Apache and Navajo Warriors

The Outside Raiders

For centuries, mounted Apache and Navajo warriors terrorized the Puebloan and Euroamerican populations across the arid basin and range country of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. The Apaches and Navajos, however, always had to watch over their shoulders for mounted Ute, Kiowa and Comanche warriors, who often raided not only the Puebloan and Euroamerican populations, but, often, the Apaches and Navajos themselves.

The Utes

The Utes, called "Blue Sky People" by tribes in neighboring territories and "People of the Shining Mountains" by Charles S. Marsh in his book by the same name, ranged across some 130,000 square miles, including the western two thirds of Colorado, the eastern two thirds of Utah, and the northern edges of Arizona and New Mexico. The Southern Utes, the branch whose warriors preyed on the desert Indian and Euroamerican populations, occupied the valleys and towering mountains of southwestern Colorado and the deeply cut canyonlands of southeastern Utah.

The Utes emerged from origins which are surrounded by uncertainty. It is possible, said Marsh, "that predecessors of the Ute people were included among those gatherers and hunters who roamed about 10,000 years ago over wide areas of the southwestern United States and Northern [sic]Mexico…" If they descended from ancestors within or near their traditional range, they somehow came to speak a tongue which had roots in the family of languages known as Uto-Aztecan, which has strong ties to Mesoamerica, far to the south. "An ancient variation," of that language, said Marsh, "is still spoken by the Aztecs of central Mexico."

Like many desert tribes, the Utes believed that they emerged from an underworld onto the earth’s surface, according to Marsh. They believed in a supreme god, who lived in the sun. They believed in a solar paradise, an eternal home in the sun for all Ute souls. Unlike the Puebloan peoples, who celebrated their religious beliefs in communal ceremonial chambers and community plazas, the Utes viewed religion as an intensely personal experience. While they believed in supernatural forces, they did not recognize a formalized pantheon of deities. As in the Plains tribes, a young man of the Utes undertook a vision quest, a solitary journey to a secreted place where he sought his individual spiritual identity, his "power" and its symbols. In tribal folk tales, the Utes spoke of "Pituguf," a green pixie-like creature who recalls the elves of Scandinavian and British folklore or the duende of Spanish legend. Like the Navajos, the Utes sought harmony with nature, where all living things possessed metaphysical power, and they believed that illnesses and misfortunes resulted from a discordance with nature. They looked to their shamans – as many of them women as men – to preserve or restore harmony. The Utes expressed their passions in song and dance, the media through which warriors prepared for battle, bands exulted in victory, hunters appealed for success, populations gathered for social interactions, shamans chanted to the spirit world, and all rejoiced in the annual ascendancy of the sun.

In a climactic annual event – the Bear Dance, a rite of spring – the Utes celebrated the annual awakening of the bears from hibernation. The dance had begun in ancient times, according to Ute folklore, when a warrior, worried about a bear in an overextended hibernation, awoke the animal so it could feed and avoid starvation. In gratitude, "…the bear took him to a clearing deep in the woods where all the bears were dancing to celebrate the end of winter," said Marsh. "The bears taught their Ute friend their special dance, and he then returned to his people and taught them the dance." Thereafter, the Utes danced to validate their kinship with the bear—a symbolic declaration of their "spiritual connection between man, beasts, and all living things, and the intertwining of religion, legend, and storytelling," according to Marsh.

Typically, the Utes moved in bands of 50 to 100 people, according to Don Callaway, Joel Janetski and Omer C. Stewart in their article "Ute" in the Smithsonian’s Handbook of North American Indians: Great Basin, Volume 11. Nearly always, they married outside their immediate bands. A warrior played a wooden flute in his ritual of courtship. Some warriors had more than one wife. Most Ute families lived in domed or conical willow brush lodges, although eastern bands adopted hide-covered tepees, much like those of the neighboring tribes of the Great Plains. Generally, a Ute warrior wore a leather shirt, a breechclout, leggings and moccasins, and a Ute woman wore a leather poncho-like blouse and a leather skirt and moccasins.

