The United States has an abysmal record of abandonment and betrayal of indigenous auxiliaries — men who helped us fight the wars of empire and were rewarded with a fistful of ashes.
During the Vietnam War, U.S. Army Special Forces worked and fought with Montagnard tribesmen in the Highlands, creating a highly-effective anti-communist force. And when the war went bad, we abandoned them to repression and expropriation.
Right now, there are Afghan translators and fixers who have been abandoned in their homeland after working loyally for the Americans — and marked for death by a resurgent Taliban.
If they’d been able to talk to the Apache scout Massai, they might have thought twice about serving the Americans.
Massai was a warrior of the Mimbreño Chihenne branch of the Chiricahua Apache people, whose homeland was the Black Range of New Mexico. He was known to his people as a restless spirit. He wasn’t inclined to go along with either the bronco Apaches or the U.S. Army if their interests crossed his.
In 1882, he was serving as a scout when Geronimo and Juh stormed up from Mexico and raided the San Carlos Agency reservation, forcing the Mimbreño chief Loco and his people at gunpoint to join them on the run back into the Sierra Madre. Massai’s wife and children were among Loco’s kidnapped people. When he returned from New Mexico to San Carlos, he was discharged and plunged into the Sierra Madre after them.
A young Apache who would later be known as Jason Betzinez, author of “I Fought With Geronimo,” recalled Massai’s brief sojourn in the Nedhni war leader Juh’s stronghold at Guayopa, deep in the Sierra Madre.
“He was one of those restive individuals who could not stay long in one place. Furthermore, he seemed to have a distaste for the rest of us, possibly because we were outlaws. So with his family he stole my horse and headed for San Carlos.”
Over the next couple of years, Massai earned a reputation as a highly capable and reliable scout. Not that that did him any good when Geronimo surrendered for the last time on September 4, 1886, and the Apache Wars officially came to an end. The word came down from Washington that not only Geronimo and Naiche’s bronco Chiricahuas must be sent into exile in Florida — the Chiricahua scouts must be sent, too.
Massai attempted to rouse his fellow scouts into an uprising, but they were too stunned and demoralized to act. With Massai among them, they were loaded on a train and sent east. Massai never made it. The prisoner jumped the train, possibly as far east as Missouri, and made it back to New Mexico, traveling at night and stealing food for sustenance. Apache oral tradition says that he made the trek with Gray Lizard, a Tonkawa friend who had been raised among the Apaches. Gray Lizard parted company with Massai in New Mexico, knowing that he would not be sought by the American authorities — and that they would never stop hunting Massai. The lone Apache warrior disappeared into the mountains of Apacheria — and into legend.
The Apache warrior was not always a lone wolf. We know that he rode with Adelnietze and escaped the firefight in which that bold renegade met his death. And he is believed to have ridden at times with the other legendary Apache outlaw, the Apache Kid. But mostly he was on his own — with a craving for female company.
Massai left a wife and children behind on the train, headed into exile in hot, humid Florida. He must have missed them, the Apache being deeply committed to family. But he did not pine away. Moving into Arizona, he raided Fort Apache and the San Carlos Agency for food and other supplies — and women. Dark tales spoke of murder; when he tired of the women, he killed them.
In one incident famously recounted by artist Frederick Remington, who was embedded with U.S. Cavalry troops at this time, Massai killed an Apache mother near Fort Apache, and kidnapped her daughter. The famous scout Mickey Free took his trail, which wound through the rugged Arizona mountains, but he was never able to run the lobo Apache down. Several months later, the Apache girl named Natastale returned to Fort Apache with a horse loaded down with buckskins and a tale to tell.
In the company of Massai she had ventured into the Sierra Madre, where they hid out and lived by the proceeds of Massai’s solo raids. Occasionally the warrior fell into a dark, brooding mood and contemplated killing her, but her usefulness and a well-pleaded case kept her alive until Massai decided to simply send her home. He told her to tell the Americans “that she was a pretty good girl, better than the San Carlos woman (his first wife?) and that he would come again and get another.”
Massai’s next woman would prove to be a life partner. He found her to the east, in Mescalero Apache country, where he espied her bathing and accosted her. Zanagoliche would stay with Massai till the end, bearing him six children while living on the run in New Mexico, Arizona and Northern Mexico.
Their daughter, Alberta Begay, recounted their fugitive life in Eve Ball’s magnificent Indeh: An Apache Odyssey. Massai hunted with self-made bow and arrows, saving rifle cartridges for combat, which he generally sought to avoid. Zanagoliche and Alberta claimed that Massai only killed to protect his family, and from their perspective that is undoubtedly true. But it seems abundantly clear that he was an opportunistic killer who did not hesitate to shed blood in his ghostly raids on both sides of the border.
Massai’s two-decade run with a young family in tow is an American epic of survival. He evaded not only U.S. troops but White Mountain Apache scouts and posses of cowboys and Mexican vaqueros in an ever-shrinking world. His fieldcraft must have been of a very high order, even for an Apache, and his mental fortitude served him well in an environment where making a mistake would mean death.
The end came in 1906 when he stole horses from a group of New Mexico cowboys. They trailed the stolen horses and ambushed the renegade. Massai was shot down and the cowboys cut off his head and burned his body in great bonfire. After the cowboys left the gruesome scene of their triumph, Zanagoliche crept down to the smoldering embers and stirred them with a long stick. She collected every shard of bone and fragment and set them aside for burial. And she found the buckle of her man’s ammunition belt.
With no other options, Zanagoliche eventually brought her children to the Mescalero Agency. There, generation after generation, a belt buckle is passed down — the only trace of an elusive, highly-skilled Apache Frontier Partisan.
Frontier novelist Paul I. Wellman told the tale of Massai in his remarkable 1936 novel Broncho Apache. That novel inspired the 1954 movie Apache starring Burt Lancaster as Massai. It was one of Hollywood’s first “pro-Indian” movies. I loved the movie as a kid. It deserves a remake — with native actors.
Information for this post comes from Paul A. Hutton’s magnificent The Apache Wars; Edwin R. Sweeney’s From Cochise to Geronimo; and Eve Ball’s Indeh: An Apache Odyssey.