Acknowledging Our History to Promote a Future of Mutual Respect

August 12, 2015


This is a mind-opening book which, for the first time in my life, provides me with some understanding of the complexity—and the horror—of what went on in the borderlands of the Southwest in the late 19th century following the annexation of the significant lands captured from Mexico as a result of the Mexican-American War and the subsequent Gadsden Purchase. 

The story is centered on the massacre of 140 Apache Indians in the Aravaiba Canyon on April 30, 1871 by a combined force of Americans, Mexicans (Los Vecinos) and other Indian tribes known by a variety of names, including most simply, the O’odham People.

Jacoby’s history tells the story from the vantage point of each of these four groups.  It tells the story of development of this Southwestern Territory:  the Indian tribes that were there first, hunting and trapping, sometimes fighting among themselves; their raiding south into northern Mexico for horses and other livestock; the intrusion of Mexicans into the Indian lands; the sometimes fighting and the sometimes coming together, varying over time and by individual; the incursion of the Americans very slowly but relentlessly; the entry of the Army during the Civil War period and then its withdrawal and return again; and the emerging and varying Indian policy of the federal government.

Leading up to this massacre was a “violent vortex of raids and counter-raids” between the Americans and Apaches.  There was the classic disagreement as to whether this conflict was an inevitable outgrowth of the collision between “civilization” and “savagery” or could be traced to unfortunate and ultimately avoidable misunderstandings between Americans and Apaches.

For many, probably the majority of, Americans, there was a view of the Apaches as savages, unworthy of consideration.  A writer for the Arizona Miner wrote:  “Extermination is our only hope and the sooner the better.”  Another writer:  “They must be surrounded, starved into coming in, surprised or inveigled—by white flags or any other method, human or divine—and then put to death.”

During the period of the Civil War, the primary conflict in Arizona was not the North against the South but rather of the Anglos and their Papago/the People tribes and Mexican allies against Apache peoples.  Much of the combat was prosecuted by civilian groups, sometimes working in concert with whatever Union or Confederate forces happened to be in power.  A visitor to Arizona in the early 1860s was Connecticut-born Joseph Pratt Allyn.  President Lincoln had nominated him to serve as one of the territory’s first federal judges.  Shortly after his arrival, he noted the harsh measures of Arizona’s white population toward the Apaches.  “(A) war of extermination has in fact already begun.”  A number of Anglos told Allyn how they had recently invited a group of Apaches to a party.  As the Indians were enjoying the food their host provided, the Americans each fired on a pre-selected member of the band, killing some 30 Apaches.  Some settlers contributed toward a bounty “for Indian scalps.”  The Governor of the territory, John Goodwin, who had attended Dartmouth College, ironically a school founded to educate Indian youth, assembled a group with a speech that in Allyn’s words, “took hold by storm through its powerful advocation of ‘the extermination of the Indians.’”

There were actions taken following this to move the Apaches to reservations.  That was President Grant’s policy.  But there was the proviso:  Indians who weren’t prepared to do that were subject to reprisal, clearly including as far as many Anglos were concerned, their death. 

They could find justification for this, as morally corrupt as it is in hindsight.   This became a case of “tit for tat” though nobody back then would have used those words.  Over simplified, Native Americans were being deprived of land where they had grown food and hunted livestock.  Many believed that livestock on the plains was free to all.  So they continued to claim it even as Anglos saw it as theirs. Confrontation and violence followed.  From incidents like that came the “rationalization” that the Apaches were, indeed, “savage” and that firm reprisals against them, up to and including their extermination in the name of “progress and civilization,” was justified.

The history of the massacre, as it always is, was initially written by those with social power—the Anglos. An organization (“The Pioneers”) was created among many of the Anglos who had actually participated in the massacre. It described it in all-too-predictable way:  “The Apaches had gotten what they deserved”--this even though the camp was attacked at dawn, with people asleep, and that women and children were intentionally slaughtered and some taken into captivity. 

As time went on, the true story emerged.  The history could not be hidden.  And there is a small museum that has been created to commemorate the history of the Apaches and this horrible incident.

There were some Americans who opposed this dehumanization of the Indian at the time, but they were in the distinct minority, just as was the case with blacks during the era of slavery—and after—just as was the case with Jews in Germany, Poland and many other countries where people had been dehumanized and come to be seen as the “other” to the extent that they could be exterminated without remorse.

I appreciate how Karl Jacoby ends his book.  He writes that “to collapse the stories running through the Camp Grant Massacre into a single tale of genocide possesses its own perils.  Not because such an account misstates the violence directed against the Apache, but because it risks reducing the stories about (the event) into a narrative solely about the actions and intentions of the incident’s perpetrators.  The ability of many of the Apaches to elude the exterminatory violence directed toward them from the 17th century onwards and to undertake raids, war parties and peace negotiations of their own is a no less important story—indeed for the Apache, this tale of survival is arguably the preeminent narrative to be told about their past.”  While I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the ability of blacks who were brought to this country as slaves to have achieved all they have in our country, through courage and sacrifice and sheer persistence, is the uniquely “preeminent narrative to be told about their past,” it is one from which to take glory.

Hearkening to the history of slavery in our nation, I’d close with the closing words of this fine book as Jacoby writes:  “What this past asks of us is a willingness to recount ‘all’ our stories—our darkest tales as well as our most inspiring ones—and to ponder those stories that violence has silenced forever.  For until we recognize our shared capacity for inhumanity, how can we ever hope to tell stories of our mutual humanity?” 

Indeed, that is what all the peoples and nations of the world must do; be honest about its history, its dark moments and its bright moments, to recognize that no peoples or nation has been perfect; indeed, all of us are flawed by the flaws of humanity.  From this honest perspective hopefully can come the humility and the shared recognition of our common humanity that can bring us to live in accord with our better natures, helping one another, living in peace.


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