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Geronimo: ‘From bloodthirsty murderer to patriotic leader’

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He is perhaps New Mexico’s most famous native son and Thursday evening – more than a century after his death – Geronimo once again emerged as the focus of attention.

“Geronimo in History and Legend,” a well-attended presentation by professor Paul Hutton at the University of New Mexico, ushered in a new season of Lobo Living Room events after a summer break. (In October, the series – sponsored by the UNM Alumni Association – will present “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash,” and, a month later, “Ants, Elephants and Computers.”)

Hutton, a noted historian of the Southwest, quickly moved through several defining events in the life of the Mescalero-Chiricahua warrior, who – after Mexican soldiers killed his mother, wife and three children in 1858 – launched a bloodthirsty career of almost relentless vengeance against Mexicans, Texans, the U.S. Army and, in some respects, his own people.

Hutton told the crowd gathered on the plaza outside Hodgin Hall, Geronimo’s original Chiricahua name was “One Who Yawns,” perhaps because of his wide face. The name “Geronimo” may have derived from Mexican soldiers screaming and pleading for mercy from St. Jerome as they were going down in defeat in a battle against Geronimo and his men.

“‘Geronimo’ is a name that resonates not just here in the United States and the Southwest, but all around the world,” Hutton said.

In the 1870s, it was a synonym for terror. In World War II, it became a battle cry for American GIs and, over the years, it has been used both as a term of slander and one of homage.

Geronimo was not a chief – that is a hereditary title. But he did wield great power, something the Chiricahuas both respected and feared. “Geronimo did not view mercy as a virtue,” Hutton observed.

Later in life, after he and his people had been captured (several times), escaped, and finally exiled to Florida and then Oklahoma, Geronimo became a celebrity and even rode in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade. He dictated an autobiography, one of very few by American Indian leaders, and when he died in 1909 at Fort Sill, Okla., he had the tidy sum of $10,000 in the bank.

Hutton then examined how history – specifically fiction in novels and film – has depicted Geronimo and how his persona – and that of the Apache people – have evolved over the years.

Initially, Geronimo and Apaches at war were seen as ruthless murderers and rapists. Killers they were, Hutton said, but rape was anathema to the Apaches, in war or in peace. Nonetheless, most writers treated the Apaches more harshly than other American Indians and Geronimo was almost always a villain.

That one-sided view, however, would soon change and, in the late 20th century, Geronimo evolved into a hero figure, a valiant leader of his people. In 1993, he even received his own postage stamp.

“The transition of Geronimo is complete, from bloodthirsty murderer to patriotic leader,” Hutton said.

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