The men, armed with bows and arrows, hunted deer, antelope and elk. They flushed large game into pitfall traps, herded antelope into V-shaped brush funnel traps, and drove elk into deep and inescapable snow drifts. Once they acquired horses, the Utes expanded their hunting range into the plains to take buffalo. In communal hunts, the Utes drove smaller animals and birds into net traps. They clubbed or shot water fowl in the spring, just before the young birds could take flight. They gathered grasshoppers and crickets, mixing the insects with berries "to make a storable food called desert fruit-cake," said Callaway and his co-authors. In their mountain springs and basin lakes, the Utes trapped and speared trout, chub, suckers and whitefish. The women harvested a variety of plant foods, including berries, nuts, roots, seeds and cactus blossoms and fruits.

Ute women, usually indifferent or occasional potters, became masters at leatherwork, tanning and sewing hides into beautifully finished clothing, moccasins, quivers, pouches, bags and containers. They produced a diverse array of basketry woven from squawbush or willow twigs or shoots. They made cups and ladles from buffalo horns or wood.

Like other tribes of the desert and the plains, the Utes found new identity and purpose – a sense of liberation – from the back of the Spanish horse. Among the first of the Southwest Indian peoples to acquire the horse, in the mid-17th century, the Utes broadened their horizons. They not only expanded their hunts, especially of buffalo, they consolidated bands, and their leaders acquired increased power.

And from the back of the Spanish horse, the Southern Utes perfected the art of the mounted attack, "moving out of their mountain fortresses to raid other Indian groups or towns and villages to the south," according to the Introduction to "Ute Tribal History" in the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s internet web site. For centuries, the Utes inflicted raids on their neighbors, taking booty and captives. They sold abducted women and children as slaves to the Spanish. They suffered raids by their neighbors, surrendering booty and captives. They formed alliances of convenience with intermittent enemies, fighting wars of common purpose. They made treaties of convenience with Euroamerican settlers, joining campaigns against former Indian allies. "There are nearly 100 reports of eastern and southern Utes raiding Pueblo, Apache, Hopi, and Navajo settlements in what is now New Mexico and Arizona," said Callaway and his fellow authors. Undoubtedly, the Utes conducted many other raids which were never reported.

Throughout the middle of the 17th century, the Utes fought the Hopis, according to the Southern Ute Indian’s "Chronology of Ute History." In 1637, they fought the Spanish for the first time. In 1692, they allied with the Apaches, Hopis and Paiutes to fight the Spanish. Through the first half of the 18th century, they attacked Puebloan and Spanish settlements, often in alliances with the Comanches and Apaches. In 1754, they drove Navajos from the upper San Juan River drainage basin, and 20 years later, they allied themselves with the Navajos to battle the Hopis. They retained intermittent alliances and fought intermittent battles with the Navajos until 1863, when Ute warriors joined with American forces to defeat the Navajos and force them to take the dreadful "Long Walk" – the Navajo equivalent to the Bataan Death March – to the Fort Sumner concentration camp on eastern New Mexico’s Pecos River.

For more than 200 years, the Southern Utes’ mountains and canyonlands served them as a sanctuary, but after the Mexican/American war in the middle of the 19th century, they faced the irresistible tidal wave of settlers from the brawny young nation to the east. They gave way to the Mormons in the west, to U. S. military forces and settlers in the south, to prospectors and mining interests within the San Juan Mountain range. They would suffer a "fatal setback on a sunny September afternoon in 1879 during a rather bizarre affair that occurred quite by accident," said Marsh. It happened, not in the range of the Southern Utes, but in lands of those to the north.

At the request of an incompetent, misguided and bigoted agent named Nathan Cook Meeker, an incompetent, misguided and bigoted Colorado governor named Frederic Pitkin dispatched 150 troops to the White River Agency in northwestern Colorado to bring unruly Utes to heel. The governor, who believed the Utes in his state should either be driven out or exterminated, knew the action was a clear violation of a treaty between the United States and the Utes. According to Marsh, the Utes, fearing a massacre, challenged the troopers. Fighting erupted. By the time the gunfire ended, some three dozen Ute warriors lay dead. Twelve troopers, including their commanding officer, Major Thomas Thornburgh, lay dead. Seven agency employees, including Meeker, lay dead. The Utes had driven a driven a stake through Meeker’s mouth, pinning his head to the earth to "stop his infernal lying."

