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Western Apache

“White men are snakes, and it is spring”

Words that might have been spoken in the mid-1800’s by an elder Tonto Apache.

 The Western Apache had a proud and honored culture, one that stressed connectedness: between people, between the people and their land, and between the natural and supernatural. Much of this was lost to disease, poverty, and despair. The white man came and things changed for these people. Their relationships became threatened and they fought back. Their lands were taken and they fought back. Their spirituality was threatened, yet they still fought back. Wise words told them of these things. Wise words led them on.

 “It was in the place where the fields end”

            Words that might have been spoken in the mid-1800’s by an elder Tonto Apache.

 The Western Apache in the mid-nineteenth century were a semi-nomadic people. They controlled around 90,000 square miles of desert, mountain, and valley land. They separated themselves into a few sub-tribes, the White Mountain, the San Carlos, the Cibecue, and the Tontos. They practiced casual agriculture, leaving the crops as they traveled to collect plants and hunt wild animals. Each sub-tribe ascribed to this means of survival to a more or less degree. The annual collection of food was dependant upon the climate, altitude, and floral and faunal diversity. They followed the seasons. They followed the animals. In the spring they would plant. In the late spring they would gather. In the summer they would harvest the wild plants. The old people would tend to the crops that had been planted. The rest were nomads; they wandered where the plants and animals took them. Mesquite beans, fruits, and acorns were sought. In the fall their corn would ripen and the collection of other plants would cease. The animals were then plentiful and the people thrived as their supply of meat increased. Nuts and berries were abundant. They lived off the products produced by the planet. They were at one with the place where their fields ended.

 “We are wolves; the taking is life”

            Words that might have been spoken in the mid-1800’s by an elder Tonto Apache.

 Raiding became the source of subsistence in the winter. The men rode off and the women made clothes. A woman would typically announce the fact that the meat supply was low and the local group’s leader would respond. Five to fifteen men would answer the call; large numbers would threaten the stealth required for a successful raid. Conflict with victims was discouraged as it might reveal their presence. They would skulk and slink upon their enemies and “search out enemy property”. Livestock was the main target, but other foodstuffs were acceptable. Whatever was available was a target. Whatever was available was life.

 “We are the lightning and the water”

            Words that might have been spoken in the mid-1800’s by an elder Tonto Apache.

 What was taken was deemed to be redeemed. As the earth reclaimed itself, so would the Tonto. A taking of human life was only done in the redemption of death. Revenge was the only reason to kill another. With the extended matrilineal relationships (familial clusters, local groups, bands, tribes, and clans) war parties could be scores strong. These groups grew as matrilineal kinship, clan relationship, and phratrial closeness grew. As many as 200 warriors might gather to avenge the death of a relative. This was the seminal reason that these people would strike out. Ceremonies to encourage participation, strengthen the participants, and to “gain courage” were carried out. A shaman accompanied the party to encourage proper conduct and to discern the location of the enemy. They also used their “power” to predict the viability of the venture.

 “In the place where Life Giver gave Black Wind, Black Metal, Black Thunder, and Black Water power”

            Words that might have been spoken in the mid-1800’s by an elder Tonto Apache.

 This was a place where the universe was born. Black Wind, Black Metal, Black Thunder, and Black Water gave the earth the trees and grass, the rivers and streams, the rocks and mountains, and the wind. At a time after humans crawled upward to the earth’s surface, Changing Woman became a mother to twin sons. One was born of Sun and one was born of Black Water. Slayer of Monsters, having passed several formidable tests, brought Apache clothing, weapons, and horses to the people. He then joined with his twin to kill the evil creatures that had wrought trouble and death.

 “It happened in the mountains where our clan members dance”

            Words that might have been spoken in the mid-1800’s by an elder Tonto Apache.

 Apache social organization created relationships both local and extremely widespread. The smallest unit was the family cluster, centered around a martilocal extended family. Men would serve their wife’s parents, and one would become the headman based upon his hunting and raiding skills and the possession of characteristics that aroused allegiance, confidence, and respect.

 A coterie of family clusters became a local group. These groups controlled farm sites and hunting grounds and consisted of 35-200 people. Most of these people were related by blood or marriage and they shared commitments of mutual support with one another. Local groups were led by a chief, who was in control of larger endeavors such as moving camps and irrigation projects. The chief was not chosen, but moved into power by the recognition of the local group as the headman that inspired them by the way he lived his life and his various skills. He was a role model for his people by virtue of his generosity, fairness, temperament, industriousness, and oration skills.

