- “Is Mise Geronimo”:North American Indians in Twentieth-century Irish-language Prose
William M. Clements’s recent Imagining Geronimo: An Apache Icon in Popular Culture (2013) attests to the enduring presence in print and in visual media of the Native American leader Geronimo, who has been cast overwhelmingly as a heroic figure of resistance.1 What Clements calls “the Canonization of Geronimo”—indeed, the branding of Geronimo as icon—started during Geronimo’s own lifetime, especially his final fifteen years spent as a prisoner of the United States government at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, from 1894 to 1909.2 Undoubtedly, the belief that American Indians would quickly vanish or be assimilated led many people in the United States to have a benign or romantic view of their country’s recent bloody past. Equally, the publication of Geronimo: His Own Story, in 1906, based on a series of interviews by S. M. Barrett, garnered widespread attention.3
The cult of Geronimo is a global one and has an Irish-language manifestation: An Tíogar Daonna (1966), the fictional memoirs of Geronimo, by Annraoi Ó Liatháin, one of the leading writers and language activists of the time. Ó Liatháin’s novel invites us to compare and contrast his representation of the Native leader with Geronimo: His Own Story. But An Tíogar Daonna is also a useful starting point to examine how Irish-language writers have portrayed [End Page 14] North American indigenous peoples. Its publication marked the completion of a transformation in the portrayal of Native Americans in Irish-language literature, which changes from a negative treatment in novels from the first decades of the twentieth century to an increasingly sympathetic portrayal by the 1950s. Tellingly, this development predated not just the founding of the American Indian Movement in 1968 and the publication of Dee Brown’s popular and influential Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970)—occasions that focused international attention on Native Americans—but also predated postcolonial readings of history that, from the 1970s onward, have encouraged Irish people to explore the similarities between Ireland’s experiences as a colony and those of the indigenous peoples in the New World.4
Many ingredients contribute to outsiders’ attitudes toward North American Natives. These include Hollywood’s role in creating and perpetuating images of “Indianness” and, from a specifically Irish perspective, the longstanding and ongoing discourse about identification of Irishness with Indianness from Elizabethan colonial times to our own postcolonial era, as well as the lively ideological debate about the Irish, at home and abroad, as victims of colonization or as enthusiastic participants in—and as net beneficiaries of—empire-building projects.5 Certainly, the portrayal of North American Natives in a range of material [End Page 15] in Irish from the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated that that generation of Irish-language writers had started to question conventional images of Indianness and, occasionally, to link together the respective colonial experiences of the Irish and Native Americans. However, Ó Liatháin’s An Tíogar Daonna provides evidence that the shattering of one set of stereotypes and empathy with another people did not preclude the propagation of other stereotypes.
Just as the history of the Irish language in North America is incomplete, the story of Irish speakers’ encounters with Native Americans as soldiers, as settlers, and as missionaries, is full of gaps.6 Instead, we tend to depend on occasional references to demonstrate an ongoing connection—for instance, Douglas Hyde’s efforts to collect and publish folklore from the Maliseet Indians in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1890–1891.7 Material in Irish about North American Indians begins with unpublished poems and tales by the Limerick man, Eoin Ó Cathail (1839–1928), who emigrated to the United States in the 1860s.8 If Ó Cathail is to be believed, while serving in the army in Indian territory in the years after the American [End Page 16] Civil War, he participated in numerous hair-raising adventures among the Natives, which include allegedly being captured three times by Indian warriors and threatened with violent death, only to be released.9 In reality, Ó Cathail’s writing contains only the slightest verifiable autobiographical content. His verse is an...