Profile of an Apache Woman

Apache Wife and More


If the Apache man defined the image of the warrior, raider and master tracker in the mystique of our western deserts, the Apache woman gave heart and sinew to her people under the punishing trials of a nomadic life.

The woman saw her worth recognized in the most fundamental traditions of the tribe. "At marriage a man goes to the camp of the girl’s parents to live," said one of Morris E. Opler’s Chiricahua Apache informants in his book An Apache Life-Way: The Economic, Social, & Religious Institutions of the Chiricahua Indians. "We do this because a woman is more valuable than a man. We do it to accommodate the woman. The son-in-law is considered a son and as one of the family. The in-laws depend a great deal on him. They depend on him for hunting and all kinds of work. He is almost a slave to them."

Two Apache Women

Puberty Ceremony

An Apache girl, modest and chaste, knew her value would be ratified at her puberty ceremony, four days of song, dance, feasting and ritual, when her family and band ushered her into womanhood. She knew the traditional event – founded by White Painted Woman, one of the most important Apache deities – would assure her a long, healthy and happy life, provided it unfolded strictly in accordance with custom. The Apache girl and her parents anticipated her puberty ceremony as anxiously as a modern debutante and her parents look forward to her coming-out ball.



Among the Chiricahua Apaches, the family members began preparations for the celebration months ahead of time. They solicited key figures to carry out ceremonies, notified the list of guests, laid up food for the feast, gathered presents, especially horses, for the performers, and cut timbers for ceremonial structures. Her mother, or perhaps her grandmother or an aunt, made her a new dress, not of lace and ribbon, but of buckskin, died yellow, elaborately and symbolically decorated.

As the day of celebration drew near, the young woman would turn to a trusted aging woman for counsel and guidance about the upcoming ceremony and her future life. She would rely on a designated "singer," a combined shaman and priest, to supervise the erection of her teepee-like ceremonial structure and to chant the songs for her rituals. She would count on masked dancers, symbolic mountain spirits who wore headdresses mounted above buckskin hoods, to bless the ceremony, drive away evil and entertain the guests.

"…when all was ready," said one of Opler’s informants, the young woman’s family "let many know, and they came from far places. All were invited." The young woman had her face marked with pollen, the symbol of life and procreation, by her counselor and guide. "The celebration was held for four days. The people had a good time at the dancing. First came the masked dancers. The [White Painted Woman and Child of the Water deities] gave the people the round dance to enjoy, but this was not to begin until after the performance of the masked dancers was over. After that came the partner dances."

"All the Indians enjoy the feast—poor and rich, the able-bodied and the lame and blind," said another Opler informant. "This feast has been handed down for many, many years…..All the singing is supposed to work out the future life for the girl in order…that she have long life. The songs bring good luck. The ceremony works good luck for everyone that takes part in it and good luck for the old people during the time of the ceremony, also good luck for the spectators. They sing and pray for all."

The Apache girl’s puberty ceremony signaled, not only the end of her childhood, but her availability for marriage. "A full oval face is liked and medium height, not too tall," according to an Opler informant. "We like small hands and feet, but not too thin. A plump, full body is best. Legs should be in proportion to the rest of the body and not too thin. Mouth and ears should be in proportion to the rest of the face, not big."


After her puberty ceremony, the young Apache woman, valued more for her economic and practical worth than for her beauty, often faced a marriage negotiated by her family, many times without her agreement, sometimes without even her knowledge. Mindful that the man would join the young woman’s family – an arrangement called "matrilocal" by anthropologists – her parents drafted a marriage based, not on romantic love, but on material need. They sought out a proven and, frequently, older man, preferably one with tribal respect, wealth and connections, who would underwrite the future of the young woman, contribute horses to her father, marshal arms for the family’s protection, and contribute game to the family larder. Conversely, the family knew that a potential husband would favor a woman known for industry, a strong body and good humor, characteristics more important to him than a full oval face, small hands and feet, and a plump, full body. Other times, the young woman attracted her own suitors, who might approach the family through intermediaries and offer horses and other gifts for her hand. The young woman’s family agreed to a marriage after a delicate minuet of negotiation. Once the family accepted the prospective groom’s gifts, the couple would simply take up life together, with no formal ceremony. "A day or two after consent is given," according to an Opler informant, "the marriage takes place. As soon as everything is ready they start living together. The girl and her female relatives build the house."

