, behind each rock and each cactus, an arrow, a Winchester bullet or a carbine bullet seemed to await you, or worse. "It was not a good thing to be captured alive by the Apaches," sums up Hutton, concitating images of The Revenge of Ulzana, the iconic film by Robert Aldrich that visualized as never before the old and wise advice to keep the last bullet for yourself when fighting against the lords of the Apachería.
We are in the grounds of the great chiefs Mangas Coloradas, Cochise or Geronimo, the world of Fort Apache, Apache Pass, of the attacks on the stagecoaches, of the Indian hunting generals Crook and Miles, of the frontier man, guide, agent and also Indian fighter general Kit Carson, of the cavalry soldiers chasing an enemy that vanished without a trace ("if you saw them, sir, they were not Apaches") and of the longest war ever waged by the United States, often without quarter ("when you have them all together, kill all the grown Indians, capture the children and sell them to cover the expense of killing them," was the order received by an Army captain). A savage war in a deadly land (present-day New Mexico and Arizona) in which, as Hutton describes with narrative breath, "every plant had a barb, every insect a sting, every bird a claw, and every reptile a tusk."
Intimate evening at Apache Pass
The bibliography in Spanish on the Apaches, which already had works such as the canonical Las guerras apaches (Edhasa, 2005), by David Roberts —the original title is much more poetic: Once they moved like the wind—; Los apaches, eagles of the southwest, by D. E. Worcester (Peninsula, 2013); Geronimo, story of his life, told to S. M. Barrret (Crítica, 2013), the books of the missed Edward K. Flagler (as Diné, published by the Institute of American Studies in 2006) or the exciting and surprisingly funny Now I surrender and that's it, by Álvaro Enrigue (Anagrama, 2018), without forgetting the Blueberry comics, is now enriched by this essay by Hutton, that traces in detail the long history of the conflict that confronted the irreducible indigenous nation with the Spaniards, Mexicans and Americans and ended up being a war of extermination. The book is a vast fresco full of details worthy of John Ford, such as the derogatory name given by the Apaches to the bison military: Nantan Eclatten, "rookie lieutenant and virgin".
Apache explorers photographed during a meeting of General Crook with Geronimo. The one in the middle, according to the photographer, is Apache Kid.PAUL ANDREW HUTTON COLLECTION
The 73-year-old Frankfurt-born scholar (adopted by a family from a U.S. military base), professor of history at the University of New Mexico and former director of the Western History Association, places an abduction at the center of the complex history of recurring Apache raids and punitive operations against them. deportations to arid and insane reserves administered by corrupt officials, betrayals and revenge, over half a century. It is that of a white boy, Felix Ward, who later became known as Mickey Free, by Aravaipa Apaches, who raided his family's ranch in 1861 and took him to join the tribe. The kidnapping unleashed a series of events that ended up conditioning the fate of the Apachería.
"The story of Mickey Free has always fascinated me," he says about that character straddling (and never better said) between two forms of life. "He was culturally mestizo, he was trapped in a mixed culture between two opposing worlds. Neither of them trusted him, but they needed him in both the Apaches and the U.S. military. I lived in the conflict and alienation of always being in search of who I really was. As a European orphan raised as an American, I can personally understand the drama in his soul." Free, educated as an Apache, served as a guide, scout and army interpreter. The Chiricahuas considered him a nuisance for whose cause they had been dragged into the war: in talks to free him, the soldiers tried to capture Cochise artfully and in retaliation he and his band launched a bloodthirsty raid and in 60 days killed 150 whites. The other side also had no appreciation for Free, whom Scout chief Al Sieber described as "half Mexican, half Irish and a complete son of a bitch."
An image from Robert Aldrich's film 'Ulzana's Revenge', which recreates a classic Apache torture.
