Boomer Opinion: Broken arrows, forked tongues

We hear a lot about the impact of the coronavirus crisis (and the Trump Administration in general) on our big cities and, to a lesser degree, on rural America. But how much have you read about what it all means on American Indian reservations? From his home in Tucson, Arizona, longtime journalist Mort Rosenblum— who covered global stories for The Associated Press, then served as editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris— writes a Boomer Opinion piece (abridged from his own MortReport) called, “Broken Arrows, Forked Tongues.”

Coronavirus has hit Indian reservations hard, as flu did in 1918. Diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and asthma are rife. All markers for the virus. Health care is limited. “This could be like a wildfire,” Kevin Allis of the National Congress of American Indians told the Washington Post. “We could all get wiped out.”

What an incalculable loss that would be.

Up here at Cochise Stronghold in southeastern Arizona, where an Apache chief and an Army general once made peace meant to last, stirring views overlook a diminished America, a money-talks nation in the grip of newcomers who believe it belongs only to them.

Before the road narrows and climbs to forests and rocky peaks, I saw a sign on a shabby ranch house fence: “TRUMP — Keep America First.” In today’s lingo, that means send intruders back where they came from. Fair enough. Adios, dude.

My t-shirt had a different message. Along with a sepia tone photo of four carbine-wielding warriors in deerskin boots framed by an outline map of Arizona, it read in old-timey letters: “Homeland Security, Fighting Terrorism since 1492.”

Mort atop the sky-island of the Chiricahua Apache.

Apaches and other tribes have been around for nearly a millennium. Spanish missionaries came in the 1500s. This was Mexico until 1853. Arizona has been a state only since 1912. We “white eyes” outsiders are the “aliens.”

Today, crisp piney air evokes Cochise’s time when cellphones were no-G smoke signals, tweets were for the birds and “fox” referred to a shifty carnivore that eagles ate for lunch. Land deeds were inconceivable. But not only snakes had forked tongues.

That 1871 treaty with the general soon fell apart as people moved West. Ranchers and settlers wanted land. After a renegade band killed a corrupt whiskey seller, the U.S. Cavalry mounted up. Blood spilled again for 15 more years.

I learned the history when I camped here as a kid. Since then, I’ve watched hubris, greed and stupidity too often misguide American foreign policy. Small incidents trigger big conflicts. At home and abroad, this is far worse than I’ve ever seen.

Arizona, once blue then red, is as politically purple as its majestic mountains. And it is a crucible of two heated issues as Trump tries to shape America in his own image: who belongs; and who holds title to natural splendor, scarce water, and mineral wealth.

On a break from isolation to avoid the killer virus Donald Trump allowed to run wilder than it had to, I took a slow ride through Indian country and ranchland I knew in the 1960s.

Cochise, like Geronimo who fought to the bitter end, was a Chiricahua Apache from sky-island mountains nearby, spectacular rock formations that loom 6,000 feet above high desert, with 375 species of birds. Deer and black bear remain, but jaguars are gone.

Chiricahua National Monument in southeast Arizona.

Driving up the Chiricahuas, the only Indians I saw were two motorcycles made in Iowa, along with two Harley-Davidsons, all kitted out in Hells Angels fashion. Their riders were mild-mannered couples on holiday. We talked pleasantly until I mentioned Trump’s inaction on the virus. All four eyed me narrowly and roared away.

At Cochise Stronghold, U.S. Forest Service posters implore visitors not to disturb relics and remains. It is illegal, they say, but also vital so that future generations know what came before them. Yet a forked-tongue president plunders the West outrageously.

To the southwest, bulldozers plow up Tohono O’odham burial grounds and ceremonial sites at Organ Pipe National Monument to build a barrier with no practical purpose beyond firing up Trump’s base. It devastates wildlife habitats and fragile desert ecology.

New regulators enable miners to gouge out natural beauty on public land. A federal judge has blocked the $1.9-billion Rosemont copper mine on sacred ground near Tucson that would send its profits to Canada. But Trump is rapidly packing appellate courts.

The grim reality of “manifest destiny,” as America pushed west against all obstacles, natural or human, helps answer that hoary question about the wider world: why do they hate us?

That is ancient history for people who follow their leader in any direction his lies direct them. For them, birthright and tradition count for little. Money and guns prevail. America is first, and nothing else matters.

Land titles, obviously, are now essential. Too many people share limited space, and parents pass on property to their kids. But no one really owns land that has been here for millions of years and will be here when we go.

To Indians, breaking an arrow meant peace. But in a superpower that arms to the teeth and wages needless war, “broken arrow” is now a term for a nuclear weapon gone astray or triggered by accident with devastating result. Something has gone wrong.

Photos of Chiricahua National Monument by David Henderson.


  1. Gosh. Can’t someone write a story on this site without injecting their personal politics? You might have made 4 new friends, had you not brought politics into the conversation.

    Take that history lesson back before the white man. Some of their Native American ancestors lived peaceably. Many lived by raiding and killing their neighboring tribes. That’s why the cliff dwellers built where they did, with ladders for access that could be pulled up for protection against raiders. The Pueblo people built with “a lack of doors on the ground level, requiring entry from the roof top reached by ladders that were withdrawn in times of danger.” [New World Encyclopedia] The danger wasn’t from white men or Spanish conquistadores at that point in their lives; they were already building that way for defense when they encountered the Spanish in the 1500s. The oldest pueblos are dated at about 1000 years old, so well before the Spanish from Mexico or Columbus setting foot on this continent.

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