The Athapaskan Speakers

Ancestors of the Navajos and the Apaches

The Apaches "stood toward the land-tilling Indians in the relation of a man-eating tiger to the East Indian communities. Nobody knew, even if there were but a single enemy in the neighborhood, where he might strike next. One Apache could keep a pueblo of several hundred souls on the alert, and hamper them in their daily work. He had nothing to attend to but his purposes of murder, rapine, and theft, which were his means of subsistence, whereas the others had their modest fields to till, and in the performance of such duties danger was lurking unseen, always likely to display itself when and where it was least expected."

Adolph Bandelier, Final Report on Investigations in the Southwest,
Papers of the Archaeological Institute of America, American Series III, 1890

Shared Origins, Different Directions

The Apaches, with their restless tribes, groups and bands scattered from northeastern Sonora to southwestern Kansas, arose from their Athapaskan past to become mobile and elusive horse-borne raiders, occasional farmers, master naturalists, indifferent craftsmen and continuing hunter/gatherers. By contrast, their cultural kin, the Navajos, with their people concentrated in the southern Colorado Plateau, emerged from their Athapaskan past to become pastoralists, serious farmers, master weavers, enterprising raiders, entrepreneurs and occasional hunter/gatherers.

The Apaches (who "moved like the wind," as Geronimo suggested to GeneralGeneral George Crook George Crook at a surrender parley in Canyon de Los Embudos in northeastern Sonora in 1886) usually lived as nomadic extended families, anchored by the kinships of the women (an arrangement called "matrilocal"), occupying scattered villages, or rancherias, of ephemeral lodges. The Navajos lived as extended matrilocal families, occupying villages of solid hogan lodges in the winter and following their herds of sheep in the summer.

Apaches and Navajos both spoke languages rooted in the speech of their Athapascan ancestors. Both shared a dread of ghosts, the vengeful spirits of the dead, and a deep terror of owls (and, in many instances, coyotes, snakes and bears), ancient omens of death. Both believed in universal supernatural powers, which were visualized as deities and petitioned through shamans, priests and witches, but around their campfires of night, the various Apache groups and the Navajos told their own versions of their origins and their tribal histories. They found their spirituality in their own brands of ceremony and ritual.

Presumably, over time, the Apaches’ Athapaskan ancestors, like the Navajos’ forebears, filtered southward along the flanks of the Rocky Mountains to establish their ranges. They evolved into six primary divisions or groups—the Jicarilla, the Lipan, the Plains Apaches, the Mescalero, the Western Apaches and the Chiricahuas.

The Jicarilla

The Jicarilla (Spanish for "little basket") Apaches reflected, not only the heritage of their Athapaskan-speaking ancestors, but also a passage through the Great Plains and the cultural influences of Puebloan neighbors. Probably among the last of the Athapaskan-speaking migrants to arrive in the Southwest, they settled in the southern Rocky Mountains, from south-central and southeastern Colorado into north-central and northeastern New Mexico sometime around the middle of the second millennium, perhaps only decades before the arrival of the Spanish. "The Native lands of the Jicarilla," said Veronica E. Tiller in her paper "Jicarilla Apache," in the Smithsonian’s Handbook of North American Indians, Southwest, Volume 10, consisted of "the high plains country rising westward into plateaus and mesas with intermontane basins?" With elevations rising from 3800 to 14,000 feet and annual precipitation ranging from 8 to 30 inches, the "vegetation consists mainly of short grasses and scrub pine."

According to Tiller, the Jicarilla believed that, as a people, they emerged from an underworld, ascending to earth by ladders made of sunbeams. They recognized a pantheon of deities. They vested the animals of the land with spiritual powers. They believed that their ancestors wandered until they found the heart of the earth, the true home of the Jicarilla. They derived personal power from an animal, a celestial body or a natural event. Those who became shamans trained for years in ritual, song and prayer. The community or individual families engaged in "long-life ceremonies," conducted to assure the health of the people, celebrate the harvest of the season, secure the abundance of future harvests and hunts, and induct adolescent girls into womanhood.

