Apache Religious Traditions

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APACHE RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS . The Lipan Apaches are one of the Apache tribes of the American Southwest outlined in the general Apache entry. Of all Apaches, the Lipans ranged the farthest east, even as far as the Mississippi River. The Lipans primarily hunted buffalo until it was no longer possible due to the near eradication of bison. During the nineteenth century the Lipans ranged over all of Texas, most of New Mexico, and adjacent areas of Mexico. Between 1680 and 1730, Apache buffalo hunters ranged Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. The extent of Lipan Apache territory meant that some bands were not in contact with others and that frequent interaction with outside groups led to variations in Lipan material culture and worldviews. Lipan Apache leadership was inestimably important in the emergence of traditions that have been heavily drawn upon in the religious use of peyote. Lipan relations with indigenous peoples south of their range were key in their adoption of the religious use of peyote and Lipan relations with buffalo hunters in the north were integral to the transmission of peyote religion to American Indian tribes in New Mexico and Oklahoma.

Lipan Apache Buffalo Hunters: Origins and Migrations

Lipan oral tradition from New Mexico states that the first Lipan tipi was put up far to the north (Begay, 2003) and oral tradition among the Texas Lipans states that the people came from northern origins (Romero Jr., 2000). In 1940 Morris Opler, while documenting Lipan oral tradition, recorded claims of a northern origin for Lipans and accounts of an exodus out of the forest and onto the plains. However, Lipan oral tradition in New Mexico holds strongly to a belief in an origin in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Chihuahua (Begay, 2003), from whence emerged 'Isánáklésh, a divine being whose face is stained white. This belief is one of the pillars of Apache creation stories on the Mescalero Apache Indian reservation and is still central to the women's coming-of-age ceremony, the Fire Ceremony. Despite differences as to whether Lipan origins lie in the north or south, there is agreement that from quite early on Lipans lived as buffalo hunters on the northern plains. This conforms to the view of linguists that the Athapaskan language had its origins in northern Canada and Alaska.

Linguistic, archaeological, and historical evidence shows that Lipan Apache origins are embedded in a buffalo-hunting tradition that spanned North America for over 11,000 years and that was characterized by tipi rings, buffalo kill sites, bow and arrow technology, and burned rock middens on the Great Plains. Between 1450 and 1725, Lipan ancestors occupied a massive territorial homeland that spanned the buffalo plains of Texas, eastern New Mexico, southern Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. Before the European invasion, Apache buffalo hunters participated in trade networks that included the pueblos of the Southwest and the Caddoan Plains villages. Later, this system was disrupted by pressure from Spanish colonialists and by the enmeshment of Apache buffalo hunters in patterns of violence and slavery that culminated in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico. These changes resulted in Apache buffalo hunters becoming mounted hunters and rangers who forged anticolonial alliances with indigenous peoples of south Texas and northeastern Mexico, alliances that produced specific forms of cultural affiliation. However, the Lipans eventually left Texas and Mexico to join the Mescaleros and Chiracahuas in New Mexico. At Mescalero, Lipan religion was maintained as part of everyday life on the reservation.

Lipan Religion on the Mescalero Apache Reservation

According to Meredith Begay, a medicine woman from the Mescalero Apache Reservation with Lipan, Mescalero, and Chiracahua lineage, Apache religion is based on a spiritual sense by which Apaches live with respect. Begay referred to this as a sixth sense that directs Lipans to treat the sacred in a specifically Apache way. Importantly, Lipans should seek to understand the stories told about the way people act and the way that people should act, and conduct themselves accordingly. All Apaches carry this spiritual respect for the Creator, the Four Directions, Mother Earth, and "certain deities in the sky like the north star, the sun, the moon and some of the other stars that are there" (Begay, 2004). These deities take care of humans and so must be revered. The desire to build correct relations in accordance with the stories provides direction for Lipan life and a means by which Lipans cultivate knowledge and the power to heal. It is through this alignment of the stories with personal vision and action that medicine is acquired. Medicine is intended for the good of one's family and tribe, and when a person pursues and utilizes such power for personal gain at the expense of others, this is understood as witchcraft or the misuse of power.

The Lipan account of the creation of the earth involves the prophets Killer-of-Enemies and his brother Child of Water, as well as their mother 'Isánáklésh, also known as Changing Woman. 'Isánáklésh's part in the creation story is the model for the girls' puberty ceremony that is common to all Apaches. Special ceremonies such as this are times when families are called upon to bring their medicine in the form of songs and the spiritual work of ceremonial preparation and participation. However, sacred narratives are not just ceremonial guideposts, they are integral to teaching basic understandings of Lipan life.

For example, Child of Water represents the "right hand" and loving way, whereas the Killer-of-Enemies symbolizes the "left hand," which is not so loving. Child of Water provides refuge and salvation for people and animals, whereas Killer-of-Enemies changes animals from destroyers and killers of people to providers of meat and clothing by making sacred agreements between animals and people. Mrs. Begay explained that in a blessing for Daniel Romero Castro III, who was about to be sent to Iraq, she made sure, because she knew he might be going to the desert, to "talk to the snake, to the scorpion, to the spiders, to any other living creatures that wanna, uh, be mean. I ask them please look at him with the right hand."

