Geronimo placed his birth date in June, 1829, but is seems he was born a few years earlier. To his birth place Geronimo gave the Apache name of No-doyon Canyon and located it near the head waters of the Gila River in what is now southeastern Arizona, then a part of Mexico. There are some discrepancies about this, but Apaches regard their birthplace with special attachment which leads us to believe that Geronimo was not mistaken. One can only say that Goyahkla was born in the early 1820's near the upper Gila in the mountains crossed by the present state boundary, probably on the Arizona side near the present day Clifton.
Goyahkla's Father was Taklishim - "The Gray One", the son of Chief Mahko of the Be-don-ko-he Apache tribe. His Mother, although a full-blood Apache, had the Spanish name, Juana. Geronimo said he had three brothers and four sisters, but as far as is known only one of these was an actual sister, all the others being cousins. There was no word in the Apache language to distinguish cousins from siblings. All seven of these "brothers" and "sisters" of Goyahkla can be traced, and among his "nephews", who in their turn were sometimes called his "brothers", were his most trusted warriors. Throughout his life his family ties were very close.
Goyahkla never saw his Grandfather, Mahko, who died when Taklishim was a young warrior. Chief Mahko had two wives. The principal one was the mother of five of his six children who grew to adulthood. One of these was Taklishim and another was a daughter whose daughter, Nah-thle-tla, became the Mother of Jason Betzinez. Chief Mahko's other wife had one daughter, the mother of a notable woman named Ishton, the mother of Asa Daklugie.
The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Chief Mahko were taught to revere his memory. Goyahkla grew up listening to his Father's tales of the Chief's great size, strength, and sagacity, and of his wars with the Mexicans, at that time under Spanish rule. Betzinez described another aspect of Mahko's life. He was peace loving and generous, raising much corn and owning many horses, which he traded with the Mexican's, and storing corn and dried beef and venison in caves, which he shared with the needy of his tribe.
It is impossible to untangle completely the tribal divisions of the Apaches with whom the Bedonkohes were associated. Ethnologists have evaded the problem by classifying them all as Chiricahua and this generalization has often been used in official records. But to Goyahkla's people the Bedonkohe tribe was a well-defined unit, though apparently there was no successor to Mahko. Its members always kept their tribal affiliation distinct but made temporary connections with related tribes and intermarried freely with them so that only around ten full-blooded Bedonkohes were living when Geronimo dictated his memoirs in 1905.
At his birth he was given the name Goyahkla, meaning "One Who Yawns", some aged Fort Sill Apaches suggest a name slightly different in pronunciation, with the meaning "intelligent, shrewd, clever." Perhaps this is why the name Gothalay is seen referring to him. It is said that he got the name Geronimo during battle with the Mexicans. Each time he emerged, the Mexicans began to cry out in terror, "Cuidado! Watch out! Geronimo!" Perhaps this was as close as they could come to the choking sounds that composed his name, or perhaps they were calling on Saint Jerome. The Apaches took it up as their battle cry, and Goyahkla became Geronimo.
As a baby, Goyahkla's parents would have employed a medicine man to fashion his tsoch with prayers and ritual, placing amulets on it to guard him against early death. When he was four days old, he would have been placed in it with much ceremony in the presence of relative and neighbors, after which all participated in a feast. The Apache child did not actually stay in his cradle until his neck became strong enough to support his head when he was a month or more old. Then he spent most of his time there until he became old enough to crawl around the camp. When they started walking came the ceremony of putting on his first moccasins, again with a medicine man in charge, which was celebrated by songs, prayers, and dancing and feasting for relatives and friends. In the spring following this moccasin ritual, came the ceremonial cutting of his hair. All this Goyahkla inherited as the child of a people who cherished their children.
He also inherited Apache traditions. His Father related exploits of war and hunting and events of recent history. His Mother told him the origin myths of his people. She taught him to pray to Usen, a Supreme Being often called "Life Giver". She told him the legends and exploits of supernatural beings, especially of "White Painted Woman" and "Child of the Water", all connected with the emergence of the Apaches as sentient persons, and of the beneficent Mountain spirits, who lived in hidden caverns and whose ceremonials and customs the Apaches duplicated.
