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Identification. The Jicarilla are an American Indian group whose names for themselves, "Haisndayin" and "Dinde," have been translated as "people who came from below" and "people." The name "Jicarilla" was used first by the Spanish in 1700 in reference to a hill or peak associated with the location of the tribe at that time.

Location. The homelands of the Jicarilla were located in the high country of present-day southern Colorado and north-central New Mexico. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, ranging in height from two thousand to fourteen thousand feet, roughly bisect the former Jicarilla territory from north to south and are flanked on the east and west by high plains. The considerable variation in the topography of this region results in a varied climate, but one that is generally moderate with low annual precipitation. Summers are hot and dry and winters cold and snowy. The principal rivers in the region are the Rio Grande, the Arkansas, the Canadian, and the Chama. Spruce, fir, aspen, juniper, and piñon trees are found at the higher elevations, while short grasslands predominate on the high plains and in the intermontane basins.

Demography. In 1860 the Jicarilla numbered 860. By 1900 their numbers had declined to 815 and continued to decline to 588 in 1920. This decline in population was due most directly to tuberculosis, but the spread of the disease itself was the result of poverty and poor nutrition associated with limited employment and insufficient rations on their New Mexico reservation. In the 1920s government programs to improve health and economic conditions on the reservation helped reverse the population decline. By 1955 the number of Jicarilla exceeded 1,000 and in 1981 stood at 2,308 on the Jicarilla Reservation in north-central New Mexico.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Jicarilla language is a dialect of the Apachean group of Southern Athapaskan languages.

History and Cultural Relations

The Jicarilla are descendants of Southern Athapaskan Hunters who migrated from the subarctic region west of Hudson Bay to the Southwest between 1300 and 1500. The probable route of migration was through the plains along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. The Apacheans in general came into contact with the Spanish in the mid-sixteenth Century, and until the beginning of the eighteenth century Contacts with the Spanish were limited and generally friendly. During the 1700s Hispanic settlement of Jicarilla lands gradually increased through land grants by the Mexican government to its citizens. The Jicarilla never agreed to these land grants. After the Jicarilla territory passed to the jurisdiction of the United States in 1848, American settlement of Jicarilla lands also increased.

The expansion of Hispanic and American settlement rendered the Jicarilla's traditional way of life impossible, and in response they began to raid White wagon trains and settlements. In 1854 the government of New Mexico declared war on the Jicarilla and the following year forced them to sign a peace treaty providing for their removal to a reservation. The plan for the Jicarilla reservation did not materialize until 1887. When it did, the system of individual land allotments intended to transform the people into farmers failed owing to the unfavorable climate and terrain of the reservation site, which led to social dislocation and dependence on government welfare. After the turn of the century the federal government added new lands to the reservation in an unsuccessful attempt to promote livestock raising. At this time living conditions on the reservation reached their low point, with wide-spread unemployment, poverty, malnutrition, and disease. Finally, in the 1920s the federal government succeeded in introducing sheep raising, and conditions on the reservation improved.

Culturally, the Jicarilla were heavily influenced by the Plains Indians to their east and the Pueblo Indians to their west, with the result that their own culture exhibited a combination of nomadic hunting and settled farming characteristics. One of the Plains Indian traits prominent in Jicarilla Culture was an emphasis on raiding and warfare. After Spanish contact raiding increased in frequency and intensity with the use of and need for horses. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Jicarilla commonly raided the Plains tribes to their east and used the fruits of their successes to trade with the Pueblo Indians and the Spanish. During the second decade of the eighteenth century Comanches who had obtained guns from the French drove the Jicarilla out of Colorado and into the foothills and mountains of northern New Mexico. Subsequently, the Jicarilla sought help from the Spanish by offering allegiance to the king of Spain, but with little result. In 1779 a combined force of Jicarilla, Ute, Pueblo, and Spanish soldiers defeated the Comanche, who, after another seven years and several more military campaigns, finally sued for peace. Thereafter the Jicarilla were able to reestablish themselves in southern Colorado.


