November is National Native American Heritage Month, and in commemoration, we’re sharing an excerpt from the Introduction to The Apache Diaspora by Paul Conrad. In the book, Conrad brings to life the stories of displaced Apaches and the kin from whom they were separated. He charts Apaches’ efforts to survive or return home from places as far-flung as Cuba and Pennsylvania, Mexico City and Montreal.
A young man walked the grounds of a school counting graves. He had been sent to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1898 for an education, to be trained in welding, construction, and other industrial skills. As he passed through rows of gravestones, counting to 105 before he got “mixed up,” he learned other lessons. “Very few came back,” he observed.
Sam Kenoi was one who did, however. He slipped away one night on a westbound train and returned to his people. At this time, his Apache Indian relatives were U.S. prisoners of war and had been since the army rounded them up from their Arizona reservation in 1886 and shipped them into exile in Florida, Alabama, and then Oklahoma. Kenoi married and started a family. He settled on the Mescalero reservation in New Mexico after Apache POWs were finally freed in 1913 and given a choice of where to live. After his first wife died of pneumonia, he remarried and had more children. He organized his people in a bold effort to seek reparations for their twenty-seven-year internment.
Most lives are full of tragedy and triumph, and Kenoi’s was no exception. But his life was also particular, shaped by who he was as an Apache. Kenoi confronted challenges that his ancestors had faced for generations. How does one exist in a world that does not want you to exist as you are? How does one survive that which so many are not surviving? How does one start over in a foreign land or on land made foreign by colonialism? Kenoi responded to these questions creatively, pushed back on those who mistreated him, and lived boldly within the constraints of his circumstances.
Pulling back from Kenoi’s particular story, a broader portrait of Apache life and death across North America and the Caribbean comes into view. Apache men and women throw themselves into the Gulf of Mexico, desperate to escape the boat waiting to carry them overseas. A priest pens an entry in a leather-bound ledger near the Pacific coast of Sonora—another Apache girl buried after months of forced labor. Apache boys run errands for the governor of Quebec, and Apache women gather water for their masters at a neighborhood well in Mexico City. Apache men pull a pine tree out of the chimney of an old U.S. fort in Florida and apply mortar to Spanish fortifications in the port of Havana. An Apache servant and a black slave marry in a church in a Mexican mining town as a crowd of their friends looks on. Their children have children, who have children, their descendants still living across North America today. . . .
Attention to the frequency with which Apaches experienced forced dependence far from home as prisoners, slaves, or students helps explain Apaches’ drive for self-determination through mobility, diplomacy, and violence. The portrait of armed Apache men resisting empires that dominates popular and historical understandings cannot be understood without the other image, which reminds viewers of the Apache men, women, and children who strove to live out their lives in diaspora in unfamiliar lands as markets, empires, and nations sought to control them for their own ends. After all, in the era when these images were created, armed Apache men frequently traveled into Mexico precisely with the aim of recovering their displaced kin. . . .
Following people in motion across a broad chronology and geography challenges the bifurcated portraits of Native American and colonial histories. It is true, for example, that Apache groups retained political autonomy through much of the nineteenth century, but it also the case that this autonomy was connected to the forced dependence of thousands of men, women, and children captured and exploited by outsiders who pointed to their kin’s resistance to colonial rule as justification. It is true that the United States’ approach to Indigenous peoples often centered on the elimination of Natives, which differs from traditional colonialism’s emphasis on exploiting the colonized for their labor. Yet it is striking that Spain, Mexico, and the United States alike often exploited Apaches for their labor as a strategy of elimination, including putting them to especially dangerous tasks because they viewed them as expendable. . . . For more than three hundred years, enslavement, warfare, and forced migrations failed to bring a final solution to the supposed problem of Apache independence and mobility. Spain, Mexico, and the United States overestimated their own power and underestimated Apache resistance and creativity, though they significantly influenced Native societies—and their own societies—in the process.