Of the vast fresh temporal space that his book covers and which includes numerous characters (a priceless gallery of Indians and soldiers) and countless sensational episodes, Hutton says: "I have tried to capture the essence of the great struggle between the Apaches and the European invaders (Spanish, Mexicans and Americans) and to use it as an example—even a metaphor—of the conquest of the West. It was the last great Indian war (and the longest) and when it ended, in 1886, with the surrender of Geronimo, the Wild West ended too. To explain the story I had to introduce many characters from both sides and hopefully I have managed to breathe life into them. The landscape becomes an important character in the book as well. People responded to that harsh, cruel, desert terrain that shaped their actions." As for the use of narrative techniques in his account of events, as in Cochise's magnificently described funeral, Hutton notes: "I am a great admirer of narrative history and of historians who have practiced it brilliantly, such as Samuel Morison, Allan Nevins, Barbara Tuchman, Walter Lord, Garrett Mattingly (his book on the Invincible Navy is one of my favorites), Bernard DeVoto, Robert Utley, Dee Brown and Hampton Sides, to name just a few. It seems to me that they are authors who write for people, and not just for academia. Although I am a professor, I want to escape the restrictions imposed by the academic style and do something with great narrative force; I hope I succeeded."
Episodes of savagery
The book describes episodes of great savagery. Both sides were employed with brutality and ferocity. However, there seems to have been in the Apaches, as David Roberts pointed out, a special predisposition to cruelty. Hutton describes how they roasted alive or skinned whites who fell into their hands, killed young children by breaking their heads against a stone... "The Apaches were raiders, raiders, raiders, the Vikings of the New World. They were feared in particular in war and notorious for their diabolical torture of prisoners. They highly valued the one who had the ingenuity to imagine a more atrocious ordeal. You really wished you had that last bullet at your disposal, as they used to say at the border. The Apaches expected captives to show courage when tortured, and they admired them for that. Certainly, the level of cruelty in the Apache wars—on both sides—was particularly brutal. The Americans were just as ruthless on many occasions. After murdering Mangas Coloradas, had his head cut off and prepared to be exhibited in public. In my book I have tried to show that all parties, Spanish, Mexican, Apaches, Americans, were capable of great cruelty. It is true that there was a cultural predisposition among the Apaches to cruelty. But there was much hypocrisy among Americans, as they claimed to be civilized while engaging in actions of enormous barbarism. It was all pretty medieval."
A band of Apaches, with warriors, women and children.
How were the Apaches as warriors? As hard as they were painted? "Crook called the Apaches 'the tigers of the human species' and he was right. They were very tough, and possessed incredible stamina, and great skill as warriors. They could overtake the cavalry on foot! And put seven arrows in the air before the first one fell to the ground. They knew the terrain and how to use it to their advantage. They were, moreover, with their incredible mobility, masters in what we now call guerrilla warfare. Of course, their adversaries sometimes exaggerated their prowess so that they could make their victory over them greater and achieve more glory. We see that in the memoirs of American soldiers. But in reality they were as good warriors as one counted with fear around the bonfires as they traversed their territory." They had some differences with the Indians of the plains to the north: being very few ("never in the history of America", summarizes Hutton, "so many had tried to kill so few") they were more reluctant to risk their lives cheerfully in combat and, although they valued horses very much, they did not hesitate to eat them.
Hutton does not limit himself to explaining the war episodes but takes us into the Apache mentality (who never considered themselves a single people, were very individualistic and had a relative solidarity with their own: which explains the success of the Apache police). He points out their dependence on mezcal (hence the name of the tribe of the mescaleros), their respect for the bear, the importance of the girls' puberty ceremony, the obsession with gambling, or that they never ate fish. They couldn't stand the confinement. There are three elements that seem to condition Apache culture a lot: looting, revenge (and honor) and superstition (and taboos). "They were a people steeped in superstition. They believed in witches and curses and especially ghosts. It was a great taboo for them to touch the dead, so they rarely plucked their hair. When they did, unlike other Indians, especially the tribes of the Great Plains, they did not keep their hair as war trophies."
The scholar recalls that instead the whites practiced scalping with relish. "I was surprised by the scale with which it was done, especially by American hair hunters in search of loot (it was paid for hair torn off). North American Indians, though not Apaches, poached before whites arrived, but Europeans turned ritual practice into a business. A cruel business." The scalp was frequently cut with the ears included, and also the entire heads of the Apaches.
An image from the movie 'Ulzana's Revenge'.
