The Apache People of the Southwestern Deserts



The Western Apache, whose range lay far west of major trails and settlements, was almost beyond reach of the Spanish through the 17th and 18th centuries. As a result, said Keith H. Basso in his paper "Western Apache" in the Smithsonian’s Handbook of North American Indians: Southwest, Volume 10, "…the Western Apache remained isolated and aloof, their locations and numbers poorly known, the course of their cultural development a mystery.

"Nevertheless," he said, "the picture is not a total blank."

We can surmise that the Western Apaches, which include the White Mountain, Cibeque, San Carlos and Northern and Southern Tonto groups, migrated into eastern and north central Arizona perhaps a century or two before the arrival of the Spanish. We know that the Western Apaches, reflecting their ancestral roots, spoke an Athabaskan dialect, maintained matrilocal family relationships, feared the dead, and dreaded the owl. They belonged to a network of matrilocal clans which spanned all the Western Apaches. They lived as highly mobile extended family groups, occupying brush and skin-covered wickiups in their encampments. While they relied primarily on the ancient Athabaskan traditions of hunting and gathering, they did cultivate the classic prehistoric Southwestern crops—corn, beans and squash. They acquired horses from the Spanish, using the animals for both transportation and food. They raided and traded from central Arizona to central Sonora.

"The Western Apache ranged over highly varied topography," said Winfred Buskirk in The Western Apache. "On the north they inhabited the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau… The San Francisco Peaks in the northwest (over 12,000 feet) and the White Mountains in the northeast (over 11,000 feet) were the highest points in Apache territory. Climate was severe…

"South of the Mogollon Rim and west of the White Mountains, the terrain broke sharply. Steep, rough slopes gradually gave way to mesalike remnants of former plateaus, which were eroded and cut by deep canyons… Although the elevation was much lower, varying from 2,000 feet to 7,000, the country was much more rugged than that of the Mogollon plateau country. The climate was mild in winter and hot in summer."

Much like the Navajos – their neighbors to the north – the Western Apache people held a complex, kaleidoscopic view of their origins, deities, ceremonies and rituals. According to Basso, they subscribed to the notion that man emerged from an underworld. They believed that a range of deities had created the earth, giving it life in the form of "hair" (grasses and trees), "blood" (rivers and streams), "bones" (rocks and mountains) and "breath" (the wind). Hero twin deities (thematic figures in many religions, from Greece to Mesoamerica to the American west) destroyed the monsters of the earth, making it a fit place to live. Unlike other Athapaskan descendants, the Western Apaches did not fear the coyote; rather, they thought of the animal as a humorous and beloved metaphor for both the virtues and the foibles of the human species. They ascribed unbounded supernatural powers, said Basso, to "certain types of animals, plants, minerals, celestial bodies, and meteorological phenomena." They lived in a swirl of ceremony, ritual and taboos.

The Western Apaches looked to their shamans, imbued with supernatural power, to protect them from unnatural and unholy forces. The shamans served long apprenticeships, said Basso. They had to master some 80 chants, each with dozens of verses. They had to perform the chants with force and perfection, in the archaic form of their ancestral language, through a range of tones, tempos and pitches so demanding that they would challenge a seasoned operatic singer. The shamans – links to the supernatural world – underwrote the spiritual fulfillment of their people.

The Western Apaches chose their chiefs, said Basso, on the basis of "strength of character, an ability to promote consensus within the group, and the exemplary fashion in which they conducted their own lives." They subscribed to the values of industriousness, generosity, impartiality, forbearance, conscientiousness and eloquence.

Although the Western Apaches raised some crops in ephemeral gardens and traded goods with various neighboring tribes, they depended heavily on hunting, gathering and raiding for subsistence. The men hunted deer and antelope in the fall, while their sons contributed packrats, birds and rabbits to the family diet. The women and their daughters gathered the fruits of cacti and yucca, the nuts of oak trees and the beans of the mesquite. They harvested their garden crops in the fall.

In the winter, when stores ran low, parties of 5 to 15 men, according to Basso, raided enemy livestock herds, usually taking the animals by stealth rather than by force. Eluding pursuers, they drove the stolen animals mercilessly. "We kept two good men out in front, and two other men way out behind as guards," Western Apache John Rope told Grenville Goodwin in an interview for Western Apache Raiding and Warfare. "The rest of us herded the stock along in the middle. If the men out in front saw danger ahead, then they would come back and tell us and we would change our direction. This way we traveled, never sleeping at night, and going fast until we were out of the Mexican country and close to home."

Any time of year, when called to avenge the loss of a warrior, parties of as many as 200 men, said Basso, gathered for battle. The leader would say to the men, according to Rope, "I picked you out. I depend on you. I depend on your hands. I depend on your ribs. You are brave so I picked you. You are my mind—just like my mind. You think as I do. I picked you out because I want to kill one of my enemies." The party struck enemy encampments, killing as many as possible. If seized by blood lust, the party attacked other encampments, killing as many there as possible. The parties returned home when vengeance was satisfied.

In the mid-1850’s, the Western Apaches saw U. S. settlers and gold miners, abetted by the U. S. Army, invade historic ranges. "The result," said Basso, "was a harsh, tragic, and bitterly immoral war that lasted nearly 40 years and ended with the irreversible defeat of the Western Apache and their consignment to reservations."

J.W. Sharp

More on the Apaches


 The North American Deserts
 Chihuahuan Desert
Great Basin Desert
 Mojave Desert
 Sonoran Desert
 Glossary of Desert & Geological Term



Other DesertUSA Resources

Videos of Desert Animals
Why K-12 Students Read

Need More Desert Information ? Try Searching Our Site.


Copyright © 1996- and Digital West Media, Inc. - -



Mesa Verde - Video - Mesa Verde National Park preserves the remnants of the Anasazi people, "The Ancient Ones." The Cliff Palace, one of the park's most popular attractions, contains over 150 rooms and is the largest cliff dwelling in the world. The Anasazi built these elaborate structures without metal tools of any kind, and no one knows why the left. Take a look at this mysterious remnant of this elusive culture in this DesertUSA video.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument Video
Canyon de Chelly NM offers the opportunity to learn about Southwestern Indian history from the earliest Anasazi to the Navajo Indians who live and farm here today. Its primary attractions are ruins of Indian villages built between 350 and 1300 AD at the base of sheer red cliffs and in canyon wall caves.

The Cosos Range - Little Petroglyph Canyon
The Cosos lie within the confines of China Lake Naval Weapons Center (NWC), the U.S. Navy's largest research and development facility.

More videos .....