Monday, May 31, 2010

Meet the Apaches

Taken from the book Indians of Arizona

The Apaches have few legends. The only thing I have been able to find in reference to their belief in creation is the statement of Geronimo, given in his autobiography in the first chapter, which follows:

“In the beginning the world was covered with darkness. There was no sun, no day. The perpetual night had no moon or stars.

“There were, however, all manner of beasts and birds. Among the beasts were many hideous, nameless monsters, as well as dragons, lions, tigers, wolves, foxes, beavers, rabbits, squirrels, rats, mice, and all manner of creeping things such as lizards and serpents. Mankind could not prosper under such conditions, for the beasts and serpents destroyed all human offspring.
“All creatures had the power of speech and were gifted with reason.

“There were two tribes of creatures: the birds, or the feathered tribe, and the beasts. The former were organized under their chief, the eagle.

“These tribes often held councils, and the birds wanted light admitted. This the beasts repeatedly refused to do. Finally the birds made war against the beasts.

“The beasts were armed with clubs, but the eagle had taught his tribe to use bows and arrows. The serpents were so wise that they could not all be killed. One took refuge in a perpendicular cliff of a mountain in Arizona, and his eye (changed into a brilliant stone) may be seen in that rock to this day. The bears, when killed, would each be changed into several other bears, so that the more bears the feathered tribe killed, the more there were. The dragon could not be killed, either, for he was covered with four coats of horny scales, and the arrows would not penetrate these. One of the most hideous, vile monsters (nameless) was proof against arrows, so the eagle flew high up in the air with a round, white stone, and let it fall on this monster's head, killing him instantly. This was such a good service that the stone was called sacred. They fought for many days, but at last the birds won the victory.

“After this war was over, although some evil beasts remained, the birds were able to control the councils, and light was admitted. Then mankind could live and prosper. The eagle was chief in this good fight; therefore, his feathers were worn by man as emblems of wisdom, justice and power.

“Among the few human beings that were yet alive was a woman who had been blessed with many children, but these had always been destroyed by the beasts. If by any means she succeeded in eluding the others, the dragon, who was very wise and very evil, would come himself and eat her babes.

“After many years a son of the rainstorm was born to her and she dug for him a deep cave. The entrance to this cave she closed and over the spot built a camp fire. This concealed the babe's hiding place and kept him warm. Every day she would remove the fire and descend into the cave, where the child's bed was, to nurse him; then she would return and rebuild the camp fire.

“Frequently the dragon would come and question her, but she would say, ‘I have no more children; you have eaten all of them.’
“When the child was larger he would not always stay in the cave, for he sometimes wanted to run and play. Once the dragon saw his tracks. Now this perplexed and enraged the old dragon, for he could not find the hiding place of the boy; but he said that he would destroy the mother if she did not reveal the child's hiding place. The poor mother was very much troubled; she could not give up her child, but she knew the power and cunning of the dragon, therefore she lived in constant fear.
“Soon after this the boy said that he wished to go hunting. The mother would not give her consent. She told him of the dragon, the wolves, and the serpents; but he said, ‘Tomorrow I go.’

“At the boy's request his uncle, (who was the only man then living), made a little bow and some arrows for him, and the two went hunting the next day. They trailed the deer far up the mountain and finally the boy killed a buck. His uncle showed him how to dress the deer and broil the meat. They broiled two hind quarters, one for the child and one for his uncle. When the meat was done they placed it on some bushes to cool. Just then the huge form of the dragon appeared. The child was not afraid, but his uncle was so dumb with fright that he did not speak or move.

“The dragon took the boy's parcel of meat and went aside with it. He placed the meat on another bush, and seated himself beside it. Then he said, ‘This is the child I have been seeking. Boy, you are nice and fat, so when I have eaten this venison I shall eat you.’ The boy said, ‘No, you shall not eat me, and you shall not eat that meat.’ So he walked over to where the dragon sat and took the meat back to his own seat. The dragon said, ‘I like your courage, but you are foolish; what do you think you could do?’ ‘Well,’ said the boy, ‘I can do enough to protect myself, as you may find out.’ Then the dragon took the meat again, and then the boy retook it. Four times in all the dragon took the meat, and after the fourth time the boy replaced the meat he said, ‘Dragon, will you fight me?’ The dragon said, ‘Yes, in whatever way you like.’ The boy said, ‘I will stand one hundred paces from you and you may have four shots at me with your bow and arrows, provided that you will then exchange places with me and give me four shots.’ ‘Good,’ said the dragon. ‘Stand up.’

