Wild Justice: The People of Geronimo Vs. the United States

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9780806131337: Wild Justice: The People of Geronimo Vs. the United States

In the long, anguished history of the American Indian, the events comprising the resistance of the Chiricahua Apaches against European encroachment and their subsequent punishment at the hands of the United States were the most heroic, violent, expensive . . . and tragic. As settlers swarmed into the Southwest, the Apaches were forced oV their ancestral lands. Led by the infamous warrior Geronimo and outnumbered by five hundred to one, a small group of renegade Apaches waged a fierce rebellion against the U.S. Army for more than a year. Finally surrendering in 1886, Geronimo and the rest of the Chiricahuas--including those who didn't participate in the insurrection and even those who actively assisted the Army--were held as prisoners of war for twenty-three years in far-off Florida, Alabama, and, later, Oklahoma.

After World War II, Congress felt obliged to establish a forum specifically to hear and remedy the complaints of Indian tribes against the United States, and, in 1947, Harry S. Truman signed into law the Indian Claims Commission. Focusing on the unique claims of the Chiricahua Apaches, Wild Justice examines the personalities involved in and decisions made by this extraordinary tribunal--the first time any national government established a court to redress grievances of its native people--and the efforts made by hundreds of other tribes to gain restitution.

Jake Page, who has written extensively on the South-west Indians, and Michael Lieder, a legal scholar, bring to light this little-known saga in American history. The Chiricahua were represented by an unlikely pair of lawyers: Israel Weissbrodt, born to illiterate Jewish emigrants from Poland, educated at Columbia University, and trained by William O. Douglas; and David Cobb, a Mayflower descendant and Harvard graduate. When the government misdated the taking of the Apache lands and left an opening for legal wrangling, this odd couple pounced. The result was a $22 million settlement, forty times what the tribe had asked for--a spectacular sum in total, but, divided among several thousand Apaches, it proved slim atonement, and it was at best a bittersweet victory.

Rather than negotiating the Indian claims and considering present needs, the United States insisted on battling over ancient grievances in the inherently adversarial Anglo-American legal system, which was incapable of grasping the Indians' way of life. The very concept of land ownership was foreign to the Indians, but payment to the tribes for loss of acreage was all the legal system could muster in recompense for decades of injustice. The destruction of religion, tribal sovereignty, and whole cultures remained unaddressed, and these issues plague U.S./Indian affairs to this day.

If "our treatment of Indians reflects the rise and fall of our democratic faith,"  Wild Justice is the remarkable history of that failure and the unbridgeable legal and cultural chasm at its heart.

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Review:

This well-crafted history chronicles the lives and fortunes of the Chiricahua Apache, an Arizona warrior band removed from its lands in 1886 after Geronimo's famous uprising. Treated as prisoners of war, even though most were noncombatants, the Chiricahuas were forcibly moved to Florida and later to Oklahoma. They were then officially merged with the Mescalero Apache band and given a small reservation in New Mexico. Seemingly consigned to oblivion as a distinct people, the Chiricahua were restored in some measure in the late 1940s, when President Harry Truman ordered the creation of a commission to consider Native American claims to lost lands. After years of legal wrangling, in the late 1970s the federal government settled with the Chiricahuas, paying, the authors maintain, far less than the Indians deserved after decades of imposed hardship. Lieder and Page tell the story well, offering an important contribution to recent Native American history.

About the Author:

Michael Lieder has been a lawyer since graduating from Georgetown University Law Center in 1984. Now working in Washington, D.C., he has taught at the University of Toledo College of Law and published several articles in legal journals, including Analyses of American Indian Law.

Jake Page, a former editor of Smithsonian magazine, is a science writer and novelist whose fictional work includes The Stolen Gods, a Southwestern mystery concerning the theft of Indian religious artifacts. Called by The Denver Post "one of the Southwest's most distinguished authors," he has written numerous magazine articles on Indian affairs. With his wife, photographer Susanne Page, he wrote Hopi and Navajo, and is producing a forthcoming volume on American Indian mythology.

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Michael Lieder; Jake Page
Published by University of Oklahoma Press (1999)
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Michael Lieder, Jake Page
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