The easternmost Jicarilla, called "Llaneros" (Plainsmen) by the Spanish, followed the ancient traditions of hunting and gathering, like their Athapaskan ancestors and the Plains Indians. They hunted the buffalo of the prairies, with such enterprises requiring "time and preparations for an attack," according to Jose Cortes in his 1799 chronicle Views from the Apache Frontier: Report on the Northern Provinces of New Spain. The Apaches (certainly including the Llanero Jicarilla) conducted community hunts, or "surrounds," in which they "usually seek white-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorns, javelinas, porcupines, mountain lions, bears, wolves, coyotes, hares, and rabbits," said Cortes. The hunters, including men, women and children, encircled an area at dawn. Signaled by columns of smoke, the hunters began "setting fire to the grass and vegetation all around the circle?," then closed on their prey like a human noose. "At the same moment they begin to yell and make noise. The game flees but finds no escape, and finally falls into the hands of clever adversaries.

"A lone Indian will also hunt deer and pronghorns with the greatest skill," camouflaging himself with skins and stalking his prey with consummate skill.

"From the tenderest age," Cortes said, "[the boys] are schooled in this vital activity." They learned to use the bow and arrow. They learned to follow the intricate rules and ritual of the hunt.

Like the Plains Indians, the Llanero Jicarilla lived in buffalo-hide teepees and transported children and belongings on horse-drawn travois. They carried painted parfleches [leather cases] and wore clothes and moccasins sewn from skins of the larger game. The warriors wore feathered headdresses into battle.

The westernmost Jicarilla, called "Olleros" (Potters) by the Spanish, took their living primarily from agriculture, much like their Puebloan neighbors. The western Jicarilla had farmed since the late 17th century, said Tiller, they were "described by Spaniards as living in flat-roofed houses or rancherias, with their fields of maize, melons, squash, and beans… Irrigation was used to supplement the scanty rainfall.

"…it was the man who prepared the fields, worked the irrigation ditches, and helped with the harvest. The women did the seeding, hoeing, weeding, and harvesting… …the children also helped where they were able."

In the 17th century, the Jicarilla saw their world challenged on two fronts. Spanish colonists began to settle land grants in the tribe’s range, and Comanches began to drive the tribe’s buffalo hunting parties and rancherias out of the plains region. For the next two centuries, the Jicarilla struggled with a rising tide of Spanish, Mexican then U. S. settlers and continual Comanche raids. By the middle of the 19th century, the Jicarilla faced a rapidly shrinking range, dwindling game and diminished farm lands. They suffered impoverishment, malnutrition, despair and rampant alcoholism.

They lashed out, often in alliance with the Utes, trying to defend their people and land. For instance, according to James L. Haley in his book Apaches: A History and Culture Portrait, a war party of Jicarilla and Utes struck J. M. White’s wagon train on the Santa Fe Trail, near northwestern New Mexico’s Point of Rocks in October of 1849. They killed White and abducted his wife and daughter. As pursuers closed in a month later, a Jicarilla woman executed Mrs. White. The Indians secreted the daughter, who was never again seen by the Americans. Another party of Jicarilla and Utes attacked a mail train on the Santa Fe Trail, killing 11 Americans in May of 1850. More than 100 Jicarilla and Utes attacked Colorado’s El Pueblo, on the Arkansas River, on Christmas Day, 1854, killing 15 men, abducting women and children, and stampeding livestock.

The raiding prompted a declaration of war by the acting governor of New Mexico, said Tiller, and the Jicarilla and their Ute allies faced a new campaign by U. S. military forces in the spring of 1855. The Jicarilla and Utes, wasted by centuries of struggle against the Comanches, Spanish, Mexicans and the Americans, capitulated in the late summer of 1855. They signed a peace treaty with the Americans at Abiquiu, New Mexico, on September 10, 1855. The Jicarilla people floated in limbo and dispute, without a home, for more than 30 years, until the U. S. government finally re-settled them on a permanent reservation in north central New Mexico in 1887.

The Lipan

The testy Lipan Apaches (who battled and raided not only Spanish, Mexican and American settlers, but their neighboring tribes as well) held true to core traditions of their Athapaskan heritage, but they also adopted nomadic hunting and gathering practices of the Plains Indians. Pushed southward, off the Great Plains, by the Comanches during the 18th century, the Lipan laid claim to a new range which encompassed Texas’ heavily dissected Edwards Plateau, the flat coastal sand plain, and the arid and thorny southern brush country. The region extended from the Rio Grande eastward to the Colorado River and from central Texas southward to the Gulf coast—almost a quarter of the entire state.

