Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 3, 2008

John Gregory Bourke and the Apaches

Filed under: indigenous,literature — louisproyect @ 12:00 am

Last November, when I trashed “No Country For Old Men“, a Coen brothers movie based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, I wrote the following about another McCarthy novel:

If I had more time on my hands, I might take a look at McCarthy’s novels to try to extract out the rotten core and examine it under a strong light, especially the 1985 “Blood Meridian” that is described on the official website of the Cormac McCarthy Society as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.” The write-up continues:

In one celebrated scene, a column of mercenaries the kid has joined encounters a Comanche war party herding stolen horses and cattle across the desert. The kid barely escapes as the Indians, still vividly dressed like eldritch clowns in the garments they have stripped from their last white victims, annihilate his companions.

Just what the world was waiting for, a Faulkneresque novel that depicts American Indians as wanton killers.

I finally got around to reading “Blood Meridian” about a month ago, but before trashing it I am doing some background reading on the Apache, Comanche and Yuma Indians who all play a significant role in McCarthy’s horrible novel. As I have mentioned previously on my blog, McCarthy has essentially a Hobbesian worldview. Everybody is rotten, both the white death squads that the McCarthy website refers to charitably as “mercenaries” and the Indians that they slaughter.

Reading “Blood Meridian” is an experience that is analogous to reading a novel focused on a band of Nazi stormtroopers assigned to quell the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The author does not hide his animosity toward the Nazis but also finds the Jewish rebels just as repugnant. One imagines that it is possible to write a novel in this country about white Indian-killers and their victims being equally vicious because–as Ward Churchill once pointed out–our Nazis (Kit Carson and company) won their war.

Geronimo, at the age of 76

While I am sure that one can write a compelling novel with Nazi stormtroopers as the major characters, I certainly am not interested in reading it. Cormac McCarthy’s characters are pretty one-dimensional, who function pretty much as killing machines without any inner doubts. His novel has bamboozled some left-leaning Literature professors into thinking that McCarthy has mounted some kind of Marxist critique of the Old West solely on the basis of the unflattering portrait of the white killers. I will have much more to say about this when I post my review of “Blood Meridian” but will say at this point that I would have written a much different novel that would be not only more Marxist but more interesting from a literary standpoint.

My major characters would have not been members of John Glanton’s gang, but men like John Gregory Burke, whose relationship to the Apache Indians was far more complex. His psychological and political conflicts are the very stuff of great literature, as this passage from Richard J. Perry’s “Apache Reservation: Indigenous Peoples and the American State” reveals:

One Man’s View of the Apache: John Gregory Bourke

In the 1870s and 1880s, as the Apache found themselves increasingly enmeshed in the expanding American state, John Gregory Bourke participated in the process. His papers offer a vivid sense of the era. When he participated in Crook’s winter campaign of 1871, apparently he fully accepted the rightness of the forces he represented. Bourke clearly was a man of his times. He had graduated from West Point and was conversant with the thrust of nineteenth-century American social thought. An aspect of this thought was the idea that progress was an inevitable law of nature, and that some human societies had progressed more than others. In the late 1880s he wrote a scholarly treatise discussing Apache practices in terms of cultural evolutionary stages (1892). There was little question in Bourke’s mind that the United States and western Europe represented the epitome of human progress up to that time.

From this perspective, populations like the Apache were different—not because they represented alternative, equivalent varieties of human experience, but because they had not progressed beyond the stages of “savagery” or “barbarism.” In many ways, according to this view, the Apache were something like what Europeans had been in the past. Human progress for the good of all, even for the good of the Apache, required that higher levels of social and cultural development replace savagery. To young John Bourke and other Anglo-Americans of his time, there was no apparent reason to question the idea that the Apache were an anachronistic obstacle to progress whose time had almost ended. Their fierce resistance to a civilized population’s invasion of their territory did little to dispel these assumptions.

But Bourke also had a good deal of intellectual curiosity. As he became more familiar with Apache as individuals and perceived some of the complexities and intricacies of their lives, his respect for them grew. Moreover, he became conscious of a certain irony. The Apache of his acquaintance seemed to fulfill, far more rigorously than most of his own more “advanced” compatriots, many of the ideals that happened to be central to the ideology of his own culture. The Apache did not steal from one another. They scrupulously observed their own complex rules of etiquette, ethics, and religious strictures. They placed great importance on extramarital chastity. They demonstrated their physical courage time and again, and their self-control and endurance were extraordinary. In many ways, Bourke could see some of the highest aspirations of the Victorian character in the qualities of the Apache.

