Geronimo Escapes: Envisioning Indianness in Modern America

Kevin D. Shupe
History and Art History, George Mason University
December, 2011


Geronimo was the most renowned Indian at the turn of the twentieth century. Newspaper coverage of the drawn-out military campaigns to capture him had brought him into the national spotlight and, after his surrender in 1886, newspapers continued to feature stories about him, publicizing his situation and actions, both real and imagined. He became a popular and iconic figure, appearing in prominent roles at three world's fairs and at the Presidential Inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt. In addition to these performances, he helped compose his autobiography and was a subject of popular photographs, postcards, and paintings. "Geronimo Escapes" is the first in-depth scholarly analysis that looks beyond early events in his life to examine the era in which he performed in public and served as a potent symbolic figure in white cultural productions. Instead of focusing on military conflicts or Indian identity, I examine a war of stories and those individuals who attempted to control public portrayals of American Indians. Using a narratological examination of the stories told about Geronimo from his first step into the national spotlight in 1876 to his death in 1909, this study elucidates a crucial period in the re-imagining of "Indianness." During those years, a wide range of individuals and institutions adopted a variety of narrative patterns, plot devices, and discourse strategies in attempts to construct and transmit ideas of cultural difference that justified their intellectual and ideological understanding of Indians. I specifically examine wild west shows and western mythology, Indian reform, and the human sciences of anthropology and sociology to show that these three separate discursive practices shared crucial affinities in deploying opinions about Geronimo and Indians more generally. By scrutinizing the perspectives of individuals who interacted with and Geronimo and constructed stories about Indians, such individuals as the ethnologist James Mooney, Indian educator Samuel M. McCowan, educational sociologist S. M. Barrett, wild west show entrepreneur Frederick T. Cummins, and U. S. President and historian Theodore Roosevelt, I chart how they used new cultural narratives to challenge older structures of understanding, reflecting a shift whereby the general intellectual and public discourse at the turn of the century came to embrace a socially collective ideology in place of an older ideology of individualism.