Western Apache

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Western Apache

ETHNONYMS: DziNA gha'i, Dilzhe'e, DziNA t'aadn, Ndeé


Identification. The name "Apache" first appears in the historical record in 1598. There is no undisputed etymology, although Zuni is often cited as its source. The Western Apache include the subtribes White Mountain, San Carlos, Cibecue, Northern Tonto, and Southern Tonto. They were defined as a single cultural unit because dialect variation among them was minor, they were horticultural to a degree, and they were linked through matrilineal clans, although they themselves recognized no such superordinate level of organization. All used the word Ndeé, or "man, person, Indian," to refer to their specific subtribe, but they did not necessarily include the other "Western Apache" in such a designation.

Location. Since the late seventeenth century the Western Apache have occupied the mountains of the Mogollon Rim, and the high desert transition zone of the Colorado Plateau, including the headwaters of the Verde, Salt, and Little Colorado rivers, and part of the Gila River. The area is between 32° and 35° N and 109° and 112° W. Today, most Western Apache live on the Fort Apache (White Mountain), San Carlos, Camp Verde, and Payson reservations.

Demography. According to the 1980 census the Indian populations of the three major reservations were Fort Apache, 7,010; San Carlos, 6,013; and Camp Verde, 136. Estimates of the nineteenth-century population total less than 5,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Western Apache is one of the Apachean (Southern Athapaskan) languages, classified in the Athapaskan stock of the NaDené phylum.

History and Cultural Relations

Linguistic and cultural evidence indicates that the Western Apache migrated from Canada between a.d. 1400 and 1500 and arrived in Arizona no earlier than the 1600s where they came into contact with the native Pueblo populations. Pueblo influence was particularly strong after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 when numerous Pueblos took up residence among Apacheans. Severe pressure from Utes in the early 1700s and again in the mid-1800s along with the U.S. campaign led by Kit Carson resulted in groups of Navajo moving south and coming into contact with or even taking up residence among Apaches. It is likely that it was during these times that the Navajo introduced horticulture and matrilineal clans. Relations with both Western Pueblos and the Navajo alternated between trade and raid up through the nineteenth century. Relations with Spain also alternated between war and peace, though relations with Mexico were generally hostile. Although some new technical items were added to the Apache inventory along with their Spanish names, Spanish and Mexican cultures had little significant impact.

The Western Apache were much less affected than other Apacheans by the changes brought about by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the subsequent Gadsden Purchase of 1853, probably because their lands in north-central Arizona were not astride major routes of travel, nor, except in the Tonto area, were there major mining activities. They accepted without resistance the presence of forts within their territory, and the White Mountain and Cibecue groups in particular made peace and cooperated with the new conquerors. This quiescent state was marred by two major incidentsthe Camp Grant Massacre in 1871, in which at least seventy-five San Carlos women and children were killed by residents of Tucson and their Papago allies, and the Cibecue Fight in 1881, which resulted in the death of a prominent shaman along with a number of soldiers and Apache scouts.


With the adoption of horticulture Western Apaches became permanently associated with farming sites. This association was seasonal with local groups composed of several matrilineal-matrilocal extended families (gotah ) moving from place to place in a yearly round of hunting and gatheringreturning in the spring and fall to the farm area and in the winter moving to lower elevations. Local groups varied in size from thirty-five to two hundred individuals and had exclusive rights to certain farm sites and hunting localities. Adjacent local groups, loosely linked through marriage, areal proximity, and dialect, formed what have been called bands controlling farming and hunting resources primarily in a single watershed area. There were twenty of these bands in 1850, each composed of about four local groups. Their ethnographic names, such as Cibecue Creek Band or Carrizo Creek Band, reflect their watershed specificity.

Contemporary Apache communities are an amalgam of these older, territorially defined units, which during the reservation period concentrated near agency headquarters, trading posts, schools, and roads. On the White Mountain Apache Reservation there are two major communities at Cibecue and Whiteriver, and on the San Carlos Reservation there are two at San Carlos and Bylas. Traditional housing was the wickiup (gogha ); contemporary housing consists of a mixture of older frame homes, modern cinder block or frame tract houses, and mobile homes. Some housing is substandard relative to general U.S. standards, though vast improvements have been made in the last twenty years. The White Mountain Apaches have had a particularly aggressive development program and own a shopping center, motel, theater, sawmill, and ski resort.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . In traditional times, about 40 percent of the diet came from gathered wild plant foods, 35 percent from meat (especially deer), and 25 percent from horticulture. Wild food products included sahuaro fruit, mescal (agave), acorns, mesquite beans, juniper berries, and piñon nuts. Horticulture was practiced in fields often less than an acre in size, with small dams and channels used for irrigation. After the establishment of the reservations a few Apaches took advantage of government allotment programs to develop cattle herds, but those who did often came into conflict with Whites who grazed cattle through a permit system on the reservations. By the 1950s most of the non-Indians who were running livestock on Indian land had been forced off, and the tribes themselves started cooperative herding operations with stock owned by individuals but managed by tribal employees.

