Bullet Holes and Blinks

Once I moved about like the wind. Now I surrender to you and that is all.                                                             – Geronimo


In 1897, a painter named Eldridge Ayer Burbank arrived in Fort Sill, Oklahoma to execute a series of portraits of Indian leaders held there as prisoners of war, principal among them the Chiricahua Apache known to the white man as Geronimo, once called the wickedest indian who ever lived. Burbank later gave an oral account of his experiences to a man named Ernest Royce, and the book was published in 1944 under the title Burbank Among the Indians. Journalist Charles F. Lummis contributed a Foreward, in which he states:

Mr. Burbank has in general selected very characteristic types; and his portraits are done with rigorous exactness. He nothing extenuates, nor sets down aught in malice. He neither idealizes nor blinks. From our personal point of view, his pictures are harsh – not “retouched” as we demand our artists to flatter us, but uncompromising as a photograph made in strong sunlight. Popularly, this may give a mistaken impression; for many will forget that one chief reason why an Indian is so much more furrowed and ugly than we are is because he has no retoucher to make him pretty. But scientifically this insistence upon the lines in which life indexes character, is very important.

Burbank spent a good deal of time with Geronimo, eventually completing seven portraits. In the body of the text, as told to Mr. Royce:

One day he came into my quarters at Fort Sill in a most peculiar mood. He told me no one could kill him, nor me either, if he willed it so. Then he bared himself to the waist. I was dumbfounded to see the number of bullet holes in his body. I knew he had been in many battles and had been fired on dozens of times, but I had never heard of anyone living with at least fifty bullet wounds on his body. Geronimo had that many scars.

Some of these bullet holes were large enough to hold small pebbles that Geronimo picked up and placed in them. Putting a pebble in a bullet wound he would make a noise like a gun, then take the pebble out and throw it on the ground. Jokingly I told him he was probably so far away that the bullets didn’t penetrate him, but that if he had been nearer they probably would have killed him. “No, no,” he shouted. “Bullets cannot kill me!”

Surely Geronimo’s bullet riddled torso offered powerful visual evidence of how life might index character, yet in this case Burbank turns a blind eye to the harsh and uncompromising woundscape, and the specific sort of index it compiles.  In baring his torso, Geronimo offered the artist an extraordinary opportunity to paint the unvarnished truth; instead, Burbank produced a series of extenuated fantasies such as below, with our own editorial titles attached:



On his deathbed, Geronimo, known to the Chiricahua Apache as Goyathlay, the One Who Yawns, reportedly expressed a single regret to his nephew:

I should never have surrendered.  

I should have fought until I was the last man alive.

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