Massai, famous among the Apaches, and who often rode with Apache Kid, led a fascinating life. Burt Lancaster played Massai in the 1954 movie, Apache. While the movie told a good story, much of the historical Massai story is different. This post is based on the stories Alberta Begay, daughter of Massai, told Eve Ball who recorded them in her book based on Apache oral history, Indeh.
Massai was a Chiricahua Apache born on Mescal Mountain near Globe, Arizona. He was the son of White Cloud and Little Star. His training was typical of most Apache boys. White Cloud taught him from the time he could practically walk to use a bow and later the spear and to go for long periods of time without food or water. He trained to run holding water in his mouth to ensure he breathed through his nose and, by the time he was nine years old, he could run to the top of Mescal Mountain and back. Then White Cloud made him run up the mountain carrying a pack of stones. White Cloud gradually increased the pack weight until Massai could run the distance carrying a heavy load. After Massai’s fitness development he was trained in horsemanship in which his daughter says he excelled. White Cloud trained Massai in rifle marksmanship by making him shoot through an iron ring hung from a tree limb. When he missed he was sent to his mother in disgrace. As he became a proficient marksman shooting through the iron ring from a given distance, the distance was increased again until he could consistently shoot through the iron ring at 100 yards.
In those days, Gray Lizard, a Tonkawa boy, was Massai’s closest friend. Gray Lizard and his parents came from the plains to the east and had joined the band in which White Cloud and his family lived. Gray Lizard and Massai trained and hunted together, and caught and broke wild horses. In their mid teen years they began their four-raid novitiate supporting warriors in order to become accepted as ready to go on raids as men.
Before the novitiates of Massai and Gray Lizard were completed, Geronimo visited the ranchería of their band to speak in council with the warriors. Geronimo had come to ask the warriors to join him in fighting the White Eyes. He believed the Apaches had to drive them away before they grew to overwhelming numbers. Geronimo claimed that Mangas Coloradas was killed when the asked for peace, that Cochise died of a broken heart because he foresaw his people being wiped out, that Juh, the great Nednhi war chief was dead, and that the sons of Mangas Coloradas and Cochise did nothing because they saw what happened to their fathers. Because the warriors didn’t have to follow a chief, individuals were free to decide who to follow. A number of warriors in the band decided to follow Geronimo.
Although not yet finished with their novitiate to become warriors, Massai and Gray Lizard wanted to follow Geronimo. They asked permission from their fathers and were told they were almost men. It was their decision to make. Geronimo told them the time wasn’t ripe and that it might take more than two harvests before they were ready to fight. He told them to prepare by making cashes of supplies – food, clothes, moccasins, cooking pots, and ammunition. They would strike when they had enough supplies cached to last many months. Although many didn’t plan to join Geronimo in making war on the White Eyes, his idea of preparing for times of war was a good one and many began the work. With so much taking and storing of game and other food sources, game grew scarce. Massai and Gray Lizard asked permission from their fathers to go far in hunting for meat and hides. Their fathers let them go. Each leading a packhorse, they went far enough west that they could see the big water. They stayed many days and took so much venison in what is now California that after loading their packhorses they had to cache some in the cave where they had camped.
When Massai and Gray Lizard returned to Mescal Mountain, they learned that those who wanted to follow Geronimo had gone to Ojo Caliente. Continuing on to Ojo Caliente, they discovered that Geronimo had been arrested and taken to San Carlos along with the Warm Springs Apaches (Mimbreños) and their leaders Victorio and Loco. Chiricahua scouts working for the Army caught Massai and Gray Lizard and carried them to San Carlos. Massai and Gray Lizard spoke with Geronimo who told them to be patient and await his word to breakout. All the while, Geronimo schemed and planned, recruited warriors, and took ammunition from the soldiers.
Massai married a Chiricahua girl at San Carlos and they had two children. In these years he became a scout and was photographed at least once with Apache Kid who was a scout at that time. At the prodding of Geronimo and other Chiricahua leaders, the White Eyes moved the Chiricahuas from their desolate San Carlos camps to Turkey Creek near Fort Apache and times were peaceful. Turkey Creek was in mountainous country with good water, grass, and plenty of game. When belief in rumors that he was about to be hanged drove Geronimo and his followers on a breakout in 1885, Massai stayed like the majority of Chiricahuas with his family on the reservation.
Check out this excellent Ben Franklin’s World podcast, featuring David Silverman, author of Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America. I've been studying Native Americans since I was a preteen and I still learned a few things: