White Mountain Apache

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White Mountain Apache


The name White Mountain Apache refers to the White Mountain region of Arizona where the tribe resides. The people call themselves Ndeé.


Formerly in east-central Arizona, between the Pinaleno Mountains to the south and the White Mountains to the north. Presently the tribe lives on the Fort Apache Reservation, which covers 1.7 million acres in Arizona’s Navajo, Apache, and Gila counties. The White Mountain Apache have nine major reservation communities, and the largest city is Whiteriver.


In 1850 there were an estimated 1,400 to 1,500 White Mountain Apache. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 9,700 people identified themselves as White Mountain Apache. In 2000 that number had increased to 12,377, and 10,686 of those people lived on the Fort Apache reservation.

Language family


Origins and group affiliations

Most historians believe the Apache people made a gradual move from western Canada to the American Southwest between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Apache themselves, however, tell a different story. They say they originated in the Southwest, and some of their people moved north. According to their oral history, present-day Apaches belong the the group of people who did not migrate north. The Apaches were never one unified group, but rather a number of different bands who spoke similar languages and shared similar customs. Whites referred to the Apache people as Western Apache or Eastern Apache. Those called White Mountain Apache are descendants of the easternmost group of Western Apache. The White Mountain people most likely learned agricultural techniques from the Navajo or Pueblo (see entries).

The White Mountain Apache differed from other Apache groups for two main reasons: (1) they farmed, and (2) they interacted more with other tribes, which led to significant changes in their culture. The White Mountain people served as scouts for the U.S. Army to help round up other Apache groups—including the group led by Chiricahua Apache warrior Geronimo—who refused to move to reservations. In August 1998 Newsweek called the White Mountain Apache one of five Native North American “tribes to watch” because of their astonishing economic successes.


Cooperative relations with United States

The land belonging to the White Mountain Apache ended up in U.S. hands in 1853, when the Gadsden Purchase—a land deal with Mexico—was sealed. Although the tribe continued the longstanding Apache custom of raiding Mexican settlements for food, they avoided confronting the U.S. Army. In fact they aided the army by providing scouts and fighters. And when American forces established Camp Ord on White Mountain Apache land to protect white settlers in Arizona, the people did not object. Camp Ord later became Fort Apache Reservation.

In 1874 the U.S. government adopted a peace policy and began to place all Native Americans on reservations. General George Crook (1828–1890) and his White Mountain Apache scouts tracked down every hostile band. Without the Indian scouts, this feat might have proved impossible. The White Mountain people believed that their traditional way of life was over. They cooperated with the government’s reservation policy and moved to the White Mountain-San Carlos Indian Reservation, established in 1871.

In 1897 the White Mountain-San Carlos Indian Reservation was divided into the San Carlos Indian Reservation and the Fort Apache Reservation. The White Mountain Apache were a more unified group than the Natives confined to San Carlos, but they did have to abandon most of their old ways in order to survive. While under military supervision at Fort Apache, they learned to farm, build irrigation dams, and tend livestock. Armed with this knowledge, they were able to create a strong economy over the course of the twentieth century. The population has grown tremendously, thanks to better health care and improvements in sanitation and housing. More than 13,500 people were enrolled in the Fort Apache tribe; about 1,500 were from other tribes, mainly Navajo.

Important Dates

1853: The United States acquires White Mountain Apache land in the Gadsden Purchase.

Early 1870s: The White Mountain Apache move to reservation land.

1897: The White Mountain-San Carlos Indian Reservation is divided into two reservations. The White Mountain Apache are given their own reservation (now called Fort Apache Reservation).

1938: The White Mountain Apache constitution is ratified and a tribal council is elected.


In the late 1990s approximately 75 percent of the White Mountain people spoke Apache in their homes. According to a study done by Bernadette Adley-SantaMaria, 95 percent of the tribe over age 40 spoke Apache, but only 28 percent of those under 30 used the language. About 10 percent of the tribe, mostly the young, spoke only English. Although everyone questioned agreed that learning their language and culture is important, the decrease in language skills among the younger generations reflects the impact of cultural change.