Bourke also came to perceive many of the local Arizona citizenry as a scurrilous, unsavory lot who stood in the way of humane Indian policies. Perhaps the most tragic and poignant phase of the role Bourke played in the unfolding of this chapter in American history had to do with the eventual disposal of the Chiricahua Apache.

Many of the Chiricahua were unhappy at San Carlos, and in 1885 some of them—Geronimo among them—fled the reservation, beginning the last major army campaign against the Apache in the region. Most of the Chiricahua at San Carlos did not join their flight and remained behind. Lieutenant Britton Davis, who had reported to San Carlos in 1882 and participated in the resulting campaign, summarizes it incisively. “In this campaign thirty-five men and eight half-grown or older boys, encumbered with the care and sustenance of 101 women and children, with no base of supplies and no means of Waging war or of obtaining food or transportation other than what they could take from their enemies, maintained themselves for eighteen months, in a country two hundred by four hundred miles in extent, against five thousand troops, regulars and irregulars, five hundred Indian auxiliaries of these troops, and an unknown number of civilians”

Davis notes that the fleeing Apache during this period were known to have killed seventy-five Arizona and New Mexico citizens, twelve White Mountain Apache, two officers, and eight enlisted army troops, and as many as a hundred or more Mexicans. As for the fleeing Apache: “Their losses in killed were six men, two large boys, two women and one child, not one of whom was killed by regular troops [emphasis in the original]. Moreover, one of the boys and two of the men were not killed in open warfare, but were killed by the citizens of the town of Casas Grandes, where they had gone on a peace mission”.

In late March, 1886, Crook finally was able to negotiate with Geronimo and the other Chiricahua leaders at a place called the Canon de Los Embudos, about twenty-six miles south of the border. The Chiricahua agreed to come in on the condition that, after no more than two years imprisonment, they would be allowed to join their families at Turkey Creek north of San Carlos. Crook left for Fort Bowie at the close of the conference, and the Chiricahua were to follow the next day with the scouts.

That night a local citizen named Bob Tribolett approached the Chiricahua and scouts and sold them sizable quantities of mescal liquor. After getting them drunk, he told them that if they went into Fort Bowie the next day they would be killed. Finding the story plausible, the Chiricahua bolted once again into Mexico. They could not be persuaded to surrender for another couple of months. After Tribolett had gotten them drunk and had told them that the army intended to kill them once they were taken prisoner, Lieutenant Bourke encountered Geronimo and the others. Bourke wrote in his diary that “this incident so alarmed and disgusted me and was so pregnant with significance that I rode up to Genl. Crook and asked him to have Tribollet [sic] killed as a foe to human society, and, said I, if you don’t Genl. Crook it’ll be the biggest mistake of your life”.

There is some reason to suspect that Tribolett was acting on behalf of the infamous Tucson Ring of contractors who profited from the Apache conflict. Several contemporary observers expressed this view, and certainly he served their purposes well. Eventually Tribolett was to die in jail awaiting trial for planning a stagecoach robbery, shot while “trying to escape”.

When the Chiricahua finally agreed to return to San Carlos, they did so with the understanding that they would be allowed to live with their families near Turkey Creek. After General Crook reached this agreement, he learned that the terms would not be honored by the government. President Grover Cleveland insisted on an unconditional surrender. Crook resigned in protest, and General Nelson Miles took over to receive credit, eventually, for “bringing in Geronimo.”

While Geronimo negotiated, Miles already had arrested the peaceful Chiricahua at Fort Apache and sent them on their way to imprisonment in Florida. He promised the others that they could join their families if they surrendered. When they did so, he wrote a carefully worded letter to his superiors giving the impression that he had secured the unconditional surrender of the Chiricahua. All of the Chiricahua were arrested and sent to prison, including the peaceful contingent who never had left the reservation, the scouts who had assisted the army in achieving the surrender of Geronimo’s group, and the two who had risked their lives to make contact with the others.

In 1885, just before their removal, the Indian Rights Association had reported on the Chiricahua who lived at Fort Apache: “[They were] a fine, manly looking set, and did not talk much, but expressed themselves as well pleased with what had been done for them. They said that they wanted to turn their faces in the same way as the whites, to work and make money. The Chiricahuas were kept at San Carlos until the middle of last May. It was a month later by the time they began farming. Since then they have got seventy-five acres under cultivation”.

After their arrest and removal to the East, the Chiricahua men were kept separate from their families for years. Bourke, who had bee present at the negotiations between Crook and Geronimo, was out raged. “Never was there a more striking illustration of the ingratitude of Republics. Never a more cruel outrage perpetrated in the name of a nation affecting to love liberty, honor, and truth”.

