After Geronimo was captured for the last time in 1885 he was imprisoned in Florida. To exploit his fame, he was occasionally loaned out by the federal government as a prop for parades and exhibitions, sometimes being promoted as a scary savage, sometimes being shown to have become all civilized and shit. But the central message was the same: We white people had broken and tamed the Indians. We are in control.
This photo of Geronimo in a top hat at the wheel of a car was one of those setups. Although the car is a Locomobile, the photo has come to be called “Geronimo’s Cadillac.” The picture is somewhat infamous, but I had been completely unaware of it and Geronimo’s life in captivity until I visited my friends Hawk and Sky at their summer camp in the Coyote Howls RV park. They’ve leased the same spot for several years and decorated it with all sorts of things gathered from the surrounding desert. As their chosen noms de guerre reflect, Hawk and Sky revere nature and indigenous culture.
It’s not known how Geronimo felt about being exhibited like a trained animal. Some accounts say he was cooperative, but was it because he was merely submitting to those who controlled his life? Was it a break from imprisonment? His thoughts were never recorded because, well, the red man’s opinions didn’t matter, right?
After seeing the photo, singer-songwriter Michael Martin Murphey wrote and recorded “Geronimo’s Cadillac.” The song expresses sadness about the way Native people were mistreated by the government. It paints a picture of Geronimo driving across the desert, the wind in his hair and sun on his skin, a free spirit, living on his own terms, the Caddy a symbol of his refusal to be tamed. The song had become an anthem of Native resistance and pride.
Here’s Hoty Axton’s cover of the song.