All the Utes, northern and southern, would suffer the consequences of the White River tragedy. "The following year, 1880, saw the final banishment of the Utes to their reservations," said Marsh. Under the force of American arms, the northern Utes left their revered mountain ranges and moved to an arid reservation in northeastern Utah. The southern bands forfeited traditional territory and moved to reservation lands in southwestern Colorado.

The Kiowas

The Kiowas, a small but fearsome tribe of the southern Great Plains, raided farther afield than perhaps any of the other Native American peoples. From their core range in the Rolling Plains of western Oklahoma and the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle – a region they shared with their Comanche allies – Kiowa warriors "raided far south and southwestward, to Matagorda Bay in Texas, south of Durango and through Sonora and Sinaloa in Mexico to the Gulf of California, and at one time into the canyon of the Colorado with a raid and massacre of the Havasupais," according to Mildred P. Mayhall in her book The Kiowas. Raiding expeditions sometimes lasted for two years. Kiowa raiding parties attacked the Navajos on the Colorado Plateau; J. E. B. Stuart’s forces near southeastern Colorado’s Bent’s Fort; another U. S. Army force on the Republican Fork of the Kansas River; caravans on the Santa Fe Trail; a Confederate force at north central Texas’ Fort Belknap; settlers in central Texas; wagon trains in the Fort Worth/Dallas region; and settlers far down into Mexico’s Chihuahua and along both sides of the Rio Grande. In one instance, a Kiowa raiding party traveled as far south as British Honduras, Alice Marriott said in her book The Ten Grandmothers: Epic of the Kiowas. When the warriors returned home, they complained of rude little men who lived in trees and refused to speak to anyone.

Like other Plains tribes, the Kiowas defined themselves in terms of their indianswarriors’ heroism and abandon on the battlefield. A Kiowa warrior sought lifelong supernatural "power" through a vision quest; he found glory through codified and, ultimately, near suicidal individual conquests in battle; he won prestige and wealth in the plunder of the raid; and he told the stories of his valor around winter campfires. A Kiowa woman drew pride and identity from her husband’s courage and daring, and she danced in his victory celebrations. A Kiowa son grew up yearning and training to add his name to the Kiowas’ war-making legacy.

The Kiowas seem to have materialized as a tribe – nomadic hunters and gathers – almost from the ether in the vicinity of Yellowstone in the 17th century. We have no earlier record of their existence. They spoke a strange and difficult language with vague possible connections to Tanoan, the tongue of some of New Mexico’s northern pueblos. In the second half of the century, the Kiowas splintered as a tribe. While one faction headed northwest, into obscurity, the other drifted eastward toward the Black Hills then southward toward the lower Great Plains, into frontier fame. En route southward, the Kiowas acquired the horse, which liberated their restless spirits. Consummate equestrians, they adapted the classic Plains Indian culture. They lived in hide-covered tepees. They hunted the buffalo as food for supplying their larders and as raw material for manufacturing tepee covers, clothing, containers, bedding, bow strings and musical instruments. They used horse-drawn travois to transport their possessions as well as their small children, their aged, their lame and ill, and even their puppies. The warriors belonged to soldier societies and wore elegant feathered war bonnets into battle.

The Kiowas believed that the first of their people emerged from a hollow cottonwood log, called from their tribal womb by the insistent drumming of their Creator. ("Kiowa" means "coming out.") Their Creator gave them the sun, the heart of their religion. He taught them to hunt. He destroyed monsters to make the earth a fit place to live. Then he ascended to the sun. Hero twins, called "Half Boys," defeated monsters and giants, overcoming the Kiowas’ greatest fears, and one gave them the Ten Grandmothers, the sacred tribal icons. The Tai-me deity gave the Kiowas spiritual leadership, infusing them with a sense of holiness. Saynday, a character analogous to the Utes’ Pituguf, gave character and humor to Kiowa parables.

The Kiowas worshipped the sun, praying for good fortune and offering sacrifices in gratitude. Like other tribes of the Great Plains, they staged the Sun Dance annually, near the time of the summer solstice, celebrating with song and dance. The Kiowas turned to their shamans to serve as their connection to the spirit world. They looked to their medicine men to cure their sick and injured. They shrank from witches and sorcerers who might bewitch anyone who dared to challenge the evil powers, offend the deities or violate tribal taboos. Warriors followed a leader into battle on the strength of his dreams and visions.