Like various other Athapaskan speakers, the Lipan believed they ascended to earth’s surface from an underworld, as Morris E. Opler said in his paper "Lipan Apache," published in the Handbook of North American Indians: Plains, Volume 13, Part 2 of 2, by the Smithsonian Institution in 2001. They believed that their deities helped destroy monsters. They sought supernatural power through animals, plants and natural events, which served as conduits to the spiritual world. They called on their shamans to stave off tribal calamities, individual illnesses, enemy threats and future misfortunes. They sought visions and cures through the Peyote (a hallucinogenic plant) ritual. They conducted the life-cycle ceremonies, including the girl’s puberty rites. They believed, said Opler, that the dead traveled "to an underworld where those who had been wicked in life lived in a separate section under miserable conditions and those who had been kind and good enjoyed an underground paradise."

Lipan bands, usually widely dispersed across their range, gathered in the fall for a climactic annual buffalo hunt, when they re-stocked their larder and replenished their supplies. "All parts of the buffalo were used," said Opler. "The tongue, entrails, heart, stomach, kidney, udders of the buffalo cow, and the fetal buffalo were eaten. So was the brain, when it was not needed for tanning. The stomach was consumed or used as a water container. From the hide came blankets, robes, tepee covers, parfleches, bullboats, shields, quivers, feather containers, moccasin soles, and carriers shaped like burden baskets. The sinew made excellent bowstrings. From the horns were fashioned spoons, dippers, drinking cups, and ornaments for the ends of the bow." The Lipan also hunted deer, antelope, rabbits and many other large and small game animals.

While they practiced some agriculture, they invested far more effort in the harvest of numerous wild food plants, including, for instance, agave (the single most important, said Opler), sotol, yucca, wild onion, prickly pear fruits, mesquite beans and nuts. They also used wild plants for medications, paints, implements, weaponry and construction materials.

In grassy prairie lands, the Lipan, like the Plains Indians, lived in tepees, stitched together from 10 to 12 buffalo hides and blessed by an elderly shaman woman. In shrub or wooded country, they lived in wickiups, constructed from saplings, brush, leaves and hide covers.

In a continually changing crazyquilt of enmities and tactical alliances, the Lipan – scattered and independent extended matrilocal family bands with localized leadership – raided villages and settlements for horses, slaves and plunder and made war in vengeance. Warriors, consummately skilled as horsemen and armed with bows and arrows, fearsome lances and occasional fire arms, counted coup (touched a fallen enemy during battle), took scalps, tortured captives, ritually consumed enemy flesh, lauded heroic deeds and celebrated their victories.

In the late 1860’s, the Lipan – with their range increasingly inundated by the American tidal wave and their ranks depleted by two and a half centuries of warfare – moved across the Rio Grande into the edge of Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert, using their new home as a staging ground for raids into Texas. According to Thomas F. Schilz in Lipan Apaches in Texas, they sold plunder to Mexican authorities, who, in turn, shielded the Lipan from American retribution until the spring of 1873, when they awoke, stunned, from siesta one afternoon as U. S. Army Colonel Ranald Mackenzie and 400 soldiers stormed into their campsite. The remaining power of the Lipan evaporated in a swirl of smoke and death. Survivors scattered, some joining with other tribes and some moving to reservations in Oklahoma or New Mexico.

Plains Apaches

The Plains (or, Kiowa) Apaches, more than any other Apache group, relinquished their Athapaskan traditions, although they did continue to speak their ancestral language, recognize matrilocal family relationships, avoid opposite sex in-laws, and fear the dead. Haley said that the Plains Apaches "can only marginally be considered Apaches in a meaningful definition of the term." They "represent the other face of the coin," said W. W. Newcomb, in The Indians of Texas, "and have been termed one of the typical southern plains tribes."

Mounted nomads and raiders, the Plains Apaches, who never numbered more than about 350 people, according to J. Gilbert McAllister and H. Allen Anderson ("Kiowa Apache Indians," The Handbook of Texas Online), ranged across the arid grassy oceans of western Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle and southwestern Kansas. They evolved culturally through associations of convenience with larger and more powerful tribes of the Plains, including the Arapaho, the Cheyenne, the Comanche and especially the Kiowa. They followed the buffalo; lived in extended-family encampments; occupied tepees; dragged travois; shunned agriculture; joined soldier, dancing and religious societies; recognized Plains Indian deities; and joined annual Plains Indian Sun Dance celebrations.

Recognizing the futility of making war against the military power of the United States, most Plains Apaches chose not to fight in the famous Red River War in the Texas Panhandle in 1875, when the U. S. Army crushed final resistance by the remnants of the Kiowa, Comanche, Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho tribes. Instead, the Plains Apaches, as McAllister and Anderson said, "settled on land between forts Cobb and Sill [in southwestern Oklahoma] and made a rapid transition to sedentary life as farmers."

