American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Mangas Coloradas

Mangas Coloradas was a Chiricahuan Apache leader during the mid-1800s. Born in approximately 1790 in southwestern New Mexico near today's Silver City, he lived through periods of Spanish and Mexican peace establishments, chronic war that followed their collapse, and the first phases of American conquest. From the 1830s to his death in 1863, Mangas Coloradas was the most prominent leader of the Chiricahuas in their struggle for regional dominance with the Mexicans and, starting in the late 1840s, with the Americans. He met a treacherous end at the hands of American soldiers, being shot as an unarmed prisoner.

Chiricahuas consisted of four major bands: the Chihennes, Chokonens, Bedonkohes, and Nednhis, which were further divided into multiple local groups. There was no single tribe in political terms, but all were related, sharing strong linguistic and cultural bonds. Mangas Coloradas probably was born as a Bedonkohe and married to the Chihenne band. For the first decades of his life he was known as Fuerte and only later received the name Kan-dazis-tlishishen, or Mangas Coloradas ("Red/Pink Sleeves"). Born into a prominent family, he matured during the period of Spanish peace establishments, during which rations and gifts were distributed to the Apaches. Economic and political unrest provoked by the collapse of Spanish power caused this system to crumble. Struggling Mexican regimes no longer could afford to pay off the Chiricahuas. Escalating warfare became epidemic during the 1830s and continued to devastate both the Chiricahuas and the Mexicans until the 1880s. Due to the policies of extermination and treacherous acts of genocide, the Mexicans of Sonora especially gained Mangas Coloradas' hatred.

Character was the single most important factor in Mangas's rise to prominence. Mangas apparently excelled as a fierce fighter, a courageous leader, a generous statesman, a wise diplomat, and a loving family man—all traits valued in Chiricahua society. From the 1830s onward his power and prestige among the many Chiricahuan bands were exceptional. He not only controlled his own local group, which was a hybrid mix of Bedonkohes and Chihennes, but also attracted a wide following of fighting men and led many times a combined force of Chiricahuas from all bands. He gained even more influence by marrying his children wisely. For example, one daughter wedded the Chokonen leader Cochise, while others married prominent Navajo, White Mountain Apache, and Mescalero Apache men. During his life, Mangas Coloradas had at least four wives and perhaps as many as fifteen children. Overall, he was exceptionally well-connected with the many Apache divisions of the Southwest. Mexicans recognized him as the "general" of the Chiricahuas, the most prominent man of the militarily powerful people, whose cooperation and approval were vital for any significant peace initiative to succeed. He was also synonymous with Apache power and cruelty among many Mexicans, and the American invaders knew his reputation when they arrived in the late 1840s. General Stephen Kearny's army, John R. Bartlett's boundary commission, and General Edwin V. Sumner, New Mexico's military commander, all treated him as the most prominent Chiricahuan man.

At first, Mangas Coloradas advocated peaceful relations with the Americans, who shared a common enemy with him: the Mexicans. The Americans were rich in trade commodities and thus useful as partners. A lack of mutual respect, racial hatred, and economic greed, however, brought war, and, despite peace agreements, several violent incidents caused deterioration in the American–Chiricahua Apache relations throughout the 1850s and early 1860s. During the last years of the prominent chief's life, American invaders started to inundate much of his country in the roles of miners, ranchers, and farmers. Mangas himself was engaged in destructive war with the Americans during the early 1860s and was killed by them in 1863 after he had arrived for peace negotiations, was captured, and handed over to the American military. While he was a prisoner, soldiers taunted him and burned his feet, and, when Mangas Coloradas responded, he was shot down and killed, his body thrown in a ditch after being decapitated for "scientific purposes." Military reports contained a fabricated story of an escape attempt.

During his lifetime, Mangas Coloradas saw Chiricahuan power dwindle under the double pressure of Spanish/Mexican and American colonization. When he was born, the Chiricahuas were the dominant group, but his death signaled the beginning of the end for Apache power. In a little longer than two decades, all the surviving Chiricahuas would be exiled to Florida as prisoners of war.

Janne Lahti


Further Reading
Sweeney, Edwin R. 1998. Mangas Coloradas: Chief of the Chiricahua Apaches. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Worcester, Donald E. 1979. The Apaches: Eagles of the Southwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
 

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