In the following years Bourke achieved some renown in eastern intellectual circles as an ethnographer and a student of Apache culture, and he worked strenuously for their humane treatment. He visited the Chiricahua in Florida and lobbied to acquire a more healthful situation for them.

In Florida the government took the Chiricahua children away and sent them to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Of the 107 who went there in 1886, twenty-seven had died within three years. In writing about the situation, Bourke quoted Thomas B. McCaulay in describing the action as “the saddest of all human spectacles—the strength of a great nation exerted without its mercy”. After several relocations, the Chiricahua eventually were moved to Oklahoma. In 1913, long after Bourke’s death, they finally were given the option of moving to the Mescalero reservation in New Mexico. Over a hundred of them chose to do so.

Throughout his life, Bourke accepted the ideology of his own society. Just as he had embraced the idea that the Apache represented a stage of evolution doomed to be replaced by civilization, he felt that civilization entailed a responsibility to invoke humane and refined standards of behavior. To his dismay, he found that his own government and society wanted nothing more than to let the Apache die off and disappear as a problem.

The disparity between his state’s ideals and its actions never ceased to plague him. This conflict was manifest late in his life when he led troops against workers in the Chicago Pullman strike of 1894. He was incensed that the striking rabble, many of whom spoke poor English, should challenge a social system in whose ideals he had a faith that apparently was unshakable. At the end of the summer he spent defending Mr. George Mortimer Pullman’s interests against the workers, Bourke left Chicago on the train with his troops. They were required to pay full fare.

Bourke died at the age of forty-nine, apparently from the cumulative effects of a life of physical stress. He had been unable, at last, to convince his government that the Apache he had fought as savages and had come to admire and respect as persons should be treated humanely. But Bourke lived during one of the most corrupt eras in American history. It was a time when collusion between corporate interests and the government was especially brazen, and racism was as American as frock coats and picket fences. For a person who truly believed in the ideals that his culture espoused, such an era must have been intensely frustrating.


  1. Not that it’s not useful to have our attention called to Bourke’s apparently rich diaries. But here we go again. I’m waiting impatiently for that review of “Blood Meridian.” I’m sure that it’s going to do more than only “trash” Cormac McCarthy’s “horrible” book and expose the “rotten core” of his novels. But why blame him for those politically correct profs who pretend his books are “Marxists critiques”? Those tenured thinkers are simply afraid of being unworthy of the Left. What if his view is Hobbesian? So was that of many lucid writers, including Hobbes and Shakespeare. Should we trash King Lear? Or cry over injustice to Caliban? So let’s give Kit Carson one final kick in the ass and judge McCarthy, (who, I know, I know, is no Shakespeare,) as a Hobbesian novelist and not as a propagandist

    Comment by Peter Byrne — May 3, 2008 @ 11:26 am

  2. So let’s give Kit Carson one final kick in the ass…

    Our Nazis (Kit Carson and …)


    I am curious. I have recently been reading a book about the Indian wars in the Southwest between the 1840’s and 1860’s, viz. Hampton Side’s Blood and Thunder, which has rather a lot to say about Kit Carson, and I see no reason to believe that the man was in any way “a Nazi”. So what do Peter Byrne and our esteemed blog host have to say to defend what they say about the man?

    (Oh, and unlike Blood Meridian and such, Blood and Thunder at least has the merit of being mostly true, as far as I can tell.)

    Comment by Feeder of Felines — May 6, 2008 @ 6:37 am

  3. Myself I know nothing about Kit Carson. But I assume Native Americans have had a bad time because they were mainly wiped out or left in a sorry state.
    My point was that we should put that question in the background when dealing with a 21st century piece of literary fiction. I remind the cat-lover–again assuming, this time that he’s not feeding them rat poison–that Hampton Side was writing history and McCarthy inventing a story. My hope was that a reviewer would treat McCarthy’s book first of all as a novel.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — May 6, 2008 @ 9:00 am

  4. I sincerely thank you from the bottom of my heart for posting this. Blood Meridian has nothing to do with the reality of what it depicts even though it poses as realistic.

    “Cormac McCarthy’s characters are pretty one-dimensional, who function pretty much as killing machines without any inner doubts.”

    “The judge” “judges” that “the kid”, in holding to some vanishingly small sense of humanity and doubt, was cause for the destruction of the entire inhumane and unthinking band of mercenaries. So, not only were they killing machines without any inner doubt, but when inner doubt was present at all, it was seen as the true source of destruction–what took the edge off the actual greatness and glory of the mercenaries.