Mescalero Apaches

The Mescalero – mounted, restless and widely scattered nomadic hunter/gatherer/raiders of forested mountain ranges, Chihuahuan Desert basins and the southern Plains – stitched together an astonishingly cohesive cultural fabric from their Athapaskan roots and Plains Indian and Puebloan influences. As Morris E. Opler said in "Mescalero Apache," Handbook of North American Indians, Southwest, Volume 10, the Mescalero, like their Athapaskan ancestors, lived in matrilocal extended families. They avoided opposite-sex in-laws. They feared the ghosts of the dead. They thought of owls and coyotes as harbingers of death. As in Puebloan cultures, Mescalero masked dancers impersonated supernatural figures in ceremonial celebrations. Mescalero women adopted the use of Pueblo-style milling stones for grinding seeds into flour. Mescalero priests and shamans incorporated pollen, turquoise and abalone into rituals. Like the Plains Indians, the Mescalero hunted the buffalo, occupied tepees (when on the plains), dragged travois, carried painted parfleches, and wore buckskin clothing and moccasins.

Mescalero apaches dancing

The Mescalero thought of themselves as a highlands people, with the core of their range lying in the Sacramento Mountains of southeastern New Mexico southward to the Guadalupe and Davis Mountains of western Texas, "but they were equally at home in the parched desert wastes by which they were surrounded," said C. L. Sonnichsen in The Mescalero Apaches. "They moved about freely, wintering on the Rio Grande or farther south [into Mexico’s state of Chihuahua], ranging the buffalo plains in the summer, always following the sun and the food supply. They owned nothing and everything. They did as they pleased and bowed to no man… They were mighty warriors who depended on success in raiding for wealth and honor. To their families they were kind and gentle, but they could be unbelievably cruel to their enemies…"

Unlike the Athapaskan-speaking Navajos, who wove a rich and intricate tapestry of origin stories, deities, ceremony and ritual, the widely dispersed Mescalero "had no large pantheon of gods and goddesses," said Opler, "but they did revere two powerful supernaturals: their culture hero, Child of the Water, and his mother, White-Painted Woman, whose exploits are recounted in their most important ritual narrative." White-Painted Woman, after a divine conception, bore Child of the Water, who grew into a four-year-old son of marvelous flamboyance, courage, daring and resourcefulness—virtues highly valued in the Mescalero warrior. With miraculous heroism, Child of the Water destroyed the monsters who threatened the People. He and his mother then vanished, having provided an example for the People, who would now grow in numbers and fortune. Over time, many drifted away, but the Mescalero believed that they "remained in the original homeland and preserved the ancient language, usages, and memory of the contributions of the supernaturals," said Opler.

Mindful of the monsters of their lore and the dangers of their wilderness life and frequent warfare, the Mescalero sought safeguards for individuals through "life-cycle rites." According to Opler, they celebrated in ritual each person’s birth, first steps, first haircut. They imposed a carefully orchestrated behavior for a boy during his first four raiding expeditions, marking his metamorphosis from child to warrior. They marked the passage of young girls from child to woman in an elaborate four-day rite, declaring her readiness for marriage and family.

In a world awash with supernatural currents, Mescalero men and women sometimes experienced visions, often in secreted places such as a cave, acquiring the shamanistic power to cure the sick and injured—or to concoct witchcraft and evil.

Mescalero men joined together to hunt buffalo on the plains, but usually, individual men hunted the deer, elk and big horn sheep of the mountains and antelope and other animals of the desert basins. Men, women and children participated in rabbit "surrounds." After the Spanish introduced domesticated European livestock, the Mescalero often helped themselves to the horses, mules and cattle of the settlements. Both men and women harvested mescal, the agave plant which was so abundant and important as a food source that it gave the Mescalero Apaches their name. Like other desert peoples, the Mescalero also harvested sotol, prickly pear cactus fruit, mesquite beans, wild peas and many other edible plants. Even in hard times, however, all Mescalero avoided the unholy coyote and owl, and most avoided birds (which ate insects and worms) and fish (which had snake-like scales).

The Mescalero lived in wickiups in the mountains and desert basins and in their tepees on the plains. The man – gauged by his flamboyance, courage, daring and resourcefulness – protected the encampment and horse herds, hunted game, made and maintained his weapons and gear, and raided and made war. The woman – measured largely by her utility – served as homemaker, constructed wickiups or raised tepees, prepared food, raised children, made cradle boards, scraped and cured hides, sewed leather clothes, wove baskets and tended her husband.