Subsistence farming has continued up to the present day only on the Fort Apache Reservation. The White Mountain Apache Tribe has started an irrigated farming operation, and both reservations have a variety of tourist facilities to profit from camping, boating, fishing, and hunting by non-Indians along with lumbering. The Fort Apache Reservation has been more successful in these enterprises than San Carlos because it has more resources and a better climate. San Carlos has developed a jojoba nut industry, and some Apaches mine and sell the semiprecious stone peridot, which is found relatively close to the surface in one area of the reservation. All these activities provide jobs and income for at least part of the population. Other income derives from off-reservation employment, government jobs, small businesses, and public assistance.

Industrial Arts. Traditional activities such as tanning skins, basket making, and the manufacture of cradle boards and pitch-lined water jars are still done on a limited basis. Beadwork, painting, and doll making have been added to the repertoire.

Trade. In the past, Apaches traded with some of the surrounding tribes for a variety of items. Individual handicrafts are still occasionally traded to local stores or sold to dealers, but for the most part the economic system on the reservations is part of the larger American cash economy.

Division of Labor. Although hunting, raiding, and warfare were usually men's tasks, and gathering, basket making, child rearing, and cooking, women's, the division of labor was flexible. Both sexes worked fields and continue to do so. Both work at public gatherings. Both could function in leadership roles and as shamans, although men did so more often. Today both sexes run for and are elected to tribal office. There is, however, marked physical separation of men and women in a variety of contexts, and to preserve their reputations a man and a woman must not be alone with each other.

Land Tenure. Aboriginally, the bands controlled resources within their territories, and farmlands were owned by the individuals who were members of the various local groups. Individuals could will their land to any of their offspring or to their surviving spouse and could also lend land to any of their relatives. Only if they wished to lend land to a nonrelative was approval of local leaders needed. Today land is held in trust by the U.S. government, and individual-use rights are controlled by rules based on a mix of tradition and tribal law.


Kin Groups and Descent. There are over fifty named exogamous matrilineal clans, which form three unnamed phratries. Clans were named after farm sites, and the phratries no doubt formed as a result of population spread and settlement of new farm sites. Clans functioned to regulate marriage, sponsor and support the ritual activities of their members, enact revenge, and aid in day-to-day cooperative work groups. Since clans tended to be localized within the same band, they operated at a restricted geographic level, but because the phratries were represented in all the subtribes, they provided weak cross-cutting ties among all the Western Apaches. Clans continue today to play some role in Western Apache politics, feuds, and ritual; the clan, however, is being supplemented by friendships for mutual economic support in ritual activities, and clan endogamous marriages occur.

Kinship Terminology. Cousin terminology is of the Iroquois type, with bifurcate collateral parental generation terms, emphasis being placed on parental-generation matrilateral kin with parental-generation patrilateral kin being merged into one category regardless of gender.

Marriage and the Family

Marriage. Distant patrilateral cross cousins in the father's clan or phratry were considered ideal and some marriage partners reflect such exchange in several successive generations. Sororal polygyny, levirate, and sororate marriages all occurred. Chastity was highly valued and girls were extremely shy when interacting with boys. During the first few days of a marriage the couple did not necessarily sleep together and sometimes were chaperoned by a female relative of the wife. Residence was matrilocal with the son-in-law responsible for hunting, protection, and labor on his in-law's farm. Rather strict mother-in-law avoidance is still practiced by many Apaches. Divorce was easy and could be effected by either party.

Domestic Unit. Gotah were composed of several generations with a core of matrilineally related women. Some contemporary residence units still reflect this structure, but with jobs frequently requiring sons-in-law to be elsewhere, many families have other arrangements. But, even in families living in tract-style houses it is not unusual for a number of matrilineally related relatives to be close neighbors and for unmarried daughters with small children to compose part of a household. This pattern reflects both high rates of illegitimacy and poverty and traditional views of kinship and residence patterns.

Inheritance. Personal property was often destroyed or buried with an individual, but possessions could be given to any close relative or friend prior to death. Today some items are buried with the body, but the bulk of the estate is divided among a person's children.

Socialization. Apaches value above all else the autonomy of the individual. This applies to children as well as adults, and thus children are often indulged.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The only groups were those based on kinship, territoriality, and co-residence. Individuals who were leaders of these various units were titled nant'an. Occasionally the prestige of some of these leaders exceeded the boundaries of their respective units, and they might be recognized outside their own local group. Depending on the unit involved, leadership was either inherited matrilineally or achieved. Leaders had no power and little formal authority because of the high value placed on individual autonomy, and they were primarily spokespersons and wealthy individuals with the largest farms in their area. Being wealthy gave them economic clout, and their charisma and their ability to talk and make good decisions meant that they were listened to and highly respected. Relatives often supplied labor for their farms in exchange for being provided for. The only other prominent role in the society was that of shaman.