The Kiowas believed that the animals had supernatural power. They equated the buffalo herds with Indian tribes, believing that each animal had its own name and that some – like medicine men – had curative powers. Like many other tribes, the Kiowas feared the owls – birds of the darkness – believing that they embodied the souls of the dead. They thought that other animals had special powers which could be conveyed to man. A Kiowa who held the power of the prairie dog – tremendously prolific mammals – could enhance tribal fertility. A Kiowa who had the power of the wolf could foresee the fate of a raiding party. A Kiowa who had the power of the mountain lions had the impulse to attack ferociously if awakened suddenly.

Like other tribes of the Plains, the Kiowas, moving as bands of extended families, followed the buffalo, their mobile supermarket. The men hunted the buffalo with bows, from the back of their horses, encircling the prey for a carefully planned and orchestrated plunge into a herd. In a swirling stampede, the hunters drove their arrows deep into the animals. Kiowa women butchered the fallen buffalo where they lay, taking not only the meat, but the horns, bones, stomachs, intestines, sinew and hooves as well. They left little of a carcass for the scavengers.

In their tepee encampments, which the women could set up or break down within half an hour, the men tended their horse herds, the largest of any tribe of the Plains, according to Mayhall’s article "Kiowa Indians," published in The Handbook of Texas Online. The men, who wore breach clouts and leather leggings and moccasins, patrolled the camp area, watched the smaller children, schooled their sons, and smoked their pipes. The women, who wore leather shift dresses, leggings and moccasins, maintained the camp, harvested wild plant foods, dried meat, prepared meals, tanned hides, sewed clothing, nursed the infants and fed the camp dogs. Grandparents taught the children the history, folklore and religious beliefs of the tribe. A young man gave horses to parents to win their consent for his marriage to their daughter.

By the 1870’s, the Kiowas had lost their principal chief and steadying hand, the great Dohasan. They had suffered a serious population decline as a result of decades of warfare and, especially, the occurrence of epidemic European diseases. They had lost their primary food source – the buffalo – to unprecedented slaughter by commercial hunters. They had lost their mobility and wealth – their horses, their tepees, their stores – to a rampaging U. S. Army. In the fall of 1874, the last holdouts of the Kiowas, hungry and impoverished, surrendered, a defeated nation.

The Comanches

In his 1839 Travels in the Great Western Prairies (reprinted by R. G. Thwaites in his Early Western Travels, 1748-1846), Thomas J. Farnham said that the Comanches’ "?incomparable horsemanship, their terrible charge, the unequalled rapidity with which they load and discharge their fire-arms, and their insatiable hatred make the enmity of these Indians more dreadful than that of any other tribe of aborigines."

The Comanches moved from the Colorado Rocky Mountains into the Southern Plains in the 18th century, according to Earnest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel in their book The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains. To establish their territory, which would extend from New Mexico’s Pecos River to the Fort Worth/Dallas area and from Kansas’ Arkansas River to central Texas, they fought back challenges by the Spanish and the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apaches to the west, the Jumano Indians to the east, and the Lipan Apaches to the south.

Numbering perhaps 20,000 to 30,000, the Comanches became the most formidable fighting force in the South Plains and a dark and dreaded menace for New Mexico, western Texas and northern Chihuahua. As the Comanches, with their Kiowa allies, tightened their grasp on their new range in the 18th and 19th centuries, they plundered Spanish settlements in New Mexico and western Texas for horses and slaves. They threatened Jicarilla and Mescalero parties who hunted buffalo on the Plains. They preyed on Navajo encampments, including the impoverished concentration camp at Fort Sumner, for plunder and slaves. They forced the abandonment of the Pecos Pueblo, a trading center between the Plains and the northern Rio Grande villages. They drove the Lipan completely out of Texas’ High Plains. They terrorized the haciendas of Chihuahua every fall, traveling down the Comanche War Trail from the Plains in September to raid during the foreboding full "Comanche Moon."

"Among those peoples who have oriented their life around warfare, few have done so more thoroughly and completely than the Comanches," W. W. Newcomb said in his book The Indians of Texas. "For just under two hundred years they were constantly embroiled in wars. In a very literal sense Comanche culture came into being through military prowess, blossomed through raiding and brawling, and nearly every aspect of life became intertwined in one way or another with the art of war."

