When I started Lostbirds.org many who know me were wondering why I did. Why do I care so much about Native Americans? The answer is, we should all care. What has happened, and what is still currently happening to them, can just as easily happen to anyone when special interests with power and the financial means want what you have. This is as true today as it has been throughout the entirety of history.
Blood Land is my autobiographical short story that takes place in 2008 after a quick trip from Colorado to see my family in Arizona. What I learned about my family afterward, from the internet, changed everything I thought I knew about my family history. This knowledge gave me more insight into the strange course of my life and into the soul and spirit I’ve always known myself to have.
Names have been omitted or changed to give my family privacy.
1493. Columbus came back to the Taino people of the Caribbean who lavished him with gifts, trade, and respect. On this visit he brought militia, horses, and attack dogs. The people were enslaved and forced to mine their own gold and work their land, to the point of death, for the Spaniards. Taino population dwindled down to one third of what it was; the mass killings and suicides of those hunted down feverishly had taken its toll.
The Taino, who fed Columbus and shared all that they knew, were being destroyed to extinction. The Spaniards tried to gain further control in the region by calling a large “peace” meeting with eighty Chiefs. They were promptly burned alive in the meeting place; any who managed to escape were butchered outside.
The lone survivor was Enrique, the young son of a Chief, who was protected by a Spanish priest as they looked upon the gruesome scene. The priest couldn’t stop the sale of his adopted (and newly married) son, Enrique, to a young Spanish Nobleman named Valenzuela. So noble was he that he abused them daily and then finally raped Enrique’s wife.
Serious consequences were risked as they ran away into the mountains. The massive manhunt forced Enrique to start a rebellion. After battling for over a decade, the Taino people won a treaty.
This sad and barbaric scene would set the standards for the gruesome tactics of the United States Anti-Indian Policy. My own Native ancestors would be part of the final bloody plight through the mountains and the plains of the Southwest. A conclusion to an official forty year genocidal war led by the United States allied with Mexico and individuals set to gain from the atrocities to Native Americans by the New American people and government.
Driving on my way back to Colorado from an unexpected trip to Arizona, left my head spinning. It was April of 2008. I had six days: to drive from Colorado to Arizona (roundtrip), catch up on sleep from driving, hang out with my half-brother and his family (whom I hadn’t been able to see in five years), and then meet my extended family that my half-brother and I share on my father’s side.
My family I was visiting included my Nana and Tata, my Tia, my first and second cousins, and uncles. It was overwhelming enough as it was, and certainly, it was a blessing that our estranged father couldn’t make it from a musical performance that he was playing piano for. He is a well known musician in the community and has toured with big names in Jazz. As for the estrangement, I can only say that Vietnam did its worst and that music was the only way he could really feel or speak to anyone anymore.
My father’s family are boisterously funny with the hardiest heartfelt laughs you’ve ever heard. It had been well over twenty years since they had last seen me, but kept my memory alive through a small photograph and oral familial storytelling. That is their way. All get-togethers revolve around homemade Mexican food, music, tons of laughter, and storytelling.
For me, it was like a sense of belonging, culturally I felt like I was home. Yet I was still an outsider; white and non-Spanish speaking. In Arizona when I was younger, I was too tan for my white mother who raised me, but years in Colorado winters made me look Irish enough. While visiting in Arizona, the more I heard my family stories, the more I kept thinking that I need to look my family up on the internet and see what I could find.
Maybe it was when my Tata told me that we are one of the oldest families in Arizona, that my ears perked up. A couple days later, after I was back home in Colorado and caught up on rest, was when I started my search.
It’s funny how a few simple keywords, typed in Google, could bring up something so profound and life-changing. I had found information I did not intend to find; a legal document uploaded to the internet based on court proceedings and judgements for land, which was filed by my Great Uncle. He was stipulating that the land taken from our Apache ancestors was our rightful land and that the government at one time recognized it as such; an entire two thousand acres that encompassed part of the Gila River. Land that was seized by the government’s Bureau of Land Management and mortgaged out for mining, which yielded twenty-two million dollars in gold.
I don’t think I need to tell you my shock, I’m sure you’re sitting here in shock too. I can’t forget how it felt, sitting there in front of my computer, blinking my eyes. How could no one have told me this?! It felt like a deep betrayal. How could who I am and where I came from been hidden from me all these years?! What the fuck. What. The. Fuck. Unbelievable. Finding this out on the goddamn internet of all the fucking cold places. That’s how it felt. It felt like I was lied to about something that really matters and someone tried to tell me that I was something different from what I actually was.
During this insightful time, I had enrolled at Metro State Community College in summer of 2008 with the intent of getting my Bachelors in Music and a minor in Native American Studies. Being a natural musician is in my blood, but my need for justice against the tyranny of bullies has always been my spirit and mind. It then seems fitting that a friend and her family were spiritually practicing Lakota; I was included in sweat lodge, drum, and a large Sundance ceremony on private land. It felt like a huge earth/spirit piece that is sorely missed from this American life and I found myself driven to learn more about Native American history.
