Twilight of the spirits


A scholar bears witness to the destruction of the Apache religion

The current Handbook of Texas Online lists famed Apache warrior and medicine man Geronimo, alongside such dignitaries as Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, as one of Fort Sam Houston's more "prominent visitors." Indeed, for a few wet weeks in October of 1886, while the government decided what to do with him and his extended family, Geronimo and many other Apache prisoners of war did "visit" the Fort. On October 20, General Phillip Sheridan ordered Geronimo's band of warriors and their families to entrain for Fort Marion in Saint Augustine, Florida. On that cool morning more than a century ago, the last of the Chiricahua Apaches set off on a journey of immense physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering. On the Bloody Road to Jesus, a new book by Apache scholar H. Henrietta Stockel, documents in detail the spiritual side of this journey into late 19th- and 20th-century America. It is a story of sickness, separated families, and the collision between American Christianity and the Apaches' traditional beliefs.

The first chapter of Stockel's book is a fascinating inventory of the "myths, sacred stories and rituals" that made up the Apache religion. Some are told anecdotally while others are related by the Apaches in their own words. Especially intriguing is the author's description of the Puberty Ceremony for young Apache women, an arduous, multi-day test celebrated shortly after a woman's first menstrual cycle. Its purpose was to emphasize the four most important objectives in an Apache woman's life: "physical strength, a good disposition, prosperity and a sound and healthy, uncrippled old-age."

In Stockel's skillful rendering of this Apache rite of passage one learns how Apache elders were able to tell a "good Apache woman" by the way she ran during her the ceremony. In most cases, the young women were prepared and thrived throughout the ritual, but if a girl fell, an "audible gasp would arise and prayers were immediately offered for her future well being." Clearly the Apaches placed a premium upon good feet. They had to, for they had traveled far.

Sometime during the ninth century, the Apaches migrated from what is now the Yukon in northwest Canada to the Desert Southwest. The original settlers of the area considered them interlopers and thus named them Ápachu, Zuni for enemy. As history attests, the Apaches were a fierce people and remained - as did the name. Upon settling in modern-day Arizona, Northern Sonora, and parts of Chihuahua, they developed a rich religious heritage. In 1546, in reaction to the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church issued "a Papal Bull `that` granted the Jesuits permission to indoctrinate the indigenous peoples" of the region and prepare them for membership in the church.

On The Bloody Road To Jesus: Christianity And The Chiricahua Apaches

By H. Henrietta Stockel
University of New Mexico Press
$29.95, 314 pages
ISBN: 0826332080
Here the tragic story of the Apache's collision with Christianity begins. As the remaining eight chapters of On the Bloody Road To Jesus document, the renowned warriors would not be as successful in fighting off this nemesis as they were the Zunis. Stockel knows her subject well: no historical errors here. She provides an admirable amount of qualitative evidence, witnessed by ample endnotes that could have been better incorporated into the text. The book is also richly supplemented with many haunting photos gathered from personal collections, libraries, and even eBay.

More importantly, readers will find themselves sympathetic to the main idea behind the story she tells: that the Apache religion is still resisting Christianity. Although easy to grasp on an intuitive level, it is harder to prove analytically. Clearly, the Apache religion hasn't resisted its encounter with Christianity very well at all. It is hard to consider a religion that is limited to a few celebrations a year and segregated, as it is, to a single New Mexican reservation as actively in resistance, much less alive. This is not to suggest that such rituals are not of ongoing importance to the remaining Apaches. Indeed, after reading of three-and-a-half centuries of smallpox, tuberculosis, and forced migrations to and from the febrile swamps of Alabama and Florida, one wishes for a calendar full of traditional ceremonies and nights by the fire. One longs to hear the tales of White Painted Women, her son, Child-of-the-Water, and his father, Ussen.

And yet no matter how happy a face Stockel tries to put on it, no matter how hard the author tries to support her thesis that the Apaches, even to present-day, are resisting Christian domination, the old religion is dying, if not already dead. What remains is a frail shell, witnessed, as she rightly states, through the refractory lenses of Western theoretical frameworks and standards that perpetuate colonization. Sadly, the Apache religion little resembles the fertile native faith that Spanish missionaries encountered in the late 16th and early 17th centuries while wandering around the Sonoran Desert: Another irretrievable loss along the implacable march of progress. •


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