Political Organization. Today San Carlos, Fort Apache, and Camp Verde have tribal councils and governments based on constitutions authorized under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Elections are vigorously contested.

Social Control. The general Athapaskan value of Individual autonomy is evidenced here as well. Traditional social control focused heavily on the threat of witchcraft accusation, which if supported by community consensus resulted in execution. Witchcraft accusation still plays a role in social control, and some murders may be explained as witch executions. Positive role models for behavior are provided by stories repeated by elders in reference to events that have taken place at specific locations in the area. Apaches refer to this as being "stalked by stories." Gossip and indirect criticism also are traditional means of enforcing conformity to accepted standards of behavior. Only when under the influence of alcohol do individuals directly confront each other. Both federal and tribal laws and ordinances are enforced by tribal police and government agents.

Conflict. Western Apaches for the most part avoided direct conflict with American settlers and the military after the 1850s. Minor problems were caused by nativistic movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Traditional feuds between territorial or kinship groups sometimes were carried on through shamans trying to counteract the magic believed to be emanating from the adversary groups. In some cases feuds resulted in violence. Contemporary elections often take on an atmosphere that involves conflict, and accusations of ballot stuffing may be leveled. Some contemporary vandalism is rumored to be reflective of old feuds. There has recently been some conflict between the leadership of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and business leaders and citizens in neighboring communities over issues relating to reservation boundaries, income from tourists, and leased land within the reservation. There has also been some conflict over land and water use with the federal government.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Apaches believe that a number of supernatural powers associated with natural phenomena exist. These powers are neutral with respect to good and evil, but they can be used for various individual purposes. Control of these powers can be either sought after and developed or thrust upon one. Belief is supported by a mythology that explains the creation of the world and includes several deities. Most important are Life Giver, sometimes identified with the sun; Changing Woman, a source of eternal youth and life; and her twins, Slayer of Monsters and Child of Water. These are sometimes syncretically identified with God, Mary, and Jesus. Also important are anthropomorphic mountain spirits called gaan who in form and symbolism were no doubt borrowed from the Pueblos. Other important figures in myth are Coyote and Old Man Big Owl.

For many Apaches traditional religion has been supplemented or replaced by a variety of Christian sects. Lutherans and Catholics were the first groups to proselytize, and they have been joined by Mormons, Baptists, Assemblies of God, and the pentecostal Miracle church. Wycliffe Bible Translators has provided an Apache translation of the Bible and has an ongoing literacy program to promote it. Various nativistic movements have characterized Apache life, the most recent of which is the Holy Ground cult centering on regular gatherings at specified "holy grounds" and led by individuals who learned specific prayers and songs recorded in an original style of picture writing developed by a leader, Silas John.

Religious Practitioners. Agents of powers are called diyin (shaman). Those who have their knowledge secretly and use it for their own ends are witches, 'ilkashn.

Ceremonies. In the past there were a large number of curing ceremonies each related to a specific power. These were performed as individual treatment seemed warranted. The only major ceremony still performed is the girl's puberty ceremony, both a rite of passage and a community ritual. It harnesses the power of Changing Woman to ensure individual health and long life and community health. In the last twenty years this ceremony has been elaborated, with expensive gift exchanges continuing between relatives of the girl and relatives of her godparents for several years after the initial ceremony.

Medicine. Traditional curing consisted of shamans' singing ceremonies to restore the balance upset by accidental contact with or disrespect shown toward a power to reverse witchcraft attacks. Herbal medicines were also used. In the recent past both Western medicine and traditional ceremonies were used in various combinations. Today contemporary Western medicine is the primary form of medical treatment, although Changing Woman's power is sought after at puberty rites, and some individual Apaches know songs and prayers to powers, which they use primarily within their immediate families.

Death and Afterlife. Everyone is given an allotted life span, which, unless violence or withcraft intervenes, will end because of old age. Concepts of an afterlife are vague. Special actions are taken to make sure the dead do not return and try to lure the living to come with them.


Basso, Keith H. (1970). The Cibecue Apache. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Basso, Keith H. (1983). "Western Apache." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 10, Southwest, edited by Alfonso Ortiz, 462-488. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Goodwin, Grenville (1942). Social Organization of the Western Apache. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kaut, Charles R. (1957). The Western Apache Clan System: Its Origins and Development. University of New Mexico Publications in Anthropology, no. 9. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.


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Western Apache

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Western Apache