As my classes started picking up speed, I realized that a music degree wasn’t my calling. I found myself being driven to the cultural beauty and the unjust history of Natives, which made this nonsensical world we live in finally make sense. How could so many terrible things happen, such as slavery and segregation, if New America was so great? There had to be a reason and I found it. I was moved to change my major to English writing with a minor in Native American studies (since a major wasn’t an option in that field at Metro).
Discovering my family history, from doing a class project, proved to be more from a movie storyline than from the story of my family’s life.
“Hello?” The sound of the voice on the other end of the line had a thick Spanish accent and sounded like family. It made my response sound very confident, “Is this my Great Uncle Ray?”
“Why, yes, yes it is.”
“My name is Misty; I’m Chapito’s granddaughter.”
“Oh, okay, yes.” The simple little responses are the signature of my family’s dialogue: the accent, the tone of getting to know you and perhaps to call you friend, foe, family, or neither.
“Ernie is my father.”
“I have some questions about our Apache background?”
“Yes, all of our information is in the local Historical Museum….”
“I know, I saw it on the internet, that’s why I’m calling. I wanted to know more.”
“I wrote a book, you know.” There was a little tinge of excitement in his voice. He must have been happy that someone was interested in our Indian history. As I gathered previously, from talking with my Tia, it seemed that most of the family brushes off the topic favoring our Spanish/Mexican ancestry instead. I couldn’t place if it was because my Great Uncle had changed from Catholic to Mormon, moved away from family in Arizona to live in Nevada, if the family didn’t want to care about land that they weren’t going to get back anyway, or even worse, they didn’t want to be affiliated with Native Americans.
Great Uncle Ray didn’t know that I had already seen the court documents online about his quest for the land and the repayment money; I didn’t want to say anything about it. That wasn’t what interested me. I was only interested in our outrageous ancestry that he made claims to. Claims about a warrior in our family that rode with Geronimo.
“You did?!” The disbelief that our ancestry could possibly be in a book, made my shoulders a lot lighter. It meant no more scouring the internet at all hours. But I couldn’t be more wrong.
“Yeah, the hardcover is very pretty.”
“Where can I get it?”
“Anywhere, or you can get it online.”
“Well, after I read it, can I ask you some questions?”
“Okay, great. Thanks Uncle Ray!”
“No problem, Misty.”
The book had arrived by UPS just three days after ordering it online. The cover has a depiction of a Native American scene: the back view of a war chief as noted by his immense bonnet of eagle feathers that trails grandly down, covering his steed; in his hand is a small battle axe that is tainted red; he’s overlooking a grassy plain of gold and green with a river moving towards a blue mountainous landscape; he’s sitting bareback on his horse, navigated by the use of thin leather reigns.
Beside him are two warriors on horseback with alternating brown and white speckled feathers trailing down their backs with two red feathers in their hair pointing sky high. There is also a female beside the warriors in a fringed buckskin top with one red feather in her hair. Below this picture, in the middle of the book, lay the title in bold burgundy letters on white and below the title is a black and white picture of my Great Uncle Ray in his younger years.
But the grand Native American scene depicted on the cover is inaccurate, as I had discovered; a Lakota War Chief would wear an eagle feather bonnet as well as any other number of Nations, but an Apache War Chief or Medicine Man would wear a simple hat possibly adorned with horns from game, a few feathers from an eagle or hawk, and in later years, a fabric turban that didn’t necessarily denote Chief status.
The Apache people wore very basic leathers with specific adaptations to their moccasins. Neither of which are on his book cover. And after searching endlessly on the internet for information, I realized something even more important than the land that was titled with my family name.
My family came from Warm Springs-Chiricahuan Apache ancestry, who free roamed from New Mexico to Arizona. This history travels as far back in time as can be traced to my three times great grandfather Gregorio Francisco; born in Ojo Caliente, New Mexico around 1820, and two times great grandfather Francisco born in Warm Springs, New Mexico in 1843. Obviously their original names were not Gregorio or Francisco and, in fact, there was a time when we didn’t have our current family name but an even further derivative of it.
There was a time when we were simply Warm Spring’s Apaches with a Native clan name that was erased by Franciscan missionaries in New Mexico. Natives were used and beaten as slaves to make goods and keep up the well-being of the missions. Adults had a twelve year life expectancy and children had six years. When the Native died from abuse and disease in their barracks, they were dumped in a mass unmarked grave. All the while, the Franciscans had the nerve to embed their doctrine of God’s Love. In an odd sort of calamity, what the Franciscans had trained them to do had helped them get along in the New American world of constructing, farming, ranching, and servitude. But their original life was a far cry from this.
A migration down from Canada from 1100 to 1500 AD had brought Athabascan speaking peoples to the western area of New Mexico, throughout Arizona, and the top of the western tip of Texas where they branched off into sub-clans. The Apache clans that had traveled to Arizona became known as Western Apache.”