An Apache wikiup with warrior in front.

After marriage, in a custom which anthropologists call "avoidance," the woman’s husband could not associate with, nor even look at, her mother, her father nor her grandmothers. Nevertheless, her husband must "bring in" game for the family. The term "means to me," said an Opler informant, "that in the old days a son-in-law would go out and kill game for his parents-in-law. The word implies to me that the man’s business is to hunt in this fashion for me if I am the father-in-law. It is his obligation to do so forever." The son-in-law had to help support the very people he had to avoid.


Apache Wife

While her husband hunted game, instructed the sons, raided enemies, made war and pursued personal and tribal glory and prestige, the Apache wife took charge of nurturing the family, instructing the daughters, tending the home and crafting clothing and household goods.

According to James F. Haley in his book Apaches: A History and Culture Portrait, the Apache woman harvested wild food plants, including – according to the season and location – yucca bloom stalks and fruit, prickly pear cactus fruit, cattail (or tule) roots and shoots, raspberries, strawberries, grapes, sumac fruit, one-seed juniper berries, pinyon pine cone nuts, walnuts, acorns, screw beans, mesquite beans, sunflower seeds and many other wild plant foods.

In late spring, she joined with other women to harvest the hearts of agave plants, the Apaches’ most important wild food plant. She had to dig up the hearts – each roughly two to three times the size of a fist – and cut away the spiny leaf tips. She participated in digging a communal roasting pit, perhaps 15 feet in diameter and three to four feet in depth. (I have seen Apache agave roasting pits which were significantly larger in the desert basin just west of the Guadalupe Mountains in western Texas.) According to Haley, the women filled the pit with firewood, which they topped with flat stones. After a ceremony and prayer, they lit the firewood, which they allowed to burn down to coals. They covered the coals and heated flat stones with a layer of damp grass, then the agave hearts, then another layer of damp grass. They capped the pit with soil, then built another fire on top of the earthen cap. They roasted the agave hearts for a day or more, until the plants had cooked fully. After they uncovered the roasted agave hearts, they carried them on their backs, in burden baskets, back to their encampment where they preserved them by drying them in the sun.

The Apache woman worked unendingly to provide food for her family, but she also helped build shelters (brush and hide structures called "wickiups"), gathered firewood, processed and tanned hides, cut and sewed leather clothing and bags, carved gourd water containers and utensils, wove basketry and crafted pottery and caulk-lined wicker water jugs. Somehow she also found time to have modest cosmetic designs tattooed on her cheeks and forehead. She made necklaces and pendants of trade beads and mirrors. She took elaborate care of her hair, shampooing it with the lather from soap tree yucca roots, parting it down the middle, allowing it to fall freely across her shoulders and down her back. Meanwhile, she taught her daughters the disciplines and arts of the life of an Apache woman.

The Apache Woman Warrior

Apache women often accompanied parties of warriors on raids, responded to the call to arms, counseled with the men in battle strategy, met with enemies in peace negotiations and served as shamans in spiritual quests. They acted with stunning courage and ferocity.

Sometime in the second half of the 19th century, a Mescalero Apache woman called GeronimoGouyen, or Wise Woman, tracked down a Comanche chief who had murdered and scalped her husband. She found her prey celebrating his conquest in a victory dance around a nighttime campfire with his band. Somehow Gouyen stole right into the heart of the camp, into the middle of the celebration. She lured the chief, staggeringly drunk, into the night. She pounced on him like a mountain lion, ripping out his throat with her teeth. She then stabbed him and scalped him with his own knife. She stole his headband, breechclout and moccasins. She escaped on the chief’s black stallion, returning to her people, numb with exhaustion, but triumphant.