“Then the dragon took his bow, which was made of a large pine tree. He took four arrows from his quiver; they were made of young pine tree saplings, and each arrow was twenty feet in length. He took deliberate aim, but just as the arrow left the bow the boy made a peculiar sound and leaped into the air. Immediately the arrow was shivered into a thousand splinters, and the boy was seen standing on the top of a bright rainbow over the spot where the dragon's aim had been directed. Soon the rainbow was gone and the boy was standing on the ground again. Four times this was repeated, then the boy said, ‘Dragon, stand here; it is my time to shoot.’ The dragon said, ‘All right, your little arrows cannot pierce my first coat of horn, and I have three other coats—shoot away.’ The boy shot an arrow, striking the dragon just over the heart, and one coat of the great horny scales fell to the ground. The next shot another coat fell, and then another, and the dragon's heart was exposed. Then the dragon trembled, but could not move. Before the fourth arrow was shot the boy said, ‘Uncle, you are dumb with fear; you have not moved; come here or the dragon will fall on you.’ His uncle ran toward him. Then he sped the fourth arrow with true aim, and it pierced the dragon's heart. With a tremendous roar the dragon rolled down the mountain side— down four precipices into a canyon below.

“Immediately storm clouds swept the mountains, lightning flashed, thunder rolled, and the rain poured. When the rainstorm had passed, far down in the canyon below, they could see fragments of the huge body of the dragon lying among the rocks, and the bones of this dragon may still be found there.

“This boy's name was Apache. Usen taught him how to prepare herbs for medicine, how to hunt, and how to fight. He was first chief of the Indians and wore eagle's feathers as the sign of justice, wisdom and power. To him, and to his people, as they were created, Usen gave homes in the land of the west.”

Usen is the Apache word for God. It is used here because it implies the attributes of deity that are held in their primitive religion. (“Apache” means “Enemy") The Apaches believed that when God, or Usen, created the Apaches, he also created their homes in the west, and gave to them such game, fruits and grain as they needed for their sustenance. He gave them different herbs to restore their health when disease attacked them. He taught them where to find these herbs and how to prepare them for medicine, and gave them, above all, a climate, with all needed clothing and shelter at hand. This was in the beginning, and accounts, perhaps, for the intense love the Apache held for his home in the west, for he believed that these ranges were provided for him and his posterity by Usen himself.

Geronimo says that when a child, his mother taught him the religion of his people; taught him of the sun and sky, the moon and stars, the clouds and storms. She also taught him to kneel and pray to Usen for strength, health, wisdom, and protection. They never prayed against any person, but if they had aught against an individual, they, themselves, took vengeance. They were taught that Usen did not care for the petty quarrels of men.

In gathering herbs and administering medicine, says Geronimo, as much faith was held in prayer as in the actual effect of the medicine. Usually about eight persons worked together in making medicine, and there were forms of prayer and incantations to attend each stage of the process. Four attended to the incantations, and four to the preparation of the herbs. Their life had a religious side. They had no churches, no religious organizations, or Sabbath day, or holidays, yet they worshipped. Sometimes the whole tribe would assemble to sing and pray. Sometimes a smaller number, perhaps two or three. The songs had a few words, but were not formal. The singer would occasionally put in such words as he wished instead of the usual tone sound. Sometimes they prayed in silence; sometimes each one prayed aloud; sometimes an aged person prayed for all. At other times one would rise and speak of their duties to one another and to Usen. Their services were short.

The Apaches recognized no duties to any man outside of their tribe. It was no sin to kill enemies or to rob them. However, if they accepted any favor from a stranger, or allowed him to share their comforts in any way, he became (by adoption) related to the tribe, and they must recognize their duty to him.