Lipan oral traditions and the rituals and games associated with them not only instruct Lipans on how to behave, they also explain a system of correspondences between human and animal behaviors and attitudes that is rooted in the time when animals spoke and acted like people. The Moccasin Game reflects the way that the sun first broke free and lit up the earth after a Lipan gambling game. The game is played with a "buffalo shoe," which is the ball that is above the buffalo's heel. Four holes are dug into the ground, songs are sung for every animal and bird, and one person hides the ball. Players form two teams and all night long bet on who will find the ball. The center of the Yucca flower is used to keep count. Mrs. Begay explained its importance:

Before the Shoe [Moccasin] Game the world was dark, it was completely dark. So, what happened is that, the big animals, they could see in the dark, and that the small animals, they could not see in the dark. The only time they saw was when the lightning struck and they were getting killed by the big animals. So, they got together, both sides, and said we'll have a Shoe Game and whoever wins will rule the earth. If the big animals win it can be dark and if the small people win they call it daylight. That's when the Game started; they started to hide the ball (buffalo shoe), and the last one to find it was a small animal and that's when the sun came out. The big animals got mad and started fighting. The Giant was the last to die. And then the Giant who died, he fell [there are] four mountains there where he fell. Everybody in that Shoe Game, whatever they do, is still with them today. However, they paid with themselves; everything they was changed since the minute that the sun got turned and it stayed with them. [Before,] they could understand one another, they could talk to the plants, rocks and everythingthat stopped right there. (2004)

During the Moccasin Game, all of the animals did crazy things that changed them forever. For example, when the fight broke out in the morning, the bear put his feet on backwards and the snakewhich at that time had many legs, like a centipedegambled away all his limbs. Coyote was already up to his tricks. While the other animals were trying to win for their respective teams, Coyote was sneaking around in the back, switching sides all night long, trying to get on the winning side. This vacillating attitude and behavior stayed with him and is a central element of Lipan Coyote Stories that admonish people, especially men, for selfish and irresponsible behavior. In addition to providing spiritual knowledge and warnings about the consequences of bad behavior, the stories also provide positive role models that exemplify proper leadership, participation, and etiquette in everyday life. Lipan leaders are constantly reminded of the necessity for proper conduct and the dangers of transgression. Similarly, other family and social roles are defined in the stories and Lipans are strongly encouraged to fulfill these roles by exhibiting proper behavior and respecting important taboos.

Important to the Lipan spiritual life are medicines that fulfill both spiritual and medical needs. Preparation for the religious work of blessing and healing includes the gathering of medicine. Medicine in this sense is part of a system of kinship relations that a Lipan has with celestial, elemental, animal, and plant beings that are corresponded with and called upon through the correct arrangement of words, actions, and objects. For example, Apaches are supposed to always carry cattail pollen in case they have a vision or other similar experience and must bless both themselves and the place in which the sacred event occurred. Thus, the simple act of carrying a pollen bag and knowing how to make a pollen blessing are ways in which Apaches manifest their respect for the sacred.

Pollen is a central part of Lipan religious life. According to Begay, "pollen is used because it is so light and so fine that it brought light to us. So pollen is used for blessing anything. An Apache never goes anywhere without pollen, they always carry it in a bag" (2004). Other important medicines include tobacco, sage, osha, the eagle feather, and ashes from a clean wood fire. Begay comments, "cigarette smoke, tobacco, is part of our religion [and] the sage medicine from burning the sage, smudging and all that." She also refers to the importance of herbal medicines, such as Hi'eechida, known in Mexico as Tuchupate, and in English as osha, bear root, or hot root. Ashes can help people with Son on di kou, a state of anxiety or trauma often accompanied by nightmares and sleepwalking. According to Begay, Son on di kou occurs to people "cause they saw somethin' crazy, or they did something crazy during the day, or something scared them so bad that they get up that night and they walk around" (2004). But, as in all blessing and healing, 99 percent is in the mind and spirit and only 1 percent comes from outside.

It is important to understand the Lipan conception of the dead. Zelda Yazza, Mrs. Begay's daughter, comments in unpublished notes: "Dead people go to the other side of the river within four days after they die. When they go over there they join with those other people and become enemies. This is why it is traditionally important to bury people within four days." This belief has much to do with Lipan avoidance and even fear of the dead. However, this attitude has been altered over time by Christian beliefs and practices.

Lipan Apache Religious Use of Peyote

By the middle of the eighteenth century, Spanish documents attribute the religious use of peyote to Apache buffalo hunters, within the context of their reputation as a key pivot in anticolonial action and warfare. Indigenous people living in missions near the peyote gardens, from present-day Coahuila through Nuevo León and into Tamaulipas, form an important foundation of the use of peyote in mitotes (a term used by Spanish chroniclers to refer to Native American spiritual gatherings and festivities). Father Juan Larios, who in 1673 established a mission just south of the Lomería de los Peyotes (Peyote Hills) near Villa Unión, Coahuila, identified the local hills as gardens from which Indians would harvest peyote for their mitote and ceremonials (Steck, 1932). In 1674 San Bernardino de la Candela was founded for Catujano, Milijae, and Tilijai Indians, known for their mitotes (Wade, 1998). Alonso de León described the mitote as the most common and frequent pastime for the indigenous people of northeastern Mexico. León reported that indigenous people collected peyote and gathered around a fire to sing vocables (words with no linguistic meaning), shake small gourds filled with stones gathered from ant mounds, dance, and hold giveaways in the morning (León, Chapa, and Zamora, 1961, p. 24). All of these practices are traditions in the Native American Church.