Gouyen, said her chief, "is a brave and good woman. She has done a braver thing than has any man among the Mescaleros. She has killed the Comanche chief; and she has brought his weapons and garments to her people. She has ridden his mount. Let her always be honored by my people." (See Eve Ball’s An Apache Odyssey: Indeh, where she recorded Gouyen’s story, kept alive in the tribe’s oral history by May Peso Second, a Mescalero chief’s daughter.) Gouyen’s coup held extraordinary importance because it gave a measure of revenge against the Comanches, who had driven the Mescaleros and other Apache groups from the Great Plains during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Later, Gouyen fought in a skirmish against a party of miners who had encamped near Cooke’s Peak, in southwestern New Mexico. "There was a shot and Suldeen [an Apache warrior] fell from his horse," James Kaywaykla, Gouyen’s son, told Eve Ball in an interview for her book In the Days of Victorio: Recollections of a Warm Springs Apache. "Kaytennae [Gouyen’s second husband and Kaywaykla’s step-father] leaped to the ground and dropped into an arroyo. Mother followed, with me behind her. Before we could overtake Kaytennae, she had her rifle in readiness. We heard two shots and knew that [Kaytennae] had accounted for two [miners]. As we passed the mouth of a side arroyo I saw the shadow of a rifle move. ‘Indah!’ [‘White Man!’] I shouted. Kaytennae was racing toward us, but it was Mother who got the first shot. There was no need for another."

Kaywaykla said, "…my mother’s place was at [Kaytennae’s] side. She prepared food, dressed wounds, and when necessary fought beside him as bravely as any man."

A Warm Springs Apache woman, Jacali, suffered a gunshot wound to the knee in a fight with the Mexican cavalry in northwestern Chihuahua. Her brother, Delzhinne, sequestered her in dense brush beside a stream, according to Eve Ball’s Apache informant Asa Daklugie (see An Apache Odyssey: Indeh). He covered her with a blanket, leaving her with food, water and a knife. "If I live, I’ll come back for you. I do not think they will find you, but if they do, you have a knife," he said.

"They will not take me alive," said Jacali.

Delzhinne eluded the Mexican troops, and when darkness fell, he and his brother, Daklegon, returned to Jacali’s hiding place to rescue their sister. The two warriors made a litter from their lances and Jacali’s blanket, and they transported her through the darkness over rough country to an encampment, where she could rest and receive care. "Jacali had lost much blood and was very weak," said Daklugie, "but not once did she complain or make a sound. She was a true Apache."

Lozen, another Warm Springs Apache woman and the sister of the renowned chief Victorio, became legendary both as a warrior and as a shaman. She had what the Apaches called "Power," supernatural abilities on the battlefield and in spiritual communication. According to Peter Aleshire (Woman Warrior: The Story of Lozen, Apache Warrior and Shaman), Lozen fought in more campaigns against the Mexicans and the Americans than any of the great Apache leaders such as Cochise, Mangas Coloradas, Juh, Chihuahua, Geronimo or her own brother, Victorio. "Lozen began fighting Mexican soldiers and scalp hunters, eternal enemies of her band, when she came of age in the 1840’s," said Aleshire. "After the Americans arrived in 1848 to lay claim to her homeland, she battled them as well."

Lozen fought beside Victorio when he and his followers rampaged against Americans, who had appropriated their homeland in west central New Mexico’s Black Mountains and had tried to confine her people, first, to Arizona’s San Carlos Reservation then to New Mexico’s Mescalero Apache Reservation.

