Mexicans Recall Last Apaches Living In Sierra

NUEVO CASAS GRANDES, Mexico - Guillermo Damiani Bassi's eyes are as clouded as antique glass. But his memory is still sharp enough to jab his conscience, to make him wince when he recalls the day they dragged la nina bronca - the wild girl - into town.

She was only 12 or 13, Damiani said, and the cowboys who found her wandering almost naked in the nearby Tasahuinora Mountains had dressed her in baggy men's clothing. She wouldn't eat. She wouldn't talk. She never looked into her captors' eyes. Instead, she lay balled up in a corner of the local jail, her back turned to a growing throng of curiosity seekers.

"It was a sad thing," said Damiani, 82, a retired theater owner in this raw cowtown in the foothills of the Sierra Madre. "People were selling food outside. It was terrible, like a circus."

If what Damiani and his amazed neighbors saw on that hot summer day seemed like a cheap sideshow, it was actually something far sadder and more inexplicable - a ghost from a vanished frontier. The girl was a hostile Apache. And the year - 1933 - was nearly a half-century after Geronimo, the tribe's last war chief, had surrendered to U.S. forces in the desert of neighboring Arizona.

"We grew up with rumors that Apaches still were hiding up in the Sierra," Damiani said wistfully. "So what do we do when we actually find one? We treat her like an animal."

Footnote to bitter history

The tale of the world's last free-roaming Apaches is an obscure and convoluted one, a footnote in the bitter history of Native American resistance that is largely ignored by U.S. chroniclers of the Western frontier.

According to most history books, Apache autonomy ended forever in 1886 after Geronimo and his band turned over their guns to the 5,000 U.S. troops - fully a quarter of the U.S. Army - who were hounding them.

But here in the hardscrabble towns and villages near the Sonora-Chihuahua border, where the roads often peter out into horse trails and adobes give way to log cabins, they tell a different story.

Old men and women tending cast-iron stoves or watching soap operas on battery-rigged televisions recall how the Apaches stole their cattle well into this century. They remember stories of kidnapped children and brutal family vendettas against the Indians. And they tell how a small, holdout band of Geronimo's followers traded deadly gunfire with posses while the rest of the world grappled with the more modern ills of the Great Depression.

"The trouble is, these people are dying and the accounts are getting confused," said Francisco Zozaya, the town historian in Bavispe, Sonora, where sections of the surrounding mountains were considered a no-man's land as late as the 1920s due to Apache attacks. "We're like the American West was in 1930. We're losing the living memory of these things."

This much of the story, though, hasn't faded.

Part of a vast raiding territory that spanned the American Southwest and northern Mexico, the lumpy mesas and fractured canyons of the Sierra Madre had been a favorite Apache stronghold long before the existence of the U.S.-Mexico border. It was to the Sierra that raiding parties often fled when chased by the U.S. Calvary. And it was one of the world's first "hot pursuit" treaties, signed by the United States and Mexico in 1882, that became the noose that choked off the last resistance.

Yet a few Apaches slipped it.

Band opted for chances in Mexico

According to Douglas Meed, a border historian and author in El Paso, Texas, between 25 and 100 tribal stragglers - most from Arizona's Chiricahua band - opted to take their chances in Mexico rather than face life on a U.S. reservation.

In 1930, the tiny band of Indians made international headlines when a Mexican rancher named Francisco Fimbres started recruiting American gunslingers to wipe them out, Meed said.

Fimbres, a ruthless latter-day Indian fighter, was motivated by vengeance: Apaches had stormed his Sonora ranch in 1926, killing his wife and kidnapping his infant son.

The Mexican government, more alarmed by the prospect of armed gringos overrunning its northern frontier than by hazy reports of renegade Apaches, squelched the gung-ho crusade before it began. Worried about casualties, U.S. diplomats heaved a sigh of relief.

"They wouldn't have caught a single Indian anyway," said Pedro Fimbres, a nephew of Francisco Fimbres who has converted his house in the village of Colonia Juarez into a makeshift family museum. Enshrined under glass, his prize exhibit is a blurry 1931 Arizona Daily Star photo showing his now-deceased uncle holding up a fistful of Apache scalps.

"The Apaches moved every day - stealing a horse here, gathering pine nuts there, killing a cowboy over there," said Fimbres, a grizzled saddle-maker. "The Americans would have been running in circles for months."

Still, the once-wide horizons of the Sierra were relentlessly closing in.

Despite their dazzling ability to cover 70 miles a day over exhausting terrain, the fugitive Chiricahuas were being slowly picked off by ranchers armed and deputized by the Mexican government. Gunfights often forced the harried Indians to abandon their food caches of acorns and rustled beef. And, as with the long-vanished American frontier, commerce eventually sealed their fate.

"When logging took off in the Sierra, it was all over," said Mexican Apache buff Zozaya. "The Sierra was all cut up by new roads, new sawmills, new settlements. There was no place left to hide."

By 1934, Grenville Goodwin, an American anthropologist who had heard about the holdouts while living among their cousins on Arizona reservations, estimated that no more than 30 Apaches were "fighting a losing battle in Mexico and it seems only a question of time till they will be exterminated." Goodwin tried - as did several U.S. government Indian agents at the time - to make contact with the tribe across the border. He failed.

The Sierra's beleaguered Apaches certainly left no records of their own. Though some Indians doubtless gave up and were absorbed into local Mexican populations, most sources agree that far more were hunted down and shot.

At the time, Geronimo was long dead, a prisoner of war buried in Oklahoma.

In the shootout in the Sierra Madre, a posse of ranchers cut down about two dozen Indians, historians say.

"Most of the dead were women, even the warriors," said Fimbres, whose father and vengeful uncle were among the combatants. "The men had already been thinned out."

Fimbres and others describe how one of the few Apache survivors of that bloodbath fled into the mountain undergrowth, only to be nabbed weeks later by cowboys out hunting mountain lion. Zozaya believes she was dubbed "Julia Tasahuinora" for the summer month when she was captured and the craggy peaks where she was found. Others, like Guillermo Damiani, remember her simply as "the wild girl."

"She died in the jail," Damiani said, waving a hand in disgust. "It took a few days. She starved herself to death."

She was the last documented Apache captured in the Sierra Madre.