One might say the winding, rocky dirt road leading to the Geronimo Monument on the San Carlos Apache Reservation parallels two things: Geronimo’s life, and the events leading up to the commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of his death which ended with a congressional resolution honoring the Apache warrior.
In mid-February about 300 people, including tribal leaders and members of five Apache Nations from Arizona and New Mexico, gathered to remember a man known to the Chiricahua Apaches as Goyathlay and to the rest of the world as Geronimo. He died of pneumonia Feb. 17, 1909 while a prisoner of war in Ft. Sill, Okla.
The unveiling of a monument in his honor took place on a cold, cloudy day at Old San Carlos, next to San Carlos Lake, about 120 miles east of Phoenix. Witnesses to this historic event diverted off a paved road and drove several miles on a dirt road to take part in the ceremony, which included prayers, speeches, gifting, singing, dancing and feasting.
The U.S. government created the San Carlos Apache reservation in 1872. It immediately became home to the Aravaipa and Pinal Apaches and later to other Apache bands including the Chiricahua. Those held captive considered reservation conditions to be unbearable, including Geronimo, who managed to escape a few times. After his small band of 35 warriors and 80 women and children eluded 5,000 troops for five months, he finally agreed to surrender in 1886. Geronimo and his band were taken by train to Florida and eventually to Oklahoma. Other Chiricahua Apaches, including the scouts who helped find him, had to go too.
Apache bands once camped at Old San Carlos before being relocated several miles north due to the building of Coolidge Dam on the Gila River. The site, along with its burial ground, became submerged underwater. The Geronimo monument now marks what is considered sacred ground.
Wendsler Nosie, chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, organized the event. His goal was to bring the descendants of those torn apart to not only remember the extreme hardships their ancestors endured but to begin a healing and reconciliation process toward harmony and unity.
“It’s for the kids, [for them] to hold on to something, which is their identity. It’s up to all of us to step forward, for those yet to be born. Good things will come from it,” said Nosie.
Jerry Gloshay Jr. read a statement on behalf of Chairman Ronnie Lupe of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, who was unable to attend.
“He (Geronimo) rebelled against the intrusion of forts and foreign assimilation tactics in the 1800s,” read Gloshay. “His will for survival is something to behold.”
Planning for this day began months ago. While Nosie’s vision was met with support and enthusiasm by the separate Apache nations, at home he was harshly criticized. Some, like elder Reede Upshaw, wrote letters to the local newspaper claiming he grew up hearing stories about how Geronimo terrorized and murdered his own people. He compared the honoring of Geronimo to honoring Adolf Hitler.
Nosie says he understands why there are harsh words.
“This is the pain and suffering our people lived through. Many of our ancestors have never forgotten the sadness and unforgiving moments. It has been passed on to their children and generations thereafter.
“Is it any wonder that we are so deeply divided, not having dealt with the atrocities? We must cope with what actually happened to our ancestors, put it behind us, begin to heal, understand who we are and go forward together as a tribe and as Apaches.”
To the surprise of many, the four metal sculptures designed by Colville artist Virgil Marchand, did not include Geronimo, but rather a family of four facing the east with their hands extended upward as if to offer prayers.
Two days prior to the unveiling, Charlotte Titla, an elder, went to the site of the monument out of curiosity. During her visit with those camping nearby, the metal statutes were delivered and hoisted above a large concrete foundation. She reminisced about how everyone was joyfully taking part in a blessing ceremony.
Reynard Faber, the traditional Chief of the Jicarilla Apache, expected to see a monument portraying Geronimo, perhaps on a horse.
“Basically it’s very spiritual. It represents all Apaches. Even though it was Geronimo’s day, it wasn’t all about him. To bring all Apaches together, that was significant.” said Faber.
“It was like closing a wound to bring them back together.”
“I was caught by surprise,” said Jo Ann Williams, San Carlos Apache. “Oh God! They’re praying. I was happy to see they are praying.”
Naelyn Pike, 9, summed up the day by reading an essay she wrote for the occasion.
“I will no longer be a victim to the disaster that happened here. You must protect Usen’s (God’s) creation. Join us in the healing so we can change tomorrow. Usen, thank you for this day – for bringing us together.”
Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva and Michigan Representative Dale Kildee pushed for passage of House Resolution 132 recognizing the life and memory of Geronimo and the commencement of a healing process. “The Apache have overcome great adversity, but they are strong as a culture, as a people and in what their future holds,” Grijalva said.
According to Nosie, a ceremony will be held annually at the Geronimo Monument. The project will be expanded with input from tribal members.