The association of Mission Indians in northeastern Mexico with peyote and mitote provides key evidence that helps explain how Lipan Apaches adopted the religious use of peyote. Lipan oral tradition identifies the Carrizo Nation as the source of the rite that includes the religious use of peyote. Historical documents show that by 1755 Carrizo groups had ties to the Apache anticolonial alliance, lived within neighboring missions, and are reported to have engaged in the religious use of peyote with Apaches and Lipans. On April 14, 1770, Father Lorenzo de la Peña reported that Apaches and Julimeños held a mitote with peyote at Mission Peyote. In 1828 Jean Berlandier reported that the coastal peoples, Tonkawas, and Lipans still used peyote in their feasts. Almost fifty years later, Frederick Buckelew reported that the Lipan Apaches had shared a mitote with the Kickapoo in 1865.

After 1865 the religious use of peyote began to expand outside of Texas, leading eventually to the formation of the Native American Church. The widespread adoption of the religious use of peyote via the influence of Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, who had learned a form peyote ceremonial from the Lipan Apaches, is well known. The Quahadis Comanches, led by Quanah Parker, learned of Wok-wave (as Comanches call peyote) from the Lipan Apaches sometime before 1878. Kiowa-Apache and Arapaho oral tradition agree with this understanding. Nelson Big Bow, a Kiowa, stated, "Quanah Parker brought Lipan Apache from Mescalero to run Peyote meetings." These Lipans were identified as Chivato, Pinero, and Escaona and were brought to Cache, Oklahoma, by Quanah Parker. In addition to the Native American Church's religious use of peyote, there is evidence of the survival of the religious use of peyote among the Cuelgahen Nde Lipan Apaches at Three Rivers, Texas.

Santos Peralez Castro, interviewed in 1999, recalled a mitote held in 1956 that included the religious use of peyote:

I remember my dad and mom calling it a miyote [mitote], it was a green cactus. I remember my mom and dad would invite their friends over, my mom used to cook lots of stuff. Before the invited got there, they would get a lot of corn, they used a lot of corn and we all would grind it and make tamales and tortillas from the corn and she would cook beans and rice. The friends used to make a circle and a big fire and they used to make a circle around the fire and all their friends were in the circle. All the friends used to make a circle, all the grown-ups would make the circle. They would all smoke this big pipe and pass it around the circle to smoke it and after they smoked it they would pass a small basket and eat the peyote and they eat all night and would continue all night, singing and dancing till the next day. I remember the kids were not allowed in the circle and we would sleep all night and then wake up the next morning to eat, I remember.


As with most indigenous American religions, Lipan spiritual life is not relegated to church or holidays, but is part of a respectful way of life that is prescribed in the oral tradition and that guides proper relations with and behavior toward both sacred objects and deities and one's family and tribe.

See Also

North American Indians, article on Indians of the Southwest.


Begay, Meredith. Interview by Enrique Maestas. Digital recording. Mescalero, N. Mex., November 15, 2003.

Begay, Meredith. Interview by Enrique Maestas. Tape recording. Mescalero, N. Mex., April 8, 2004.

Castro, Santiago Castro. "Castro Oral History." Tape recording. San Antonio, Tex., April 1995.

Castro, Santos Peralez. "Family Oral History with Santos Castro." Tape recording. Corcoran, Calif., April 12, 1999.

León, Alonso de, Juan Bautsita Chapa, and Fernando Sánchez Zamora. Historia de Nuevo León, con noticias sobre Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Texas, y Nuevo México. Monterrey, Mexico, 1961.

Maestas, Enrique. "Culture and History of Native American Peoples of South Texas." Ph.D. diss., University of Texas, Austin, 2003.

Opler, Morris. "The Use of Peyote by the Carrizo and Lipan Apache Tribes." American Anthropologist 40, no. 2 (1938): 271285.

Opler, Morris. Myths and Legends of the Lipan Apache Indians. American Indian Folklore Society Memoir 36. New York, 1940.

Romero, Daniel Castro, Jr. Interview by Enrique Maestas. Tape recording. San Antonio, Tex., October 5, 2000.

Salinas, Martin. Indians of the Rio Grande Delta: Their Role in the History of Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico. Austin, Tex., 1990.

Sjoberg, Andrée. "Lipan Apache Culture in Historical Perspective." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 9, no. 1 (Spring 1953): 7698.

Stewart, Omer C. "Origin of the Peyote Religion in the United States." Plains Anthropologist 19, no. 64 (1974): 211223.

Enrique Maestas (2005)