The Comanches split from the Shoshone, a Uto-Aztecan-speaking tribe, somewhere in the Colorado Rockies about the end of the 17th century, when they moved to the Southern Plains. Among the earliest tribes to acquire the horse, the Comanches swiftly evolved into Plains Indians. They occupied tepees, hunted buffalo, used horse-drawn travois and wore feathered war bonnets.

"Comanche religion," said Wallace and Hoebel, "was exceedingly simple, highly vital, and based on no more than casual attempts to explain satisfactorily the mysterious operations of nature…" The Comanches seem to have believed in a supreme deity—their creator and teacher. They believed in a paradise, which lay beyond the setting sun. They regarded the sun, moon and earth with reverence. The believed spirits dwelled in distinctive natural features such as high bluffs, springs or rivers. They thought that many animals had supernatural powers. A buffalo, for instance, could change itself into a human form. The eagle could deflect arrows or bullets. The deer could cause or cure disease. The bear could heal wounds. The wolf created perfection. They believed that the mythical Thunderbird produced thunder and lightening, terrifying forces which erupted from the powerful storms which sweep the Southern Plains. Unlike other Plains Tribes, the Comanches did not celebrate their deities in an annual Sun Dance.

Comanche religious beliefs seem to have lacked focus and structure. Wallace and Hoebel said, "There was no religious organization, no theocracy, no priestly class, no dogma." The individual Comanche’s supernatural power, or "medicine," however, ran deep in the tribal fiber as an article of unshakable faith. It lay at the center of a Comanche’s life, like a guardian angel. It served as his unbreachable shield in battle. It cured his diseases and healed his wounds. It assured his success in the hunt. A Comanche warrior, when an adolescent about to be initiated in the art of war and raiding, sought his medicine through his first vision quest, a solitary journey in hardship and spirituality and a turning point in his life. The quest took him to a sequestered place, for instance, a high and distant bluff, where he smoked and prayed and fasted for four days or until he experienced his personal and forever secret vision of his individual supernatural power. Thereafter, he would revalidate his medicine in ritual, dance and song. With strong medicine, he felt invincible in battle. He treated the diseases and wounds of himself and others. He attracted other warriors who would follow him on raids on the strength of his medicine. He sometimes bequeathed his healing power to his wife.

Like the Kiowas, the Comanches followed the buffalo, and they hunted the other big game of the prairie. According to Newcomb, they also harvested nuts and fruits of river bottom trees and the fruits of prickly pear cacti. They acquired corn and tobacco by raiding or through trade. They lived in highly mobile tepee encampments. As Wallace and Hoebel said, the Comanche man, who wore buckskin breechclouts, leggings and moccasins, fought the wars, raided enemies, guarded his family and hunted game. The Comanche woman, who wore buckskin blouses and skirts, tended her household and nourished her family.

Among the men, "Racing horses, it would seem, is a constant and almost incessant exercise…" said George Catlin, famed frontier artist in his Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the North American Indians. "…and perhaps, a more finished set of jockeys are not to be found…

"Amongst their feats of riding, there is one that has astonished me more than indiansanything of the kind I have ever seen, or expect to see, in my life:—a stratagem of war, learned and practised [sic] by every young man in the tribe; by which he is able to drop his body upon the side of his horse at the instant he is passing, effectually screened from his enemies’ weapons…as he lies in a horizontal position behind the body of his horse, with his heel hanging over the horse’s back; by which he has the power of throwing himself up again, and changing to the other side of the horse if necessary. In this wonderful condition, he will hang whilst his horse is at the fullest speed, carrying with him his bow and his shield, and also his long lance of fourteen feet in length, all or either of which he will wield upon his enemy as he passes; rising and throwing his arrows over the horse’s back, or with equal ease and equal success under the horse’s neck…"

In the end, however, the Comanches’ power, their incomparable horsemanship, their terrible charges, the fighting skills and their insatiable hatred could not overcome the battlefield losses, the epidemics, the buffalo declines, the relentless settlers and the U. S. Army. They, like their Kiowa allies, surrendered in 1874. The day of the Plains raiders, who had preyed mercilessly on the Indian peoples and the Euroamerican settlers of the desert for centuries, was over and done.

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)
The Outside Raiders (Part 19)This Page
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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