The Only One Living to Tell: The Autobiography of a Yavapai Indian is a wonderfully atypical autobiography. Providing relatively few details about the narrator's life, the text instead interweaves brief, biographical vignettes into moments that speak broadly to the subjugation of the western states. The editor, Gregory McNamee, comments on the significance of this approach early on, noting in the prologue that, "Mike Burns documents, on a personal scale, a record of broken promises that, on the larger scale, so sharply characterizes the history of Indian-white relations across time" (x). McNamee could be even bolder in linking Burns with the narrative of western domination, for his life wholly embodies the struggles with race, conquest, and development that have marked western expansion. The boy Hoomothya, who grew to be the man Mike Burns, was orphaned after an alliance of American soldiers and Indian scouts attacked his kinfolk in what came to be known as the Skeleton Cave Massacre. Hoomothya became the ward of Captain James Burns and later of Captain Hall S. Bishop. This change of guardianship paralleled a change in identity as Hoomothya the Indian, became Mike Burns the Indian Scout.
Commentaries on violence surface consistently throughout the book, creating a structure that speaks poignantly to the tensions that shaped the Indian Wars of the 1870s. The discourse on violence is so deeply rooted that, in some ways, this becomes a history not of Mike Burns but of violence itself. From the biracial man, Townsend, who stalked, scalped, and beheaded Indians to military attacks on Indian encampments that were populated only by children and elders, the atrocities that fill these pages are numerous and haunting. In the world as witnessed by Mike Burns, violence begot violence: Indian warriors could not kill the men who killed their wives so they targeted white families; white soldiers could not determine who stole domesticated animals so they tracked down Indian groups that were guilty of nothing more than choosing an unfortunate location to camp.
Despite the attention to violence, this is also a story of identity. A man out of place, Burns obviously struggled with the ramifications of his partial assimilation. [End Page 413] For example, he saw the Apache Indians as victims of machinations by other Indian groups; he argues on several occasions that white soldiers merely reacted to injustices falsely attributed to the Apaches; and, he even participates in battles against so-called hostile Indian nations. Yet, Burns also derided those Indians who betrayed their kinfolk, led soldiers to Indian encampments, and unmasked the terrain for white men who otherwise would have lacked familiarity with the watering holes and hidden trails that were the last resort of many indigenous groups. Burns never betrayed his people or manipulated alliances, but he was unquestionably involved in activities that, on some level, he despised, and the conflict that arose from that participation is evident.
The incidents that shook Hoomothya, created Mike Burns, and propelled Gregory McNamee have been encapsulated in what is an engaging book. Autobiographies can be myopic, divorcing the central figure from contextualizing events or drowning readers in a deluge of detail. This is no such book. The autobiography of Mike Burns is not without its flaws (the text, for example, is very detailed and occasionally repetitive, and the narrative does not always proceed in a cohesive manner). Still, those flaws are ultimately few in number and pale next to the contributions of this book, which enriches a story of western conquest that historians have only recently begun to engage.