It’s been a number of years since I first watched Geronimo, An American Legend. But it just arrived in my latest shipment from Amazon, along with some chili paste. So, a good meal and a good movie go together like kids with crayons and a clean white wall.
Yes, I do enjoy this movie. The cast is first rate, and all of them turn in fine performances. Wes Studi is at his bad-ass best playing Geronimo. I have enjoyed watching this movie in the past, and I’m sure I will do so again (like when it hits 30 below this winter and stays there). I do like this movie, but…
Like most films about real historical events, this one does take some liberties with its subject matter. The central focus of this movie would seem to be efforts by key military personnel to secure Geronimo’s surrender. We see as much diplomacy in this film as we do fighting, albeit under duress and always with the possibility of violence mere moments away. If I understand the history correctly, the sequence of events in the movie is a bit off, the significance of a key leader Naiche is minimized, and General Crook’s reaction to Geronimo’s escape is played up a bit much. I may be missing something, but I can live with most of these deviations from the facts. But right now one of those little simplifications is crawling up my pant leg and biting my ass just like the proverbial rainbow in that first season of Southpark. I mean this one little twist is really bugging me. The problem is this.
Where are the women?
I’m not normally one to criticize people for the movie they didn’t make, or the book they didn’t write, but well, that’s exactly what I’m gonna do here.
A number of Apache women do appear on screen during the course of this movie. They are pictured running away from the U.S. soldiers, living on the reservation or in camp, and they even appear on the train taking Geronimo to Florida. We also have some discussion of the atrocities committed against women on various sides in the conflicts at hand. The film stops short of showing us the full extent of those atrocities, not the least of reasons being (I suspect) that it would make it a lot harder to identify with the men committing them. Geronimo in particular must be intimidating, but not so much so that we cannot care about his fate. The movie makers didn’t quite have the courage to actually show us how bloody this war got, so they let the characters tell us about it instead.
Okay, so that’s all well and good, but here is the thing; some really interesting women were involved in the events portrayed in this film. You wouldn’t know it unless you dug a little into the history at hand (I’m still getting started myself on this one), and you certainly wouldn’t expect a prominent role for women in the imaginary world of most fiction of the American West. Okay, we always have room for a prostitute with a heart of gold, or a damsel in distress, but genuinely strong women’s roles aren’t exactly common fare in the genre. And of course this is a film about warfare, so we wouldn’t expect women to play much of a role in that.
But here they are!
You can see a few women who rode with Geronimo and Naiche in this picture as they await deportation to Florida. Two of them are of particular importance, the 5th and 6th figures from the right on the top row. There are several reasons to be interested in these women, but a couple of them in particular should have been of interest to the folks behind the movie, Geronimo; both were actively involved in the fighting as well as the negotiations for Geronimo’s surrender. These women were not simply traveling with him; each played a significant role in the actual story on which the movie is based.
The Sixth figure on the right of the top row is Lozen, sister of Victorio. She cuts an interesting figure in this image, barely facing the camera. One might not take her for a woman at first sight, which is actually rather appropriate. She seems to have dressed as a man for balance of her adult life, and she certainly seems to have taken on the role of a man when it came to warfare. This kind of gender-bending isn’t entirely unusual in Native American communities, but I don’t want to be too quick to draw conclusions about her own role in Apache society.
Lozen is credited with taking special precautions to protect women and children during her brother’s campaigns. Various sources have her escorting women and children across a river to safety before rejoining the men before a fight. In another instance she is said to have escorted a woman to the safety of a reservation, stealing horses for the both of them in the process. Seriously, her actions during Victorio’s campaigns alone are the stuff of legend. During Geronimo’s campaigns, she seems to have added the powers of a shaman to her reputation.
Why no-one has made a movie about Lozen is beyond me, though I understand someone wrote her into a sort of Romance novel. I haven’t read it, so I should with-hold judgement, but I must say that the idea fills me with dread. A segment in Apache Chronicle seems much more promising.
Following Geronimo’s surrender, Lozen was shipped East to Florida along with the others. She died of tuberculosis while in captivity.
Sitting next to Lozen is Dahteste, and yes, it is significant that they are together. It’s difficult to know the exact nature of their relationship, but the two were certainly close associates throughout Geronimo’s campaign.
Dahteste figures a little less prominently than Lozen in the folklore of the time, but she is also credited with significant fighting skills and there is little reason to believe she could have acquired that reputation without using those very skills in action. More to the point, Dahteste’s fluency in English made her a valuable intermediary between ‘hostile’ Apache and the U.S. Army, which would have put her right at the heart of the story in Geronimo.
She too was taken into custody following Geronimo’s surrender, and shipped back East. She lived long enough to finish her life on the San Carlos Apache reservation.
What of it?
Both of these women certainly could have been portrayed in the film, Geronimo. At the very least their inclusion would have added color to the story. More than that, their role in negotiations for surrender would have put these two women right in the central plot-line of the movie. They had to be written out of the story, and in writing them out the story, the film-makers delivered narrative that was much more masculine and much more hetero-normative than the one they could have told, or would have told, had they had the balls to do so.
If there are specific historical reasons for dropping Lozen and Dahteste from this legend, I do not know what they would be, but I suspect the actual reason for this would be a failure of the imagination. Warfare in the old west is, as far as the typical America can envision it, a distinctively masculine enterprise. Women may from time to time fall victim to it, and the occasional female character can show her spirit by picking up a gun when necessary. They were not merely caught up in the action, and they did a Hell of a lot more than show a little spirit when it was absolutely necessary. These weren’t damsels in distress; they were distress in their own right. I sincerely doubt that the folks making this film knew what to do with them.
…which is a damned shame.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t really see the inclusion of these two in Geronimo’s story as a question of justice (no more than I worry about the omission of Naiche). Neither historians nor film-makers, nor anyone else for that matter, can grant justice to those long dead and gone. This is a question of story-telling. It’s hard to get this across to people who don’t study history. The real thing is consistently more interesting, more convoluted, and more difficult to imagine than the stories Hollywood typically gives us. The liberties they take with historical subject matter rarely add much to the story; they consistently leave that story impoverished.
This American Legend (cool as it is) would have been that much more interesting had they found a place for these two Apache legends.
Not pictured above would be a woman named Gouyen, a bad-ass in her own right. She too was captured at the end of Geronimo’s campaign and transported to Florida, but not before accomplishing a few impressive feats of her own.
I haven’t learned what role (if any) she may have played in events leading up to Geronimo’s surrender, but her martial feats are impressive enough in their own right. When her first husband was killed in a Comanche raid, she is said to have tracked down the man who did it and returned home with his scalp.
She did this alone.
During Geronimo’s earlier campaigns, so the story goes, Gouyen actually saved her second husband’s life.
Gouyen died at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1903.