Ambushing Geronimo

An introduction to salvage anthropology.

By Samuel J. Redman

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Geronimo, 1904. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Frances Densmore hoped to stage an encounter with one of the most famous men alive. After a relentlessly cold winter up north in Red Wing, Minnesota, she boarded a slow-moving steam train rumbling south toward St. Louis in April 1904. Resolute and sharply dressed, she had arranged to ship a trunk filled with rare musical instruments to meet her at her destination.

Densmore, like many other Euro-Americans, believed that the traditional lifeways of indigenous people all over the world were doomed to vanish. Her passion was music, and she hoped to preserve something about indigenous people, specifically the American Indians who had fascinated her since childhood. Having heard that hundreds, if not thousands, of American Indians and other Native people were going to be at the world’s fair in St. Louis, she eagerly made her way to Missouri. Hundreds of acres in size and attracting nearly twenty million people, the fair was intended to dramatically celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. More than a thousand buildings had been constructed on the fairgrounds. At thirty-six years old, Densmore had little interest in attending the fair to see the colorful sights, the remarkable new technological innovations on display, or the crowded exhibitions contributed by foreign countries from around the globe.

As the train moved south, her thoughts instead drifted to the lecture she was to give at the fair about Native American music. Rarely one to let her mind wander, she sat on the train thinking about meeting Native people who she hoped might shed light for her on their threatened cultural traditions. Her time at the fair would be important, Densmore thought, maybe even the most important opportunity in her life. Her work was part of a much larger, multifaceted effort to record and preserve seemingly fleeting aspects of Native societies.

The fair would be filled with chances to meet people and to record music. More than anything, however, Densmore wanted to meet the famed Apache leader Geronimo. The meeting she envisioned would contribute to a critical effort to record or “salvage” cultural traditions, a phenomenon that writers later described as “salvage anthropology” or “salvage ethnography.” In one 1970 essay, anthropologist Jacob W. Gruber reflected on the ideas behind this troubled history: “The loss of the savage, so real to the anthropologist, pointed up his value. Salvage provided the opportunity for human contact and human contrast. Here savagery met civilization, the presumed past met the present, stability met change.” If change was to be the inevitable price of human progress, some thinkers wondered if this toll might be diminished by preserving elements of the threatened cultures on the road to extinction.

Once Densmore settled into her work at the fair in St. Louis, she believed she was having some success. She wrote down as best she could the songs that she heard performed by indigenous people of the Philippines, even having the chance to listen to the music lessons that elders at the fair were offering to the younger members of their party. Densmore felt tantalizingly close, however, to what she coveted the most. Geronimo mainly sat in the Indian Building at the fair, signing a few autographs on tinted cards here and there for ten cents each. Newspaper reporters, anthropologists, and other chroniclers all approached him regularly. Geronimo, from their perspective, became notoriously prickly in his habitual refusal to satisfy their constant requests and demands.

At seventy-five years old, Geronimo had more than enough reason to feel irritable. By this time in his life, he had witnessed family and friends slaughtered in ugly fighting across the American West. His mother, wife, and children had all been murdered. Deep in his memory were violent raids boldly led against enemy tribes and run-ins with the growing number of U.S. Army units assigned to track and capture his small band. Geronimo survived capture and imprisonment only to suffer ongoing exploitation as a showpiece in Wild West shows and at fairs to be gawked at by curious throngs in zoo-like conditions. One St. Louis newspaper described him as “broken in spirit.”

His legend had grown as people read versions (often greatly exaggerated ones) of his story over the previous thirty years leading up to this point. The same newspaper had described him, on the occasion of his arrival in the city for the fair, as “the celebrated Apache chief and warrior, who has a record for ferocity equal to that of any Indian who ever lived.” While Geronimo’s arrival was notable, newspapers readily embellished parts of the story to draw out the apparent symbolism. Native American individuals and their cultures were frequently cast as being in natural contrast to the modern world, often connected to a phenomenon anthropologist Renato Rosaldo aptly described as “imperialist nostalgia.” The truth was often more complex than the simplified nostalgic renderings generally allowed. Geronimo, for example, was also photographed that same year while driving three American Indian companions in a shiny new Cadillac. Indeed, as scholars have recently argued, many Native people like Geronimo, while suffering exploitation as showpieces, maintained their own agendas defined by survival and change. By the time Geronimo arrived in St. Louis, he already knew the drill. He had been in Omaha when hundreds of American Indians had taken part in an Indian Congress at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi International Exposition and in Buffalo for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, the same event where President William McKinley had been shot and killed by an anarchist. At those events and on many other occasions by this point, Geronimo had been photographed and further prodded to match people’s expectations.

Top: Statue of Indian Territory in the Colonnade of States, 1904. Bottom: Apache Indian camp, 1904.

