Mike Burns was given a very different name at birth: Hoomothya. He was orphaned in 1872 as a boy of about eight years old, when the US Army slaughtered most of his relatives and nearly 100 of his tribe, the Kwevkepayas (later classified as Yavapai), in an incident at Skeleton Cave, Arizona. The soldiers, including a large detachment of Indian auxiliaries, found the men, women, and children huddled under a rock outcropping. The American soldiers fired mercilessly, then left the native auxiliaries to do what they wanted--they rushed down and crushed the heads and bodies of the few survivors.
This book is a gently edited version of the autobiography of Mike Burns, who produced a “scorching and discomfiting” condemnation of the way he and his people were treated. He can be considered fortunate in one way: as “the only one living to tell,” he was adopted as a boy by a military officer, James Burns, and in that household he learned to do useful chores and obey the bidding of white men and women. English became his operant language, and he had little contact with anyone in his tribe for years afterward. He became a soldier-scout himself and learned to read and write. Ultimately, he penned his history and called himself “a lonely Indian,” never really able to live with complete comfort in the world of whites or among the people from whom the Skeleton Cave Massacre had distanced him.
His accounts of life on the prairie are a treasure of day-to-day lore, along with his descriptions of fighting in the Indian wars, but the subject matter always harks back to the ill treatment of the Indians. At one time, he recounts, fifteen hundred Indians became sick, and all were convinced that the doctor at the agency in charge of distributing their rations was poisoning their beef. He speaks of Indians being told that General Grant, “who had freed the Negro people,” was now prepared to treat the Indians fairly, to feed and shelter those who came in peacefully.
When the Indians followed this directive, their chiefs were separated from them and, as Burns describes one encampment, “rations were running short, and some of the Tontos had been slowly moping around with baskets, singing and begging for coffee, sugar, and flour.” Later, Burns was able to go to a Christian college but was warned off of studying to be a lawyer: “you must change your course of study to Christianity, and we will help you.” He was promised that the Christians would send him out to minister among the warring Indian tribes. He concluded that Christians say they will pray for you “but not in their hearts.”
During his later years, Burns tried to get his autobiography published without success. Gregory McNamee, a writer and editor who lives in Tucson, has been able to reproduce Burns’ words and amplify his story in a way that makes the time come alive and will be an invaluable archive for anyone interested in Western life. The story of Mike Burns reminds us again of the many justifiable grievances that Native Americans experienced and which are still part of their living story.