Goyahkla grew up in a time of peace, a condition rare in apache history. In this undisturbed security he played with the other children, imitating adult occupations, engaging in war games, hiding among the rocks and pines, making toys with great ingenuity or using those made by their parents, and hunting wild fruit and nuts. He helped care for the horses, practiced much with the bow and arrow, and learned to make weapons and tools. He was subjected to rigorous physical training, rising before sunrise and bathing in the creek even when ice had formed on the surface. He was required to race up the side of the mountain carrying water in his mouth and made to spit it out on his return to show that he had breathed properly through the nose. He shot small game as soon as he could handle his weapons. By the time he was fourteen he hunted with the men. He was systematically trained for war, shooting, dodging, hiding, tracking, learning to map the terrain and find his way back to camp.
There were many contests in which these skills were used - arrow shooting, racing, wrestling - and there were also games of chance. There were other games with complex rules in which teams played against each other. The most important game was the hoop-and-pole game. This game was sacred, having been handed down from the animals before the emergence of the human race. The hoop and poles were prepared with great ceremony, and only men could play; women were not even permitted to come near the grounds. All these games, whether of skill or chance, were accompanied by excited betting, for the Apaches were inveterate gamblers.
There was also much time spent in feasting and dancing. Some of these social gatherings were connected with a ceremonial or religious observance. Geronimo was always glad when dances and the feasts were announced, he remembers. Men and women danced as partners in these social dances, which furnished some discreet courting opportunities in a society where the girls were closely supervised in their relations. Goyahkla did not refer to the fierce intensity of the war dance. Apparently he had few such experiences in his sheltered youth.
As soon as Goyahkla and his "brothers" and "sisters" were old enough, they helped their parents in the fields. In his tribe both men and women joined in the work. Each family had its own plot - his family had about two acres - in an extensive field in a valley. They brook the ground with crude wooden implements and planted their crops, the corn in rows, the beans among the corn, and the pumpkins in irregular order over the plot. They cultivated them as needed, and the whole group shared the burden of protecting the field against their ponies and the deer and other wild animals. In the autumn they gathered the pumpkins and beans in the large woven baskets made by the women, tied the ears of corn together by the husks, and carried the harvest on the backs of their ponies to their dwellings, where the corn was shelled. Then the entire store was placed in the caves found in their mountains. They laid down a layer of rock and oak branches on the cave floor, put the containers with food on top of that, and closed the entrance with rocks sealed with mud.
When Goyahkla was still a young boy, a party of Nednai Apaches who had relatives in the band come up from Mexico to visit them. Among them was a youth named Juh. (The explosive Apache syllable is pronounced more nearly like Ho or Who, and it is often spelled Whoa or Hoo.) When the Bedonkohe girls went into the woods to gather acorns, he with some followers, would wait until they had completed their task and then snatch their fulled baskets. Among the victims was Goyahkla favorite "sister", his cousin Ishton. Goyahkla's Mother did not make allowances for this "teasing" by a young admirer and told Goyahkla and some of his friends to waylay Juh and his companions and give them a good whipping. Knowing Apache obedience to elders, one can be sure that the matriarch's orders were carried out. Later, after Juh had grown up and established himself as a war leader among the Nednais, he returned and married Ishton. Following Apache custom, he became a member of her family, and he and Goyahkla formed a friendship that was to endure throughout their lives. Customs varied, and after living for some time among the Bedonkohes, Juh took his wife and went back to join his people in the Sierra Madre.
While not yet grownup, Goyahkla's Father, Taklishim, died following a long illness. As was the custom, the relative and friends dressed him in his best clothes, painted his face, wrapped a rich blanket around him, placed him on his favorite horse, loaded up all his belongings, and with crying and wailing bore him to a cave in the mountain. There they placed the body on the floor, with his possessions beside him, and sealed the entrance with rocks coated with mud so that it would be hidden. Only the close friends who performed an Apache burial knew the location, and they avoided the place thereafter. Even the name of the deceased was not spoken. Though strangely enough this taboo did not apply to Spanish nicknames.
Juana never remarried after Taklishim's death, and young Goyahkla assumed her support. By this time his sister, Nah-dos-te, had married a prominent Warm Springs leader named Nana, who was to figure largely in Apache history. In their grief and loneliness Juana and Goyahkla decided to visit Juh and Ishton and other relatives among the Nednais. It was a difficult journey, for they were unfamiliar with the terrain and the location of the water holes. More baffling was the absence of trails or any sign of camps and places where horses had been tethered. They were soon to understand that these wild Indians had learned to obliterate their tracks, conceal their camps, and keep their horses at a distance. They finally reached Juh's stronghold in the Sierra Madre and were warmly welcomed by his people.