This probably accounts for the influence which Captain Jeffords exercised over Cochise's band. He had entered Cochise's camp alone; enjoyed his hospitality, and thereafter became, according to Jeffords' own statement, his brother.
When disease or pestilence abounded, they were assembled and questioned by their leaders to ascertain the cause, and what harm had been done, and how Usen could be satisfied. Sometimes sacrifice was necessary. Sometimes the offending one was punished. This was the case, undoubtedly, where the medicine man, having failed in his cure, denounced some old woman or old man as a witch, who was promptly sacrificed on the spot.

Mike Burns, in his writings about the Apaches, gives the following in reference to the medicine men, etc.:

“It was not every Indian who knew what plants and herbs were good for medicine, only the medicine men and the medicine women, who, it was believed, were influenced by a great spirit. It was also believed that some of the women were influenced by a great evil spirit, and those who have that power do not willingly attend anyone who is sick, unless forced to come and sing over the persons whom they have made sick. Usually a great medicine man claims that the interpretation revealed to him in a vision, points to a certain person as having brought the sickness to the patient, and she must come close or beside the patient and begin singing for the evil spirit to come out from the person's heart. They sing to the evil spirit to drive out the wormy things which are destroying the heart. Some men, too, are suspected of having an evil spirit influence them, and they will be strung up to a tree until they confess that they did the things complained of or of which they are suspected. When they confess they are asked if they are willing to go to the sick person and drive out the evil spirit, which they usually agree to do, and if the sick person has not gone too far, they generally recover. If, however, the sick person should die, then the man or woman who is influenced by the evil spirit, and who is singing over the patient, is usually killed on the spot. This killing of those who are suspected of possessing an evil spirit, has been the cause of many of the separations which occur in the Apache tribes, for the killing of one person on this account sometimes brings on the killing of others, and then families separate. Some days they would have the ghost dance, fixing themselves up like skeletons, their heads being so painted that they appeared to have no hair, and very small eyes.

“At one time there were fifteen hundred Indians sick at Camp Cottonwood, and it was believed that Dr. Williams had put something in the beef to make the Indians sick. Then a man died, and a medicine man in his visions had foreseen that a young woman in one of the camps was possessed of many evil spirits and had caused that man to die. So a brother of the dead man went to the woman and killed her. This woman had no mother, but had a father, and there was a young single man who lived with them. The father made no attempt to do anything after his daughter was killed, but the young man went over to the other camp and shot at the man who had killed the young woman. He missed his man, and killed another man, and then lit out for the hills. This left the old man alone in the camp, and the other parties came and killed him.

“In another camp a boy died; the father blamed the mother for the death of the boy, so he killed her. Shortly afterwards disease spread all through the camps, and family after family died. General Crook's favorite chief, Chemasella, died, and the whole camp turned out and killed eight women and four men. This created much confusion and the soldiers had to come in and stop the slaughtering of the innocents. The soldiers arrested some of the chiefs and the military interpreter for not informing them of the condition of affairs, and took them down to Camp Verde and put them in the guard house. Many of the Indians died of chills and fever, and other causes, and the medicine men blamed the evil spirited women, and many women and men were killed. From that day to this the singing by a medicine man or woman over a sick Apache has been stopped.”

If, however, an Apache allowed his aged parents to suffer for food or shelter; if he had neglected or abused the sick; if he had profaned their religion, or had been unfaithful, he might be banished from the tribe. The medicine man was, perhaps, the most influential person in every tribe. The chiefs led their bands in war, but the medicine man was the arbiter. He consulted the fates and every revelation came to him from Usen as to whether they should go upon any expedition; how they should be equipped, etc.

They had a firm belief in the merits of hoddentin, a flour made from the pollen of the tule. This, according to Bourke, was carried by every warrior on every expedition as a protection. A small sack of it was given to every child born into the tribe. It was used in their incantations to the sun, to the moon and to the stars.


It was believed that this hoddentin, scattered along the face of the heavens, formed the Milky Way. It was used to a very great extent in all their ceremonials.