    McCarthy’s characters MUSSSST be pretty one-dimensional to get his point across – “inner doubt”, the equivalent of the humane, is pathology…The pure exteriorization of man as activity, violent action and wantonness,if it could succeed in truly being pure, would overcome this pathology.

    How such a point could be mistaken in any way with a Marxist orientation is remarkable.

    Comment by Yusef — May 6, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

  5. I actually plan to read Hampton Side’s book on Kit Carson the first chance I get, so I will defer saying anything until I am finished with it.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 6, 2008 @ 5:49 pm

  6. “Hampton Side’s book on Kit Carson”

    It is actually mostly about the three way conflict between the Dine (Navajo), the New Mexicans (mostly Hispanic), and the US Army (and later settlers) in the New Mexico Territory, that ended with the Navajo committed to the reservation in 1868. As Carson was involved at important points in this, Sides uses Carson’s life story as a narrative device on which to hang the history—so we follow Carson to California with the Fremont Expedition, for example. But the most important focus is on the Navajo story.

    Comment by Feeder of Felines — May 7, 2008 @ 3:38 am

  7. “But I assume Native Americans have had a bad time because they were mainly wiped out or left in a sorry state.”

    All true. And Carson, once he joined the Army, ended up fighting them. The worst of it was during the Civil War when a new commander, General Carleton, decided he would move first the small tribe of Mescalero Apache of southern New Mexico, and then the entire Navajo people to a new reservation at Bosque Redondo along the Pecos River in West Texas. This was hundreds of miles east of the Navajo territory. Carleton, moreover decided on a scorched earth campaign, to starve the Navajo out of their homeland. Col. Carson, as he was then, at first tried resigning his commission rather than undertake this task, but eventually Carleton was able to persuade him to undertake it.

    The campaign, which started in the Summer of 1863, was successful after months when Carson and troops were able to penetrate and apply the scorched earth to the great Navajo refuge of Canyon de Chelly at the west end of their territory. Many Navajo died and and many more were reduced to misery. The Navajo then had to set out by foot on “the long walk of the Navajo”—their version of the Trail of Tears—from thence east to Fort Sumner on the Pecos River in Texas.

    The results were initially somewhat positive, but then disaster struck in the form of the maize cutworm, and further problems with the crops, with the water, and more, ensued. Eventually, via an agreement in 1868 with Gen. William T. Sherman, of all people, the Navajo went home, tho’ to a reduced range, the one they occupy to this day. If Ward Churchill called Carson “a Nazi”, it is probably this removal of the Navajo that he had in mind. Carson died, it should be noted, on an aneurysm of the aorta, on the 23rd of May, 1868—the agreement with Gen. Sherman was made on 1 June, 1868.

    Comment by Feeder of Felines — May 7, 2008 @ 6:00 am

  8. “For a person who truly believed in the ideals that his culture espoused, such an era must have been intensely frustrating.”

    It was the era that give rise to the Progressive Movement—a lot of those who were thus frustrated tried to do something about it. I keep hoping we will get something similar but the dominance of neo-liberal ideas and the lack of an actually existing alternative, however imperfect, seems to crowd out the room for such a movement, at least within mainstream politics.

    Comment by Feeder of Felines — May 9, 2008 @ 4:16 am

  9. One of the more surprising revelations in Bourke’s various memoirs is that his parents in Philadelphia were close and longtime friends of Congressman and Mrs. Lewis Levin. Now, Bourke’s father was a devout Catholic and his mother latterly a convert; while Mr. Levin (supposedly of Jewish background from South Carolina) was mostly famous for founding the anti-Catholic “Native American” and “Know-Nothing” movements of the 1840s and 50s. With this kind of background, Bourke was well equipped to look past superficialities. I think this must have given him a special suppleness of insight when he studied the Apaches and other native peoples.

    Comment by sallie parker — November 2, 2012 @ 5:36 am

  10. Well i have just finished reading Geronimo’s autobiography. He tells a series of reciprocal revenge acts of violence ( not as graphycally as BM but we can imagine the details). Surely the ultimate cause is the european invasion, and for him the extermination of his young family. But he himself never questions wheter killing white people just because they were white was wrong. No questins asked when raiding random villages. It did not cross his mind more than it did that of white settlers with indians…right or wrong the Commanches in BM are believable. The chain of violence in BM resonates with Geronimo’s story of reciprocal hate, where many innocent people are caught in the crossfire on both sides. It does not mean that manifesr destiny is right though, of course.

    Comment by Alex — September 5, 2015 @ 3:14 pm

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