The Jicarilla lived in local groups of 150 to 400 people who occupied semipermanent, dispersed settlements or camps usually situated along the banks of rivers and streams and from which they conducted their hunting and raiding activities. Dwellings were low, dome-shaped structures, called wickiups, which consisted of a pole frame covered over with leaves and bark. Animal skins were laid over the structure for additional protection from the cold.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Jicarilla economy was based on hunting and gathering, but agriculture was also practiced and increased in importance over time. Animals hunted included large game such as bison, Mountain sheep, antelope, deer, elk, and small game such as Beaver, rabbit, squirrel, porcupine, and prairie dog. Antelope were killed in communal drives, and bison (after Spanish contact) were hunted on horseback and dispatched with bows and arrows and lances. Turkey, grouse, and quail were also hunted, and fish were taken in shallow pools, with the use of baited nooses and bows and arrows. Gathered foods included juniper berries, mesquite beans, yucca fruit, choke-cherries, prickly pears, acorns, and piñon nuts. Cultivation was practiced by the Jicarilla after the late 1600s and resulted from contact with the Pueblo Indians. Crops included maize, beans, squash, pumpkins, peas, and melons, which were planted in plots along river and stream banks. Over time agriculture increased in importance and became more sophisticated. By the time of the American occupation of the Jicarilla territory in the mid-1800s, irrigation dams and ditches were constructed and used to supplement the region's scanty rainfall. Agricultural tools included crude wooden plows and implements for clearing irrigation ditches. Sheep raising became popular in the 1920s, but was eclipsed in importance in the 1950s by revenues from tribal-owned oil, gas, and timber resources. Since that time nonagricultural wage labor has increased with the development of small businesses and industries subsidized by the tribe's natural resource revenues.

Industrial Arts. A chief Jicarilla industry was basket making, the products of which were an important item of barter in trade with other native groups. Some baskets were sealed with pitch and used as water vessels. The Jicarilla also made Pottery and ceremonial clay pipes.

Trade. Baskets, meat, salt, and tanned bison hides were traded to Pueblo Indians for maize and other agricultural products. The Indians of San Juan Pueblo, from whom the Jicarilla also obtained songbird feathers, were special trading partners.

Division of Labor. Men hunted and women gathered. In farming, men prepared the fields, worked the irrigation ditches, and helped with the harvest, and women were responsible for planting, hoeing, weeding, and harvesting.

Land Tenure. Local groups of homesteads maintained somewhat ill-defined territories or camping grounds associated with some familiar geographical landmark. In 1891 lands on the Jicarilla reservations were allotted on an Individual basis. In 1939 the allotted lands were returned to tribal ownership.


Kin Groups and Descent. Local groups of extended Families had a base in marriage and blood ties. However, kin groups with economic or political functions above the level of the local group did not exist. Kinship ties were reckoned bilaterally.

Kinship Terminology. Jicarilla kinship terminology followed the Iroquoian system. The father and the father's brother were classed under a single term, as were the mother and the mother's sister. Parallel cousins were grouped with siblings and cross cousins were classed separately. No terminological distinction was made between maternal and Paternal grandparents nor between male and female grandchildren.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Young women were eligible for marriage after reaching puberty and young men when they proved themselves capable of supporting a family. In arranging a marriage, the man was required to obtain the permission of the parents of his prospective bride, and it was completed when a dowry was offered and gifts were exchanged. Marriages were usually monogamous, though polygyny was practiced on a limited basis with the sister or cousin of the first wife as a preferred second mate. Postmarital residence was matrilocal. Divorce was common and second marriages were allowed. When a spouse died the survivor could marry again only after a period of mourning and after proper purification rituals were performed. In such cases, levirate and sororate marriages were preferred. A widower was considered unlucky and could remarry only after a temporary union with a woman whom he was not permitted to wed. The temporary union lasted less than a year and was believed to bring the widower back from his state of ill fortune.

