Almost 7,000 feet high in the middle of the country's first preserved wilderness, before the cement was mixed and the rocks and mortar were laid, this volunteer project started with an it'edjidile, a blessing, in the language of the Apache.
Harlyn Geronimo, a medicine man and the great-grandson of the Chiricahua Apache warrior Geronimo, prayed, raising fingertips smeared with the yellow pollen of the river cattail to a gray, overcast sky. He prayed, he translated afterward, for the security of the United States and for American troops in Iraq. He prayed for the administration of President Bush and that "the creator bless this place and the people of this community." He prayed for the elderly and for the youth whose future lies ahead. He prayed that in this area, where his great-grandfather was born and roamed for part of his life, the "tri-culture" -- the white, Native American and Hispanic communities -- rid itself of "conflict, racism and prejudice and that we all get along in a brotherhood." And he prayed for the success of this project.
This is the place where Geronimo's birth in 1829 will be commemorated with a plaque and statue, Harlyn Geronimo's wife, Karen, a medicine woman, said in her Apache prayer. "It will be here to kind of bring back his memory. We pray that in the spirit world, he will sense this and appreciate it."
With that, the building of the memorial cairn began, one of 600 projects executed Saturday as part of National Public Lands Day in the United States. More than 90,000 volunteers nationwide worked on federal, state and local projects, from building the memorial to Geronimo to refurbishing a gold miner's cabin near Ridgecrest, Calif., and rehabilitating three 18th-century buildings at the Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania.
Most of the projects were conducted on federal or state land, but a few were local, including the cleanup of a city park in Huntsville, Ala., after Hurricane Ivan, said Patti Pride, a spokesman for National Public Lands Day. The project is administered by the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation in Washington.
National Public Lands Day began in 1994 at sites in Nevada, California and Kentucky under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. "The point is to get volunteers out to spend a day doing some work on a place where they go for recreation, to share in caring for public lands," Pride said.
Today, nine federal agencies and several states are involved. In the Washington area, volunteers cleaned trails in Prince William Forest Park in Northern Virginia and cleaned and planted in Greenbelt Park in Maryland and along the C&O Canal, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and Anacostia Park in the District.
The memorial to Geronimo was proposed in May by Harlyn Geronimo, 56, at a talk he gave at Western New Mexico University in Silver City, after the screening of a movie on the female Apache warrior Lozen, in which he starred. Geronimo is a sculptor and said he wanted to create a 12-foot bronze of his great-grandfather to be placed at the warrior's birthplace, near the headwaters of the Gila River. Geronimo, who fought U.S. settlements in the West until 1886, was held in captivity with hundreds of tribesmen in Florida until 1894. He died in Fort Sill, Okla., in 1909, having never returned to his homeland in what now is New Mexico.
Three women, including Frances Land, the chairman of the Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway Committee, spoke to the sculptor about his proposal. The sinuous road travels north through the Gila National Forest and ends at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument visitor center.
Geronimo and his wife went into the wilderness above the visitor center with Land in June to walk the area near the headwaters of the Gila River and to pray. "We talked to the creator that this would take off," said Geronimo, who lives with his family on the Apache reservation in Mescalero, N.M. "This was my great-grandfather's homeland, and we were glad to be back."
The project was spearheaded by the byway committee but drew volunteers who designed a landscaped memorial, a cairn and a plaque at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument visitor center. The memorial will be dedicated Oct. 9 as part of Native American Month. The sculpture is scheduled to be completed by October 2005.
Marcia Andre, the Forest Service supervisor for the Gila National Forest, said she agreed to the memorial to promote understanding of the area's cultural history. "We have beautiful vistas . . . but the cultural significance of these lands is just as important as the plants and the animals," she said. "It's equally important we honor Geronimo and his peoples on this land."