The Mescalero Apaches defined their character in the crucible of warfare. From the 17th through the 19th century, they fought the Comanches, who asserted dominance of the southern Great Plains and the buffalo herds and who raided the camps of Mescalero and other Apache groups relentlessly. From 1598 to 1846, the Mescalero fought Hispanic colonists, who laid claim to Indian lands, captured and enslaved the women and children of Indian warriors, exploited the minerals of Indian mountains, sought the forced conversion of Indian souls, and demanded Indian obedience to Hispanic law and allegiance to distant kings and rulers. (In the 19th century, the Mexicans offered a bounty for Apache scalps.) From 1846 until their defeat, the Mescalero fought the Americans, who seized Indian lands, took Indian slaves, mined Indian mountains, and sought the extermination or banishment of Indian tribes, with little regard for souls or citizenship. If the Mescalero warrior fought against invasion, oppression and annihilation, he fought for freedoms and traditions; horses, slaves and booty; tribal recognition, honor and glory; and, often, revenge. He struck, not only Hispanic and Anglo settlements and trails, but Indian peoples as well, for example, forcing the utter abandonment of major missionized pueblos such as Gran Quivira, Abo and Quarai in central New Mexico. The Mescalero warrior became a fearsome guerrilla force, an avenging angel hovering over the northeastern Chihuahuan Desert, both north and south of the Rio Grande.

"From Santa Fe to Chihuahua they raided and burned and killed," said Sonnichsen. "The settlements at El Paso del Norte, reaching for twenty miles down the river from the presidio and church where Juarez now stands, were always tender spots, and for two hundred years the inhabitants lived there in dread of the midnight pillager and the attack at dawn. An old folk song survives from those times which begins, ‘Ay vienen los Indios por el chaparral’—‘Here come the Indians through the underbrush.’ It is a quiet little song, but there was a time when its quietness was the calm of desperation."

In 1863, the Mescalero Apaches, diminished and demoralized at last by two and a half centuries of war, surrendered to the forces of General James H. Carleton. According to John C. Cremony in his classic Life Among the Apaches, the Mescalero spokesman, Cadete, said to the general, "You are stronger than we. We have fought you so long as we had rifles and powder; but your arms are better than ours. Give us like weapons and turn us loose, we will fight you again; but we are worn-out; we have no more heart; we have no provisions, no means to live; your troops are everywhere; our springs and water holes are either occupied or overlooked by your young men. You have driven us from our last and best stronghold, and we have no more heart. Do with us as may seem good to you, but do not forget we are men and braves."

Carleton, with all the self-righteous bile he felt for Indians, never thought of the Mescalero warriors as men and braves. Instead, he sent the Mescalero to the forlorn Pecos River concentration camp called Fort Sumner, where they would soon be joined by Navajo prisoners in years of misery, starvation and rampant disease.

The Western Apaches

The Western Apaches, 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 the 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 supernaturalIndian Peaches or Tsoe 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 the lasted nearly 40 years and ended with the irreversible defeat of the Western Apache and their consignment to reservations."

The Chiricahua Apaches

The Chiricahuas – charismatic and fearsome, daring and elusive, superbly skilled raiders and merciless warriors – defined the very notion of Apache, gave it form and substance and imagery. They symbolized Bandelier’s "man-eating tiger" in his 1890 report for the Archaeological Institute of America. Their leaders and fighters – Mangas Coloradas, Cochise, Geronimo, Juh, Victorio, Lozen, Nana, Loco, Chihuahua, Chato, and others – became icons in American legend. The last of the Native Americans to accept defeat at the hands of the U. S. Army, the Chiricahuas terrorized settlers and travelers in their Chihuahuan and Sonoran desert basins and mountainous homelands in southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and the northern Sierra Madre until the final surrender of Geronimo in early September of 1886.

They left an indelible impression.

"…it may be proper to say that all the chiefs of the Chiricahuas…" wrote John G. Bourke in his An Apache Campaign in the Sierra Madre, "…are men of noticeable brain power, physically perfect and mentally acute—just the individuals to lead a forlorn hope in the face of every obstacle."

The Apache warrior, said Charles F. Lummis in The Land of Poco Tiempo, had "earned the eye of the kite, the ear of the cat, the cunning of the fox, the ferocious courage and tirelessness of the gray wolf."

"From earliest infancy they are instructed to regard every other race as natural enemies," said Cremony. "Their suspicions and savage distrust are aroused and cultivated before they ever come in contact with other people. An Apache child of three years will run and yell with fear and hate from a white man."