Domestic Unit. The basic unit of Jicarilla society was the extended family consisting of parents, their unmarried Children, and their married daughters and their husbands and children. Within the extended family each nuclear family unit occupied a separate household. Among modern Jicarilla the nuclear family has replaced the extended family as the basic social unit.

Inheritance. Property was inherited, but not according to any specific rules.

Socialization. Grandparents, especially on the maternal side, played an important role in the training of the young. Boys' training for hunting began in childhood when they were taught the use of the bow and arrow and the techniques of trapping, calling animals, and reading animal signs. At about age twelve they were taken on their first hunt and, if successful, were initiated into the fraternity of hunters and taught the rules and rituals of successful hunting. For girls, upon reaching puberty an adolescent rite was held in which the origins of the Jicarilla and the traits each woman should personify were revealed to them in prayers and songs related by Elderly men. The purpose of the rite was to ensure initiates a long and fruitful life.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Jicarilla were divided into two bands, the Olleros, or "potters," in the west, and the Llaneros or "plains people," who ranged east of the Rio Grande. These two bands have been referred to by some authors as moieties. There were no important cultural differences between the bands, and their members intermarried freely. Each band was composed of several local groups, of which there were fourteen in the mid-nineteenth century, six belonging to the Olleros and eight to the Llaneros. Each local group, consisting of a geographical cluster of extended families associated by ties of blood, marriage, and strong friendship, formed a Cooperative unit for economic and ceremonial activities for which the individual extended family was too small.

Political Organization. Political authority was weakly developed. Within each local group an influential elderly head of an extended family usually acted as a leader, but his authority was quite limited. Such leaders had no coercive power and their position was not inherited. Above the level of the local group there was no formal political hierarchy, although a few respected individuals such as religious leaders and Warriors sometimes took responsibility for dealing with other Native groups, the Spanish, and the Americans. This system changed somewhat during the period of American occupation when several inherited chieftainships existed within each of the two bands. During the period from 1888 to 1896 the Jicarilla were under the direct control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which shared some authority with the native leaders. In 1937, under the provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act, the Jicarillas adopted a tribal government consisting of an elected tribal council.

Social Control. Disputes over matters such as land and revenge within and between local groups were usually negotiated by local group leaders.

Conflict. In the late 1800s the Olleros and the Llaneros opposed each other over the location of the Jicarilla Reservation. Once settled, they occupied separate areas of the Reservation. The animosities stemming from this period have persisted into the twentieth century, with the Olleros usually identified as progressives and the Llaneros as conservatives.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Jicarilla held that a strong tie existed between themselves and the land because all natural objects and all living things were representations of the power of their chief deity, Hascin. Hascin was believed to have been born of the union of Black Sky and Earth Mother, two supernaturals who lived in the inner womb of the earth and who had existed since the beginning of time. In Jicarilla mythology Hascin was responsible for the creation of Ancestral Man and Ancestral Woman and also for the creation of the animals and the sun and moon. Sun and Moon were considered important supernaturals. According to their mythology the Jicarilla were the sole descendants of the first people to emerge from the underworld, the abode of Ancestral Man and Ancestral Woman who produced the first people. Animals were revered and entreated by the Jicarilla with special ceremonies prior to hunting because it was believed they were descended from the first animals who had used their powers to facilitate the emergence of the first people from the underworld. In the 1970s approximately 70 percent of Jicarillas continued to hold to their traditional religious beliefs.

Religious Practitioners. The Jicarilla believed that at birth a child might receive a special power from an animal, a celestial body, or some natural phenomenon. In later years this power would appear to the select individual who then had to decide whether to accept the power and become a shaman. If the person accepted it, he or she underwent a test of courage and then a period of training under the guidance of an experienced shaman during which prayers, songs, and Rituals were learned. The shaman's power could be either good or evil and was believed to be a finite resource, the effectiveness of which diminished with too frequent use.