Bourke, in the Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, of the Smithsonian Institute, for the years 1887–88, gives a very elaborate and succinct account of some of the Apache Dances, their customs, etc., but confesses that he has been unable to obtain anything much as to their religious beliefs. They never scalped their enemies, and they buried their dead in the crevices of the rocks, far away from human eye.

Captain Bourke's description of the dances follows:

“The spirit dance is called ‘cha-ja-la.’ I have seen this dance a number of times, but will confine my description to one seen at Fort Marion (St. Augustine, Fla.), in 1887, when the Chiricahua Apaches were confined there as prisoners. A great many of the band had been suffering from sickness of one kind or another and twenty-three of the children had died; as a consequence, the medicine-men were having the Cha-ja-la, which is entered into only upon the most solemn occasions, such as the setting out of a war party, the appearance of an epidemic, or something else of like portent. On the terreplein of the northwest bastion, Ramon, the old medicine-man, was violently beating upon a drum, which, as usual, had been improvised of a soaped rag drawn tightly over the mouth of an iron kettle, holding a little water.

“Although acting as master of ceremonies, Ramon was not painted or decorated in any way. Three other medicine-men were having the finishing touches put to their bodily decoration. They had an under-coating of greenish brown, and on each arm a yellow snake, the head toward the shoulder blade. The snake on the arm of one of the party was double-headed, or rather had a head at each extremity.

“Each had insignia in yellow on back and breast, but no two were exactly alike. One had on his breast a yellow bear, four inches long by three inches high, and on his back a kan of the same color and dimensions. A second had the same pattern of bear on his breast, but a zigzag for lightning on his back. The third had the zigzag on both back and breast. All wore kilts and moccasins.

“While the painting was going on Ramon thumped and sang with vigor to insure the medicinal potency of the pigments and the designs to which they were applied. Each held, one in each hand, two wands or swords of lathlike proportions, ornamented with snake-lightning in blue.

“The medicine-men emitted a peculiar whistling noise and bent slowly to the right, then to the left, then frontward, then backward, until the head in each case was level with the waist. Quickly they spun around in full circle on the left foot; back again in a reverse circle to the right; then they charged around the little group of tents in that bastion, making cuts and thrusts with their wands to drive the maleficent spirits away.

“It recalled to my mind the old myths of the angel with the flaming sword guarding the entrance to Eden, or of St. Michael chasing the discomfited Lucifer down into the depths of Hell.

“These preliminaries occupied a few moments only; at the end of that time the medicine-men advanced to where a squaw was holding up to them a little baby sick in its cradle. The mother remained kneeling while the medicine-men frantically struck at, upon, around, and over the cradle with their wooden weapons.

“The baby was held so as successively to occupy each of the cardinal points and face each point directly opposite; first on the east side, facing the west; then the north side, facing the south; then the west side, facing the east; then the south side facing the north, and back to the original position. While at each position, each of the medicine-men in succession, after making all the passes and gestures described, seized the cradle in his hands, pressed it to his breast, and afterwards lifted it up to the sky, next to the earth, and lastly to the four cardinal points, all the time prancing, whistling, and snorting, the mother and her squaw friends adding to the dismal din by piercing shrieks and ululations.

“That ended the ceremonies for that night so far as the baby personally was concerned, but the medicine-men retired down to the parade and resumed their salutation, swinging, bending, and spinning with such violence that they resembled, in a faint way perhaps, the Dervishes of the East. The understanding was that the dance had to be kept up as long as there was any fuel unconsumed of the large pile provided; any other course would entail bad luck. It was continued for four nights, the colors and symbols upon the body varying from night to night.

“There were four medicine-men, three of whom were dancing and in conference with the spirits, and the fourth of whom was general superintendent of the whole dance, and the authority to whom the first three reported the result of their interviews with the ghostly powers.

“The mask and headdress of the first of the dancers, who seemed to be the leading one, was so elaborate that in the hurry and meager light supplied by the flickering fires it could not be portrayed. It was very much like that of number three, but so fully covered with the plumage of the eagle, hawk, and, apparently, the owl, that it was difficult to assert this positively. Each of these medicine-men had pieces of red flannel tied to his elbows and a stick about four feet long in each hand. Number one's mask was spotted black and white and shaped in front like the snout of a mountain lion. His back was painted with large arrow-heads in brown and white, which recalled the protecting arrows tightly bound to the backs of Zuni fetiches. Number two had on his back a figure in white, ending between the shoulders in a cross. Number three's back was simply whitened with clay.