As the band fled U. S. forces, Lozen inspired women and children, frozen in fear, to cross a surging Rio Grande. "I saw a magnificent woman on a beautiful horse—Lozen, sister of Victorio. Lozen the woman warrior!" said James Kaywaykla, a child at the time, riding behind his grandmother. "High above her head she held her rifle. There was a glitter as her right foot lifted and struck the shoulder of her horse. He reared, then plunged into the torrent. She turned his head upstream, and he began swimming." Immediately, the other women and the children followed her into the torrent. When they reached the far bank of the river, cold and wet, but alive, Lozen came to Kaywaykla’s grandmother. "You take charge, now," she said. "I must return to the warriors," who stood between their women and children and the onrushing cavalry. Lozen drove her horse back across the wild river and returned to her comrades.

"I depend upon Lozen as I do Nana (the aging patriarch of the band)," said Victorio, according to Kaywaykla. "She could ride, shoot, and fight like a man," said Kaywaykla, "and I think she had more ability in planning military strategy than did Victorio."

Late in Victorio’s campaign, Lozen left the band to escort a new mother and her newborn infant across the Chihuahuan Desert from Mexico to the Mescalero Apache Reservation, away from the hardships of the trail. Equipped with only a rifle, a cartridge belt, a knife and a three-day supply of food, she set out with the mother on a perilous journey through Mexican and U. S. cavalry forces. En route, afraid that a gunshot would betray their presence, she used her knife to kill a longhorn, butchering it for the meat. She stole a Mexican cavalry horse for the new mother, escaping through a volley of gunfire. She stole a vaquero’s horse for herself, disappearing before he could give chase. She stole a soldier’s saddle, rifle, ammunition, blanket and canteen, even his shirt. Finally, she delivered her charges to the reservation.

There, she learned that Mexican and Tarahumara Indian forces under Mexican commander Joaquin Terrazas had ambushed her brother Victorio and his band at Tres Castillos, three stony hills in northeastern Chihuahua. It happened on October 15, 1880. Terrazas, said Stephen H. Lekson in his monogram Nana’s Raid: Apache Warfare in Southern New Mexico, 1881, "surprised the Apaches, and in the boulders of Tres Castillos Victorio’s warriors fought their last fight. Apache tradition holds that Victorio fell on his own knife rather than die at the hands of the Mexicans. Almost all the warriors at Tres Castillos were killed, and many women died fighting; the older people were shot, while almost one hundred young women and children were taken for slaves. Only a few escaped."

Knowing that the survivors would need her, Lozen immediately left the Mescalero Reservation and rode alone southwest across the desert, threading her way undetected through U. S. and Mexican military patrols, and rejoined the decimated band, now led by the 74-year-old patriarch Nana, in the Sierra Madre, in northwestern Chihuahua.

According to Kimberly Moore Buchanan in Apache Women Warriors, Lozen fought beside Nana and his handful of warriors in his two-month long bloody campaign of vengeance across southwestern New Mexico in 1881. Just before he began, Nana had said, "Though she is a woman there is no warrior more worthy than the sister of Victorio."

Lozen also fought beside Geronimo after his breakout from the San Carlos reservation in 1885, in the last campaign of the Apache wars. With the band pursued relentlessly, she used her Power to locate the enemies, the U. S. and Mexican cavalries. According to Alexander B. Adams in his book Geronimo, "She would stand with her arms outstretched, chant a prayer [to Ussen, the Apaches’ supreme deity], and slowly turn around."

Upon this earth
On which we live
Ussen has Power
This Power is mine
For locating the enemy.
I search for that Enemy
Which only Ussen the Great
Can show to me.

From Eve Ball’s In the Days of Victorio

"By the sensation she felt in her arms, she could tell where the enemy was and how many they numbered," according to Adams.

Taken into U. S. military custody after Geronimo’s final surrender, Lozen traveled as a prisoner of war to confinement at the Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama. Like many other Apache warriors, she died there of tuberculosis sometime after 1887, her life a validation of the respected place women held among the Apaches.

by Jay W. Sharp



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