Up to this time Goyahkla had not experienced the hostility between the Apaches and the Mexicans, but he had certainly been told of it. It went far back in southwestern history. The Spanish conquistadores, who had reduced the settled Indians to vassalage, had sent out slave-catching expeditions against the ranging Apaches. The Apaches retaliated, and the Spaniards incited the other tribes against them. These facts, as revealed in Spanish archives, have been presented by Jack D. Forbes in Apache, Navaho, and Spaniard.When the Comanches arrived in the Southwest, the Spaniards enlisted them also. Thus, the Apaches were driven into the mountains, and raiding the settled communities became a way of life for them, an economic enterprise as legitimate in their culture as gathering berries or hunting deer: and first the Spanish, and then, after achieving independence, the Mexican governments responded by systematic attempts to exterminate them by paying bounties for their scalps. This pattern had existed so long that even historians believed that the Apaches had always been a predatory race.
When Goyahkla reached his majority, perhaps his greatest joy was the privilege of marrying a slender, delicate girl of the Nednai tribe named Alope. The two had been in love for a long time. In spite of the barriers that Apache custom interposed, youths of the opposite sex were aware of each other's preferences, and their feelings were usually considered in the marriage arrangements made by their families. The proper formality was for the parents or other representatives of the young man to call on the parents of the girl to make the agreement and the economic settlement while he waited outside the lodge and she sat sedately within behind her mother, with neither permitted to speak. However, Goyahkla made his own arrangements. By his account, "as soon as the council granted me my privileges (of manhood) I went to see Alope's father concerning our marriage." He asked "many ponies for her. I made no reply, but in a few days appeared before his lodge with the herd of ponies and took with me Alope. This was all the marriage ceremony necessary in our tribe." Soon he left the Nednais to returned with his wife and mother to his native mountains to establish a home with his Bedonkohe kindred. As he described his domestic arrangements: "Not far from my mother's tepee I made for us a new home. The tepee was made of buffalo hides and in it were many bear robes, cougar hides, and other trophies of the chase, as well as my spears, bows, and arrows. Alope had made many decorations of beads and drawn work on buckskin, which she placed in our tepee. She also drew many pictures on the walls of our home. She was a good wife, but she was never strong. We followed the traditions of our fathers and were happy. Three children came to us, children that played, loitered, and worked as I had done."
The summer of 1850, the Bedonkohe, under the leadership of their great Chief Mangas Coloradas, started on a peaceful trading trip to Casas Grandes. On the way they stopped at a town they knew as Kas-ki-yeh. Since it was a peaceful expedition they had taken their women and children along. They made their camp just outside the town, and everyday the men went in to trade, leaving their families, horses, weapons, and supplies in camp under a small guard. But in spite of the supposed good will of the Mexicans, they took the precaution of deciding on a place of rendezvous in a thicket by the river that passed the town.
Late one afternoon, as the men were returning to camp, they were met by a few distraught women and children with the news that "Mexican troops from some other town" had killed the guard, captured the ponies and supplies, and massacred many of their people. At this news they all quickly scattered, fading into the landscape in the Apache way. Then at nightfall they began to gather at the appointed meeting place. As Geronimo told it:
"Silently we stole in one by one: sentinels were placed, and, when all were counted, I found that my aged mother, my young wife, and my three small children were among the slain. There were no lights in camp, so without being noticed I silently turned away and stood by the river. How long I stood there I do not know, but when I saw the warriors arranging for a council I took my place. Since we were surrounded by Mexicans far inside their own territory, we could not hope to fight successfully. So our chief, Mangas Coloradas gave the order to start at once in perfect silence for our homes, leaving the dead upon the field. I stood until all had passed, hardly knowing what I would do....I did not pray, nor did I resolve to do anything in particular, for I had no purpose left. I finally followed the tribe silently, keeping just within hearing distance of the soft noise of the feet of the retreating Apaches.
O, ha le....O, ha le!
Shichl hadahiyago niniya
O, ha le....O, ha le
Tsago degi naleya
Ah--yu whi ye!
O, ha le....O, ha le!
O, ha le....O, ha le!
Through the air....I fly upon the air
Towards the sky, far, far, far.
O, ha le....O, ha le!
There to find the holy place,
Ah, now the change comes o're me!
O, ha le....O, ha le!