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Prior to the assimilation movement, the Chiricahua Apache Indians had built no stone temples, no multi-story apartments, no irrigation systems and no ceremonial highways. They traveled light and migrated with the game and the seasons. They lived in wickiups, quickly built and easily left behind. As Geronimo stated, "once [we] moved about like the wind."

This lightness of touch on the land spoke of ability, grace, and imagination. Their traditional way of life emphasized the people's intelligence, knowledge in the arts of fighting and survival, resourcefulness and striking fitness. Contemporary white observers described the Chiricahua with awe and admiration, transcendent of ethnic and cultural bias. Britton Davis, who supervised the Chiricahua on the San Carlos Reservation in 1884, wrote that the Apache were perfect athletes, comparing them to deer in ability to move and muscle tone.

They were beyond formidable as fighters. In small, cohesive groups, moving swiftly and silently, striking hard without warning, and finally vanishing, they bedeviled military forces hundreds of times their size. Rarely killed or captured, General Crook once said, "the Apaches are the shrewdest and best fighters in the world."

Their ferocity and efficiency as warriors were balanced by an intense devotion to family and tribe, an almost puritanical morality and a deep spirituality. Even under the force of superior numbers and technology, they maintained a belief in themselves as ascendant beings.

Assimilation is about one people bludgeoning another people in an attempt at forcing submission. But it is also a story of passion, resistance, resilience, and resurrection. It is a vivid microcosm for social, political, economic and legal choices, mistakes and consequences. This is the record of the attempts to subdue, transform and assimilate the Chiricahua Apache. But, first, we will trace generally the nature and course of the American Indian assimilation movement.

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American Indian Law Review





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