“All these headdresses were made of slats of the Spanish bayonet, unpainted, excepting that on number two was a figure in black, which could not be made out, and that the horizontal crosspieces on number three were painted blue.
“The dominos or masks were of blackened buckskin, for the two fastened around the neck by garters or sashes; the neckpiece of number three was painted red; the eyes seemed to be glass knobs or brass buttons. These three dancers were naked to the waist, and wore beautiful kilts of fringed buckskin bound on with sashes, and moccasins reaching to the knees. In this guise they jumped into the center of the great circle of spectators and singers and began running about the fire shrieking and muttering, encouraged by the shouts and the singing, and by the drumming and incantation of the chorus which now swelled forth at full lung power.

“As the volume of music swelled and the cries of the onlookers became fiercer, the dancers were encouraged to the enthusiasm of frenzy. They darted about the circle, going through the motions of looking for an enemy, all the while muttering, mumbling, and singing, jumping, swaying, and whirling like the dancing Dervishes of Arabia.

“Their actions, at times, bore a very considerable resemblance to the movements of the Zuñi Shálako at the Feast of Fire. Klashidn told me that the orchestra was singing to the four willow branches planted near them. This would indicate a vestige of tree worship, such as is to be noticed also at the sun dance of the Sioux.

“At intervals the three dancers would dart out of the ring and disappear in the darkness, to consult with the spirits or with other medicine-men seated a considerable distance from the throng. Three several times they appeared and disappeared, always dancing, running, and whirling about with increased energy. Having attained the degree of mental or spiritual exaltation necessary for communion with the spirits, they took their departure and kept away for at least half an hour, the orchestra during their absence rendering a mournful refrain, monotonous as a funeral dirge. My patience became exhausted and I turned to go to my quarters. A thrill of excited expectancy ran through the throng of Indians, and I saw that they were looking anxiously at the returning medicine-men. All the orchestra now stood up, their leader (the principal medicine-man) slightly in advance, holding a branch of cedar in his left hand. The first advanced and bending low his head murmured some words of unknown import with which the chief seemed to be greatly pleased. Then the chief, taking his stand in front of the orchestra on the east side of the grove or cluster of trees, awaited the final ceremony, which was as follows: The three dancers in file and in proper order advanced and receded three times; then they embraced the chief in such a manner that the sticks or wands held in their hands came behind his neck, after which they mumbled and muttered a jumble of sounds which I cannot reproduce, but which sounded for all the world like the chant of the ‘hooter’ at the Zuni Feast of Fire. They then pranced or danced through the grove three times. This was repeated for each point of the compass, the chief medicine-man, with the orchestra, taking a position successively on the east, south, west, and north, and the three dancers advancing, receding, and embracing as at first.

“This terminated the ‘medicine’ ceremonies of the evening, the glad shouts of the Apache testifying that the incantations of their spiritual leaders or their necromancy, whichever it was, promised a successful campaign. These dancers were, I believe, dressed up to represent their gods or kan, but not content with representing them, aspired to be mistaken for them.”


Probably more than you ever wanted to know about Apache customs, but I thought I'd put it up anyway.



  1. Ironically, the cause of a lot of Indian diseases was exposure to whites who carried them but had enough resistance not to get sick. I'm noticing that these observations were published in 1918. I'm wondering what would be made of all this by ethnologists today.

  2. I have no idea. The measles, taken to Hawaii by well-meaning missionaries, wreaked havoc among local populations. I imagine the same thing happened to native Americans, or to other native populations not immune to European bugs. That said, I don't think you can make carrying of sickness part of any ethnic cleansing scheme. Sherman didn't say "the only good Indian is a dead Indian," by the way. An Indian chief told Sherman he was a good Indian and Sherman said something like "the only good Indians I know are dead."