Densmore knew something about Geronimo’s story and the thirst for his attention, but she believed her request for his time was different. As part of a wide-ranging preservation effort, Densmore wanted to meet him to capture something intangible. She wanted to write down a story, hear him sing, anything. “Day after day,” she later reflected, “I hunted the enclosure where he sat.” She described him at the fair: “His keen eyes watched the crowd through steel-rimmed spectacles, and he looked the philosopher rather than the warrior.” Geronimo was silver-haired but still appeared more youthful than his actual age. He communicated through a much younger Apache companion. At the edge of the enclosure, his tipi was adorned with a prominent green thunderbird. Densmore managed to express to the pair her desire to hear Geronimo sing. He listened quietly to the request as it was relayed to him by his young interpreter. Then Geronimo approached Densmore and grasped her outstretched hand, shaking it vigorously. “With the rashness of my race,” she recalled, “I said to the boy, ‘Tell Geronimo that I like Indian music and wish I could hear him sing.’ ” The simple request was rebuffed: “There was a flash in the old eyes behind the steel-rimmed spectacles, a slight drawing up of the aged figure and I confess to a feeling of relief when the crowd swallowed me up.”

“Nevertheless,” she wrote, “Mr. Geronimo shall be conquered by my craft…I bided my time with the patience of my red brethren.” Returning to the Indian Building a few days later, Densmore finally felt victorious when she came in close enough proximity to Geronimo to hear him humming a song unfamiliar to her. “At last my day came,” she wrote. “He was humming to himself as he worked on an arrow…Perhaps it was an especially satisfactory arrow and the feeling of it brought back his old life. Whatever may have been the inspiration, he was actually singing a song.” Densmore pictured herself as springing into action to rescue endangered cultural knowledge. “I slipped into ambush behind him where I would not attract his attention and noted down his song. He sang it softly but with a peculiar swing, beating the time with his foot.” In that one moment, Densmore felt alone with the famous man. She reflected, “The curious throng did not stop to listen to his singing. They saw only an old Indian sitting on a box, whittling an arrow—but before his eyes there stretched the plains and the mountains, with never a white man to bar their beauty.” Densmore quickly wrote down the tune.

Later she rewrote the song, this time transcribing it into a European-style musical score. By writing down songs and publishing them as sheet music through a particular government agency, she hoped to create a permanent record describing the music for future generations.


Should we be unsettled by the unfortunate circumstances under which the tune was taken without Geronimo’s permission and in a manner that so clearly expresses the social exploitation inherent to cultural colonialism? Or should we be grateful that a record of Geronimo’s humming exists for human knowledge today?

Densmore’s words describing how she obtained the song are laced with paternalistic ideas about knowledge preservation and essentialized racial behavior: whites like her are naturally aggressive and American Indians like Geronimo are inherently patient, stereotypes common for the era. Given how he had arrived at the fair, it is reasonable to consider whether or not a man in his circumstances might even be able to provide what researchers today describe as “informed consent,” or mindful permission granted to being included in a study. In reading these sources retrospectively, their exploitative nature stands out as clear. In recent years, Native American scholars including historian Philip J. Deloria have asserted that indigenous people in North America never truly fit the clean modern/premodern delineations sketched by many Euro-American thinkers. American Indians were modern in that they were already figuring out how to adapt to changing conditions. An expanding U.S. society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had pushed forth many important changes. Early in the nineteenth century, however, works like James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans had helped lay the foundation for the widely accepted notion in the United States and Europe that indigenous people in the Americas were destined to vanish.

Although people sometimes referred to the need to “salvage” aspects of Native cultures by the 1930s, the phrase salvage anthropology was not commonly adopted until much later. Writing in retrospect, in the 1960s, scholars termed the collecting and preservation of human culture deemed to be threatened as “salvage anthropology.” Salvage anthropology meant not just collecting songs and stories but trying to document everything about a society and its heritage. Sketches were drawn in notebooks; material culture objects were gathered; words, songs, and stories were written down; even human bodies were collected. Each new phrase, physical object, or picture was conceptualized as a valued data point that it might never be possible to collect again. The materials filled new museums (and burgeoning old ones) as well as libraries and archives nearly to the brim. Much of this work was done among North America’s indigenous people, most commonly called American Indians or Native Americans.

Salvage anthropology became consequential in that it profoundly influenced how people in the United States and Europe came to understand cultures and their histories, especially the Native cultures of North America. The central problem in recounting salvage anthropology’s story is its scale, which was truly massive. The cultural salvage movement was inspired by a common goal to collect, document, and preserve. But those participating in and responding to the movement were also largely defined by their individual motivations and particular contexts.

Although they often go without recognition in retellings of the salvage story, indigenous people’s visions for what was important and true about their heritage mattered a great deal. Questions asked by those connected to the salvage movement still dog us today. How might we document and preserve for future generations what makes us human? How should we learn about and teach about people from cultures different from our own? What things are worth keeping and how should we keep them? What are the ethical limitations of these efforts? Who gets to decide?


Excerpted from Prophets and Ghosts: The Story of Salvage Anthropology by Samuel J. Redman. Copyright © 2021 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press.