 Many local groups made up Apache bands. The bands came together in the event of emergency or when extremely large projects were undertaken. They established clearly defined hunting grounds and were the most important segments of Western Apache culture. Many bands came together to become the sub-tribes known as the Northern and Southern Tonto, the San Carlos, the Cibeque, and the White Mountain Apache. Together, they were the Western Apache.

 Non-geographical relationships also existed. Matrilineal clans were scattered all through Western Apache territory. The main business of the clan was the regulation of marriage, the extended mutual obligations and the joining together in endeavors that required more manpower than a family cluster. Exogamy was practiced within the clan as the members considered themselves as related on a matrilineal line. There were 60 clans of the Western Apache and had female ancestors who established farms at the clan’s birthplace. From this place of origin, the clan name was derived.

 The clans were ultimately descended from one of three ancient clans. The relationships of members of a particular line were closely related, related, or distantly related and are referred to as phratries. The more closely related the stronger the bonds of mutual obligation, and the restrictions on marriage.

 “I received my diyih in the place where the mountains come together at the river”

            Words that might have been spoken in the mid-1800’s by an elder Tonto Apache.

 Certain Western Apache people obtained power from certain animals, plants, astronomical bodies and even weather phenomena. The diyih emanated from the objects and might chose a person to be its owner, or a person might seek for it. Individuals who were chosen were thought to be very worth and talented. Manipulated and directed by a set of prayers and chants, powers could be used for curing, locating enemies, and hunting success. The chants “belonged” to the power and were considered a “part” of it. A power would provide its owner with person protection if treated properly. Respect and trust were important. If a power wished something, it was to be done as a matter of course. After a power provided a service, it was to be thanked with its associated chants and prayers.

 A power could also be used for evil purposes. Witches hid their powers and used them to sicken others or cause “accidents” resulting in death or bodily injury. Once a witch was caught, a trial would ensue. The alleged witch was accused and evidence was presented. Regardless of any defense, these trials usually ended with the “witch” being released, but he/she would be severely weakened and terrified, and would be ostracized from the local group.

 Shamans, on the other hand, used their power for good. They underwent arduous training, learning as many as 80 chants. These chants were required to be performed perfectly, work for word, line by line. The chants required a skilled singer, someone who could sing over more than one octave, who could change tempo and pitch quickly. Having spent large amounts of bounty for the instruction, a shaman would attain a very elevated status upon completion of training. If successful, a shaman was accorded widespread respect. He became a source of pride for his local group and provided a fundamental link between the world of men and the world of the supernatural powers.

 Sickness was believed to be caused when one violated taboos against objects that held power, or objects power emanated from. There were hundreds of these taboos and they set the boundaries for “respectful behavior”, or “safe” behavior. Those who became sick would come to a shaman who would diagnose and treat the illness. This was done through a ceremony that could last from one to eight nights. The shaman would use sand paintings, gestures, dancers, and chants and prayers to affect a cure. These ceremonies were especially important because they reassured the patient that all would be well. The family of the patient, his friends, and related kin attended the ceremony and they would shower him with encouragement. This helped to instill a belief in the patient that he would be cured; he wanted to be cured.

 “They came from the holy-ground meadow where Silas John taught”

            Words that might have been spoken in the 1920’s by an elder Tonto Apache.

 Beginning in the late 1890’s, the white man began a policy of forced assimilation of the Western Apache. This policy was intended to make the Apache self-sufficient, civilized, and Christian. None of these objectives were met after nearly a century of imposition and the Western Apache live in a state of privation. The children learn and speak Western Apache as their first language, and native ceremonials, including the girl’s puberty ceremony, are still practiced.

 While some of the traditional culture has survived, new problems have raised their ugly heads. Alcoholism has been an invasive problem, reaching into every aspect of life. Men, women, and teenagers all suffer, as does their way of living.

 Where the Christian missionary’s failed, two nativistic cults briefly succeeded. The Millenarian Movement was led by Big John, and held sway from 1903 to 1907. Having made several predictions that never came true, Big John’s followers deserted him.

The Moral Renewal led by Silas John Edwards began in 1921. He introduced new ceremonies held at “holy grounds”, and warned about witchcraft. The Moral Renewal had much more success than the Millenarian Movement, and even made its way to the Mescalero Apache Reservation and several non-Apachean tribes.

 As the 19th century moved on, Native ceremonies began to dwindle. They became too expensive, as they required large amounts of food for the attendees. Poverty ruled, ceremonies ceased, and the clan system broke down. Apaches still practice curing ceremonies and a yearly Girl’s Puberty Ceremony.

 “Students are turtles, they are just waking up”

            Words that might have been spoken in early 2008 by an elder college professor.

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