Late in 1872, as the United States sought to clear the newly incorporated Southwest of its indigenous inhabitants, a company under Capt. James Burns came upon an encampment of Kwevkepayas (a branch of Yavapais) sheltering in the shadow of rock overhang above the Salt River Canyon. The soldiers wasted no time on the formalities of battle. They rained down fire, bullets ricocheting from the roof the cave, felling the refugees below. They even pushed down boulders. None survived.
Well, almost none. A few days prior, the advancing soldiers had come across a young boy of eight or nine looking for a missing horse. “They made a rush for me,” Hoomothya would later write. “They pulled me over rocks and bushes. The men didn’t care whether I got hurt or not.” But unlike Burns’ Kwevkepaya siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandfather, the invaders did not kill him. In fact, the man responsible for his family’s extermination would adopt the young Hoomothya as something between a son and a servant, renaming him Mike Burns.
Over a century later, the prolific writer and editor Gregory McNamee has brought us Burns’ remarkable story. In The Only One Living to Tell: The Autobiography of a Yavapai Indian (University of Arizona Press, 2012), Burns recounts his survival of the massacre, his time as a scout for the U.S. military on the campaign against Geronimo, his education in white schools, and eventual reconnection with his Yavapai community. “Mike Burns lived in two worlds,” McNamee tell us, “and he was at home in neither.” But his intelligence, humor and compassion illuminates both in profound and unexpected ways.