Buried History: “Hear Me, My Chiefs”
Nestled behind the capitol and the Anacostia River is a quiet cemetery almost as old as Washington D.C. Founded in 1802, Congressional Cemetery was nicknamed for the U.S. Congressmen who were buried there, even though this tradition stopped shortly after it began.
This unassuming cemetery also contains the remains of the first woman to run for president, the first director of the FBI and 36 Native Americans who came to the nation’s capital to negotiate on behalf of their people. These Native leaders died far from home and family. They traveled thousands of miles to speak with federal politicians in hopes of making life better for their tribal nations. Chief Taza of the Chiricahua Apache was one of these who made the cross-country trip to D.C. Tragically; he was only in leadership for a few short years before he passed away at the age of 36. His story, like many in Native history, is complex and contested.
Born in 1842, Taza was the eldest son of famed Chiricahua Chief, Cochise. Cochise raised his eldest son Taza to lead. He was well educated and groomed to be a great chief. Cochise had great influence over the other Chiefs in the four bands of Chiricahua Apache. Through his influence, a peace treaty was signed in 1852 with the United States. Taza would have held the same influence as his father. Cochise taught Taza about their nation’s land in the desert of the Southwest. He showed Taza the locations of all the springs and the mountains passes. Cochise even passed down his medicine to his oldest son.
Cochise intentionally did not give his 2nd son, Naiche this same training because he didn’t want power disputes between his sons. Taza grew up in a time of war. Despite many battles with the U.S. and Mexico, Cochise supported peace. But in these tumultuous times, peace was not easy. His people were fighting to protect their existence as a sovereign people. They were also fighting for the right to exist. In this time of “Indian Wars,” it wasn’t unusual to hear generals publicy proclaim, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
Taza inherited a nation with an uncertain future. Cochise negotiated with General Howard to create the Warm Springs Reservation. The reservation was created by an executive order in 1871. It read in part as follows:“Having personally inspected the country and condition of the Apache … and finding the Indians to be, in considerable numbers, destitute and in a starving condition … their country overrun by hunters who kill their game, and not unfrequently kill the Indians—gold prospectors and others …I have concluded to declare… that portion of country … to be an Indian reservation … Apache Indians are to be protected, fed, and otherwise cared for, and the laws of Congress and Executive orders … unless otherwise ordered by Congress or the President.”
— Department of the Interior, Camp Verde, Ariz. October 3, 1871
Four years later, though, following Cochis’s death, the reservations were closed:
"All orders establishing … Indian Reservation, in the Territory of Arizona … are hereby revoked and annulled; and the said described tract of country is hereby restored to the public domain."
—U.S. GRANT, 1875
Ranching and mining interests had lobbied for years to close the Chiricahua reservation for their own financial gain. The entire tribe was blamed for an altercation resulting in the death of a US citizen. The altercation appeared to be an excuse for closing the reservations and Chiricahua removal to another reservation. The removal also benefited Indian Agent John Clum by placing all the Apaches under his jurisdiction. Additionally, Chiricahua rations were reduced. Taza’s people were homeless and hungry. His only recourse was to visit Washington. Indian Agent Clum offered to make arrangements. According to Herman Viola of the Smithsonian, the position of Indian Agent did not pay well and one of the few perks of the job was occasional travel to Washington. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Clum had a fiancé in the east he was eager to marry.
Because of a lack of travel funds, Clum financed the trip by having Taza and his delegates perform in little theaters along the way. This occurred right after the Battle of Little Bighorn, which Apache Historian Michael Darrow refers to as the “Custer debacle.” Anti-Indian sentiments ran like a hot fever throughout the West. These performances would have been viewed as an exotic sideshow act by most American audiences. By today’s standards, the idea that the leader of any Nation should pay their way by dancing across the country as an oddity is unimaginable. Taza wouldn't have been able to negotiate for his people had he not made this decision.
But just a few days after Taza arrived in Washington, he suddenly passed away. The official cause of death was recorded as pneumonia. He was given a grand burial service that included a silver-handled coffin transported to Congressional Cemetery in a glass carriage. Many people came to pay their respects to the Chief in his final resting place. In blatant disrespect for Apache, Agent Clum wrote a letter stating:
“[His] … illness and passing were not devoid of beneficial results … They afforded the Indians in our party an opportunity to observe the civilized methods and customs of … preparing the dead for burial as well as our funeral rites and ceremonies.”
Clum, in a hurry to marry his fiancé, left promptly after the service and never bothered to place a marker on Taza’s grave. When the Indian Agent returned to the Chiricahua community, he was pressed for information about their leader’s death. Clum’s details were vague. Many Apache suspected that Taza had not died of pneumonia, believing he may have been poisoned. This inflamed the tense political relationship between the Apache and United States. Taza’s younger brother, Naiche, became a Chief. Naiche did not have the same influence over the other chiefs the way his father and brother did. The reservation was closed. These events led to Victorio’s War and late Geronimo wars. A decade after Taza’s death, the entire tribe of Chiricahua became prisoners of war in Florida, Alabama and Ft. Sill Oklahoma for 28 years. Some children grew into adulthood never knowing freedom. In 1913, the tribe was split and some returned to the Southwest. One year later the remaining were allotted land in Oklahoma. These descendents are the Fort Sill Apache Nation of today. It’s interesting to think about how history might have been written differently for the Chiricahua if Taza had returned home.
Taza’s grave remained unmarked until the American Indian Society of Washington designed a marker bearing his image and erected it in 1971. At the time, the image was thought to be Taza. Today, there are no known photographs of Taza and the image used for the marker is not the leader.
—Rachael Cassidy (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma)
- Chiricahua perspective and historical expertise provided by Michael Darrow, Tribal Historian for the Fort Sill Apache Nation in Oklahoma with April Darrow, Director of Cultural Programs
- Diplomats in Buckskin by Herman Viola (1995)
- “Hear me my Chiefs” quote from a speech by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce
- Encyclopedia of Native American Wars and Warfare (2005)
- Cochise by Melissa Schwarz (1992)
- Indian Affairs Law and Treaties; Pt 3 Executive Orders Relating to Indian Reserves. http://digital.library.okstate.edu/kappler/Vol1/HTML_files/ARI0801.html#az
- Interpretation and historical insight provided by Ramsey Weeks, NMAI Cultural Interpreter.