When you live in the heart of New Mexico's Gila Country, as I do, few experiences are more haunting than a visit to the Apache prisoner-of-war cemetery at Fort Sill, Okla., over 700 miles away.
The cemetery is located in a remote corner of the 70,000-acre base, home to 40,000 soldiers associated with the Army's Field Artillery School. The deciduous trees are thick and tall, the grass is lush, and nearby Beef Creek is much prettier than its soupy appellation might indicate. Absent the regular cannon fire and the 100-plus graves -- all carefully marked by Christian crosses -- it would make a nice picnic spot.
At the center, surrounded by towering hardwoods and topped by an eagle sculpted from stone, stands the cemetery's only actual monument. This is where the legendary Apache is buried: Goyahkla ("One Who Yawns"), whose nom de guerre, bestowed on him by Mexican soldiers, is still bellowed like a war cry by young boys cannonballing off the high dive. More recently, it was used to denote Operation Neptune Spear's ultimate goal: the death of Osama bin Laden. It's a name that has never lost its power: Geronimo.
His memorable -- some would say notorious -- place in history notwithstanding, Geronimo was never an actual chief. He was an "expedition leader," one step below war chief. Yet he was instrumental in waging a brutal guerrilla war against both the U.S. and Mexico for more than 40 years, and his daring exploits helped imprint the word "Apache" on the nation's psyche.
That war, of course, did not take place in rural Oklahoma. It unfolded far away in the territory of seven major linguistic groups and 30-plus tribes, bands and clans, difficult to differentiate but all clumsily classified as "Apachean." For 800 or so years, the Apaches roamed from southern Colorado to Texas to modern-day New Mexico and Arizona, as well as in the northern reaches of Chihuahua and Sonora.
Then came Manifest Destiny and its scorched-earth campaigns against the Native Americans. The Apache story did not end there, of course, though it lay half-hidden in legal and cultural purgatory for many years.
The descendants of the two bands with which Geronimo was affiliated, the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache -- which occupied territory in what is now southwest New Mexico and southeast Arizona -- are scattered hither and yon. They have no real center and no real reservation from which to maintain or re-establish the tattered remnants of their heritage, making them one of the most noteworthy orphaned tribes in the nation.
Now, though, almost out of the blue, the winds of resurrection are beginning to blow, rising at times to near-gale force. The Oklahoma-based Fort Sill Apache Tribe -- Geronimo's officially recognized successor -- is trying to regain a foothold in its original territory around Silver City, N.M. It's a gloriously rugged landscape, with abysses almost as deep as the Grand Canyon, ponderosa-covered plateaus, mountain ranges reaching nearly 11,000 feet, the fertile Gila, San Francisco and Mimbres river valleys and some of North America's highest concentrations of hot springs.
As righteous, and long-overdue, as this effort to correct a historic wrong may appear, it has stirred up a stunning amount of controversy -- not just between Geronimo's descendants and the state of New Mexico, but also between the Fort Sill Apaches and others whose ancestors also lie buried at the Oklahoma cemetery, and between Fort Sill and the several hundred folks around Silver City who claim they are every bit as much Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache as Geronimo was.
The outcome will have direct ramifications on the highest-profile Native American repatriation effort in U.S. history.
That is, if the argumentative underpinnings of the entire issue are not unadulterated bunk, as many people in the Apache homelands will tell you.