In The Apache Wars, a leading role is played by a woman, Lozen, Victori's sister, who handled the rifle and knife like any other man. To what extent were there female warriors in the Apache world? And how were women treated in general? Hutton points out that not very well (the nose was cut off or those who were infidels were killed) and that even gender abuse was adduced, quite cynically, by whites in the war to subdue the Apache ... "Lozen was really remarkable. She was not only a skilled warrior, but a spiritual person to whom the gift of prophecy was attributed. She is a controversial character and some historians (such as Bob Utley and Ed Sweeney) have dismissed accounts of her as fantasies. But the Apaches, then and now, believed in their great powers."
Who was the best Apache boss? The historian does not particularly like Geronimo, of whom he remembers atrocious episodes, such as the time he proposed to kill the babies of the tribe so that they would betray them to us soldiers with their cries. "I think Cochise was the biggest leader of the Apaches, followed by Mangas Coloradas, and then Victorio. Geronimo always thought of Geronimo's interest and not that of the Apache people. In some respects he was a bully and a murderer, but of course he was also a great warrior. Eventually his own people turned against him. His actions resulted in the eventual deportation of the Arizona Apaches. It is ironic that he has become, perhaps, the best-known Indian in history." Of the episodes of the Apache Wars, Hutton's favorite is that of the friendship between Tom Jeffords and Cochise, and how that relationship brought a brief peace. "The story, of course, was the basis of one of my favorite novels, Blood Brother, by Elliott Arnold, made into a film as Broken Arrow."
Geronimo, photographed in San Carlos, in 1884, by A. Frank Randall.COLLECTION OF P. A. HUTTON
Speaking of films that have portrayed the Apaches, which one does the historian think best? and what do you think of the on-screen treatment of Cochise, Geronimo, Massai, Chato...?, did the real Ulzana resemble that of Aldrich's Revenge of Ulzana? "Broken Arrow is my favorite and I also really like John Ford's films about cavalry: Fort Apache, The Invincible Legion and Rio Grande. Ulzana's Revenge is another of my favorites and I find it very realistic. Aldrich and Lancaster had previously made Apache, about the famous renegade Massai, which is based on a novel by Paul Wellman. As you can see, I'm a big fan of western." And he was a historical advisor on Desapariciones, that great 2003 film about the Apaches! It's terrible what the band of warriors does with Aaron Eckhart's character. And how fascinating Eric Schweig as El Brujo, is he based on a real Apache? "Disappearances was a great experience, and director Ron Howard is as personable as it gets. My son and I make a brief appearance on the scene in the village. The sorcerer is not based on a real character, but on the Apaches' belief in witchcraft. I made them use owls in the film as a symbol of evil, reincarnation of the spirits of the wicked, which is what the Apaches believed. Howard had Apache advisors as well."
Wes Studi as Geronimo in the Walter Hill biopic.
As for what life is like for the Apaches today, he notes, "Like many tribes, the Apaches often live in poverty today and alcoholism remains a problem. The different bands (there are Apache reservations in Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma) strive to keep their history and traditions alive. Some, such as the Mescaleros and the White Mountains, have taken a lot of advantage from gambling and casinos. One of the moments that made me feel most proud was when an old woman from Jicarilla told me how much she liked my book and asked me to dedicate it to her. I hope I did justice to the Apaches in the book."
One of the best embodiments that the Apaches have had in popular culture has been in the comics of Lieutenant Blueberry, the character of Giraud and Charlier. Surprisingly, Hutton knows the series. "I think I have almost all the albums, I've collected them for years. Mickey Free even appears in one of the latter. Europeans have always made better Western comics than Americans."
Paul Andrew Hutton is the editor of the essential volume The Custer reader, a compendium of texts on the controversial general. "Custer continues to be a great hero to me. As a kid I saw Errol Flynn as Custer in They Died with Their Boots On and I was stuck. He's such a fascinating and contradictory character... larger than life itself. For me his Last Stand at Little Bighorn is the great epic moment in Western history. Of course, today in the United States he is usually presented as a villain, which is not true. His glorious role in the Civil War is forgotten and he is portrayed as a genocidal who hated the Indians. Bad history triumphs thanks to popular culture and ignorance. I'm going to the Little Bighorn battlefield in June, it's a haunting and haunting place. Years ago I was appointed commissioner to select the design of the monument to the Indians that now stands on the site. Custer and Sitting Bull are going to be main characters in the new book I'm writing, The Unknown Country, which I hope to finish this fall."
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