‘Geronimo’ a portrait of complex Native American

GERONIMO. By Robert M. Utley. Yale University Press. 274 pages. $30.

Whoa, talk about somebody who lived up to the hype. Geronimo was every bit as fierce as his reputation. For nearly a decade in the late 1800s, the Apache warrior held captive the imagination of a horrified American public, all but single-handedly creating the caricature of the bloodthirsty Indian savage later immortalized in cowboy and Western film.

Or, wait a minute, maybe just his press clippings did.

Robert Utley’s exhaustive birth-to-death biography of the iconic Native American details his hot-blooded raids and plunders in southern New Mexico, Arizona and mostly Sonora, Mexico. But it puts them in the context of the mistreatment of him and his people by Mexicans, American military and Indian Affairs officials. The savagery went both ways. Promises continually were made and then broken to lure Geronimo and his family to, and back to, reservations after he fled what he saw as bad deals. Geronimo was told he could live his life in his desert mountain homeland and ended up removed as far away as Florida.

What he wanted from Americans more than anything was just to be left alone. When he was, he was an honorable guy.

Now, don’t be mistaken. The Army officer who described him as “thoroughly vicious, intractable and treacherous” wasn’t any less accurate from his point of view than the people who found the Apache good natured and loyal.

Geronimo was one complex man. Accounts of his apparent “second sight” fascinate.

Utley chronicles all that in what an esteemed Yale historian describes as the most complete scholarly study of Geronimo ever done.

Utley’s work has its flaws. Toward the end of the book, he uses a letter that a captive Geronimo wrote to his son as “seeming to reveal” that the leader had come to terms with the reality of his prisoner-of-war reservation life at Fort Sill. But the tone of the letter reeks of duplicity, saying all the right things for the transcriber and whomever else might read it while asking his son a single pointed question: When is he coming to get him?

This was one more ploy by an aged warrior who spent his life making shrewd moves.

Maybe the best thing to say about Utley’s depiction of Geronimo is, incongruously, the most movie thing to say about it. The biography is an academic work piecing together shreds of information in a detailed account. But it reads like a paperback Western because Geronimo’s life does. Hop on the saddle blanket and take this journey with an Apache legend.

Reviewer Bo Petersen is a reporter at The Post and Courier.