The Western Apache were further divided into groups, one of those being Chiricahuan, as dictated by the Gila region; one of the few sanctuaries from missionaries and conquerors due to the terrain. That was where our family settled. Culturally, their society is matriarchal and they are known for their extensive puberty rites, most notably for girls. Economically, they had adapted to traveling the mountain and harsh desert, as the seasons changed.
Being nomadic, Western Apache would constantly break apart into clan groups and had spread out along the lay of the land, with the introduction of the horse making it much easier to get around. Children were trained as hunters, but with time, their training helped them as warriors: running up and down mountains at dawn with packs on their back, as well as slingshot and bow and arrow training; accuracy with their aim was mandatory, as they could not afford to waste arrows. They were like ghosts in the mountains if they needed to be.
Western Apache hunted wild game and ate dried fruit of the desert; if food was scarce they would simply steal livestock from a village at dawn. Wax-sealed water baskets with rounded bottoms to prevent tipping were also useful for trade among different Nations in the region, since, at that time, they were not proficient with artistry; there was no need to be. Although, in 1871, the partially desolate region of the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona had made artistry for money a necessity. While the Native were starving and dying, the settlers and the Federal Government were thriving and growing hungrier for the wealth of resources.
Gold, silver, copper, animal hides, buffalo, tobacco, and land as far as the eye can see, meant big money. The only thing standing in the way were the “First Homesteaders” as I like to call them, a term that was used for Euro-Americans but somehow not for Natives. They didn’t apply. Human Rights was not for them, not with New American wealth on the line.
Life was complicated as the Spaniards first came to conquer in the 1600’s, then the Mexican Retaliation and Independence from Spain in 1821, until finally, succession of the new Mexican land (after a mere twenty-five years) to the United States, which included: California, Nevada, Utah, Western Colorado, Western New Mexico, and the northern 3/4 of Arizona. Known as the Treaty of Hidalgo in 1848, the agreement protected land for the Natives and Mexicans, until the U.S. ratified that portion and “dissolved” it.
The Gadsden Purchase in 1853 bought the remaining bottom portion of Arizona and New Mexico. It was on this land, the Gila basin, where my family lived prior to everyone claiming the borders or rights or dissolutions of those right upon it (legally commonly referred to as an Amendment or Act).
This particular land was then partially divided into Reservations. The Natives that remained on their land within these new Reservations were intentionally confused with illegal “new land policies.” Eventually, their land was stolen out from under them by the Bureau of Land Management, an agency for the Department of the Interior that, coincidentally, also has a branch that oversees and modifies all actions by Tribal Government on Reservations. The BLM then mortgages out “their” property that they stole for mining of gold or any number of things.
This was how America was taken. When the United States was formed, it was assumed that the land should be theirs, so they made up legislation and reasons for this legislation and called it “legal.” They called it Federal. They set up an entire economy based on lies and genocide. They allowed people to do horrible things and then had the nerve to set up the same legislation that said people couldn’t do those things anymore, and it was all called legal; the pillaging, killing, raping, slaving, scalp-hunting, and erasing of history.
Many families tried to hide among other races. In the late 1880’s, my family was pretending to be Mexican for the sake of their lives and their children’s lives. They pretended, for the sake of saving a mere one hundred sixty acres of their land under the new BLM guidelines. It was all taken, anyway. Along with their identity. They were looking for protection from being persecuted and trying to survive this ugly new world.
At one time, my great great grandfather Francisco put up a fight. At one time, he fought with Geronimo for two years in 1871 before assimilating at the request of the family. He chose to continue with the ranch life that they knew and leave the fighting behind. The Chiricahuan life was fierce and hard and many followed Geronimo, Cochise, Mangas, and other chiefs, in an effort to gain back their land, dignity, and to fight against the desolate, malaria-ridden Reservation of San Carlos, with its meager food rations and clothing shortages. The Chiricahuans were also the most fiercely punished; prisoners of war for twenty-eight years, some even born in prison, and inevitably with a slap in the face, not even a Reservation to call their own. It is a legal battle taking place today.
The Chiricahua Apache Nde Nation was only recently founded in 2004 as a grassroots, social justice interest group. They have been displaced, living on the Mescalero Reservation or on land allotments in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. All five of their own Reservations were “dissolved” in the 1880’s.
So in effect, the land being fought over isn’t simply about our singular family, but about keeping a culture alive; a culture that is still being ignored in this battle for resources and money.
I am saddened at the ignorance of my family concerning our Apache ancestry, and even worse, for trying to exploit it for monetary gain. Greed and betrayal has consumed relatives from the past and the present, from: greatest grandfather Francisco being murdered by his own brother in order to acquire the land, to the eldest heirs trying to nullify my great uncle Ray and take over the work that he solely initiated and paid for. Our family legacy of Francisco and his fight for the Apache people was disappearing in this battle over Blood Land and lost ancestry. But through my short story I hope to keep my ancestral history alive.
-M.D. “Blood Land” 2008