 Chatto Indian scoutThe warrior knew "every foot of [his range] better than you know your own parlor," said Lummis. "Every water-pocket in the mountains, every petty spring, every hollowed rock wherein the rare rains might leave a life-giving drop—all were his. The white foe would die of thirst within stone’s-throw of the hidden water; but no one ever heard of an Apache perishing by the death of the desert."

"Many of the women delight to participate in predatory excursions, urging on the men, and actually taking part in conflicts. They ride like centaurs and handle their rifles with deadly skill." The women, said Cremony, "are numerous, well trained, and desperate, often exhibiting more real courage than the men."

The Chiricahuas forged their nomadic hunting, gathering and raiding way of life from the heritage of their Athapaskan ancestors and the back of the Spanish horse. In particular, they raided northern Mexico’s settlements, which the effectively "harvested," like the fruit of the prickly pear. They lived in matrilocal extended families, occupying wickiups. They avoided in-laws, shunned the dead, and feared the owl.

They held only a vague belief about their origins, which revolved around a nebulous deity called "Life Giver," Opler said in his paper "Chiricahua Apache," Handbook of North American Indians: Southwest, Volume 10. Like their Athapaskan-speaking relatives, the Mescaleros, the Chiricahuas revered White-Painted Woman and her son, Child of the Water, who triumphed over evil. They looked to mountain spirit deities, inhabitants of the uppermost ranges, to fend off diseases and enemy attacks. They believed that supernatural powers flowed through the animals and plants and stars and planets to appear to individuals through visions. They turned to shamans to cure ailments, assure hunting success, locate enemies, thwart witchcraft and promote romance. They marked and ritualized the passages of life, including birth, the first haircut, a son’s first raids, and a daughter’s puberty ceremony.

The Chiricahua man made and maintained his weapons; hunted elk, deer, antelope and smaller game; raided settlements; and ravaged his enemies. The Chiricahua woman built the family wickiups; gathered, processed and cooked wild plant foods; raised children; tanned hides and sewed buckskin clothing and bags; wove basketry; manufactured utensils; and ravaged enemies.

The Chiricahuas, and other Apaches, went to war with Spanish colonists in the Southwest in the 17th century. The conflict "was carried on with greater or less ferocity for more than two hundred years…" according to Dan L. Thrapp in The Conquest of Apacheria. "Ignacio Zuniga, commander for several years of the northern presidios of Sonora, wrote in 1835 that since 1820 no fewer than five thousand lives had been lost to the Apaches…, and that ‘nothing was left but the demoralized garrisons of worthless soldiers,’ although, by the time he wrote, the Apaches raids had slacked off, largely ‘for lack of anything worth plundering.’"

The Chiricahuas went to their last war, with the Americans, whose settlers, miners, troopers and travelers began to overrun southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona in the mid-19th century. After an epic conflict, which was defined by honor and betrayal, heroism and cowardice, compassion and stunning savagery, generosity and avarice, and self-sacrifice and self-aggrandizement, the end came when Geronimo surrendered to Nelson Miles in Skeleton Canyon, in the heart of the Chiricahua range in early September of 1886.

Breaking his promise of rejoined families and fair treatment, Miles sent 498 Chiricahuas to squalid prisons in Florida and Alabama, where more than 20 percent of them died of various diseases and exposure within the first three years. The Chiricahuas who survived never returned to their home range in the desert.

Jay W. Sharp


"Paleo-Indians" (Part 1)
Desert Archaic peoples( Part 2)
Desert Archaic peoples - Spritual Quest (Part 3)
Native Americans - The Formative Period (Part 4)
Voices from the South (Part 5)
The Mogollon Basin and Range Region (Part 6)
The Mogollon - Their Magic (Part7)
Hohokam the Farmers (Part 8)
The Hohokam Signature (Part 9 )
The Anasazi (Part 10)
The Anasazi 2 (Part 11)
The Great Puebloan Abandonments (Part 12)
Paquime (Part 13)
When The Spanish Came (Part 14)
Life on the Margin (1) (Part 15)
Life on the Margin (2) (Part 16)
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 1 (Part 17)
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 2 (Part 18) This Page
The Outside Raiders (Part 19)
The Enduring Mysteries (Part 20)
Some Sites to Visit (Final Part)

Profile Of An Apache Woman
Pueblo Rebellion
Cochise and the Bascom Affair
Geronimo's Last Hurrah
Books on Native American healing




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