Ceremonies. Jicarilla religious ceremonies were of two types, personal or shamanistic ceremonies and long-life Ceremonies. Shamanistic ceremonies included curing and divining rituals that required the shaman's special power. Long-life ceremonies did not require such special personal power. One of the most important long-life ceremonies was the annual autumn Relay Race that pitted the young men of the Ollero and Llanero bands against one another. The purpose of the race was to ensure an abundant food supply during the coming year. Participants were painted and decorated with feathers and yucca leaves according to their band affiliation and raced on an east-west-oriented course. If the Olleros won the race, it was believed that plant foods would be abundant; if the Llaneros, animal foods. In the 1930s long-life ceremonies enjoyed much popularity among the Jicarilla, and in the 1970s the Relay Race was still active and supported by the Tribal council.

Arts. Ground drawings were an integral part of the Relay Race ceremony. On the evening preceding the race each band selected a leader who, with his assistants,"painted" colorful drawings in the ground with pollen and colored materials. The drawings usually included the images of the sun and moon and two fast birds. The evening also included a good deal of singing, with the bands competing with one another and singing songs to the race participants.

Medicine. The Jicarilla attributed a variety of sicknesses and ailments afflicting children to contact with birds and other animals. For example, the shadow of a turkey vulture flying overhead could make a child sick and die. Contact with eagles or the tracks of snakes and bears could give a child rheumatism. Contact with menstrual blood could also cause rheumatism. Some sicknesses were believed to be caused by ghosts. Ghost sickness was marked by nervousness, hysteria, and derangement. Curing ceremonies were of both the shamanistic and the long-life type. One of the most Important long-life ceremonies, the Holiness Rite, was a curing ceremony. Held three days prior to the appearance of a full moon, this ceremony was conducted inside a tipi within a brush enclosure. Patients were confined to the tipi and were the object of extended periods of singing by shamans for three successive nights. On the fourth night sacred clowns entered the tipi and participated in the cure with special prayers. On the morning of the fifth day the patients and participants received a blessing within the tipi and then exited the tipi and the brush enclosure to the east where they "deposited" their ailments on a tree especially prepared by a medicine man. At the conclusion of the ceremony all returned to the brush enclosure without looking back and had their faces painted by a shaman.

Death and Afterlife. The Jicarilla believed that in the process of dying an individual's ghost or spirit was conducted northward to the edge of the earth where it was offered fruit. If the ghost refused the offer, it returned to its physical body and life, but if it accepted, it slid down into the afterworld and death occurred. Upon death close relatives of the deceased went into mourning and one or two relatives prepared the corpse. Burial took place during the daytime as soon after death as possible. Some personal possessions were buried with the deceased, and the person's horse was killed at grave side. The burial party returned from the grave site by a route different from that by which it had come, being careful not to look back and refraining from discussing the location of the grave with others when they returned. The burial party then discarded their clothes and washed themselves thoroughly. These elaborate precautions by the burial party were followed in order to avoid the vengeful, evil nature of the ghost of the deceased. The Jicarilla believed that the evil of ghosts was the result of the accumulation of its frustrations, conflicts, and disappointments while living and that ghosts could return to the living to avenge some past injury. Ghosts were believed to visit the living in the form of coyotes, which were considered an omen of one's own death or the death of a close relative.


Gunnerson, Dolores A. (1974). The Jicarilla Apaches: A Study in Survival De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Opler, Morris (1936). "A Summary of Jicarilla Apache Culture." American Anthropologist, n.s. 38:202-223.

Opler, Morris (1971). "Jicarilla Apache Territory, Economy, and Society in 1850." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 27(4):309-329.

Tiller, Veronica E. (1982) The Jicarilla Apache Tribe: A History, 1846-1970. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Tiller, Veronica E. (1983) "Jicarilla Apache." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 10, Southwest, edited by Alfonso Ortiz, 440-461. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.