The Apache were divided into small local groups that governed themselves. White Mountain groups were often named after the location of their farmland. They had chiefs who organized food-gathering, farming projects, and interactions with other local groups.

In 1934 the U.S. government passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which encouraged Native American communities to govern themselves and set up tribal economic corporations. The White Mountain Apache adopted a constitution in 1938 and formed a tribal council consisting of a chairperson, a vice-chairperson, and nine members elected from four voting districts. All members serve four-year terms. Tribal headquarters is in Whiteriver, Arizona. Although Apache communities had never tried this type of government before, it worked well throughout the rest of the century.

The tribe also has a legal office that assists the tribal attorney and the general council. The legal department advises the chairperson and other council members, while the tribal attorney handles lawsuits necessary to enforce tribal laws or fight for tribal rights.


Before 1918

The White Mountain Apache lived in a region of deserts and watered valleys. About 75 percent of the food economy was based on hunting and gathering; the rest was based on gardening. When families left their fields and moved back to winter quarters, the men of the tribe took to raiding (stealing) livestock, including horses, which they used mostly for food.

On the reservation in the early 1900s, the people of Fort Apache earned wages by working for whites. They cut hay for U.S. Cavalry horses stabled at Fort Apache. They also leased land to white cattle ranchers, then worked for them.

Cattle and timber boost economy

After 1918 the U.S. government supplied cattle to Native Americans. Fort Apache residents received four hundred head of cattle, and the cattle-raising business took off. As of 1998 the tribe boasted a herd of fifteen thousand purebred whiteface cattle. They run a feedlot and feed store as well as a nine-hundred-acre farm to grow alfalfa. They also own and manage the Alchesay Fish Hatchery.

Since 1934 the White Mountain Apache Tribal Council has overseen the building of a strong economy on the Fort Apache Reservation. The council is responsible for an 800,000-acre (323,748-hectare) forest, which supports a substantial lumber business. The tribe owned and operated the Fort Apache Timber Company in Whiteriver, Arizona. During the late 1990s they employed about four hundred Apache workers and had an annual income of approximately $30 million. In the summer of 2002 a wildfire destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, 60 percent of it on tribal lands. Another fire in 2004 damaged a smaller area, and it will take the tribe decades to restore the area to its pre-fire condition. Meanwhile they must rely on other businesses to generate much-needed income.

In addition to several stores and gas stations, the tribe owns a hotel, an RV (recreational vehicle) park, and other tourist attractions such as Kinishba archaeological ruins with petroglyphs (ancient picture writing), Geronimo’s Cave, and Old Fort Apache. The Hon-Dah (which means “Welcome”) Home Center received grants in 2003 to build public housing, provide scholarships, organize job fairs, and teach residents financial skills. Some tribal members work in these enterprises. Others are employed by the Apache Aerospace Company to build helicopters or Apache Materials to manufacture earth-friendly construction materials.

Tourism thrives in late twentieth century

Tourists in White Mountain Apache country are entertained at a large complex of operations that includes hunting, fishing, winter sports, and water sports. Big-game hunting draws wealthy people and celebrities, and the Hon-Dah Casino is also a big attraction. The tribe owns the White Mountain Apache Motel and Restaurant, the Sunrise Ski Resort, and the Sunrise Park Hotel. The complex is open year-round and contributes both jobs and tourist dollars to the local economy.

Over the years, various members of the tribe have made a name for themselves in the field of firefighting. White Mountain Apache people are in demand all over the western United States as forest firefighting specialists.

Daily life


Farming supplied about one-fourth of the White Mountain tribe’s food. They set up summer camps along streams and constructed dams and channels to irrigate their small fields. They grew limited amounts of corn, beans, pumpkins, and squash. Once the seeds were planted, the women moved out across the land in gathering groups, collecting such foods as acorns, mescal (pronounced MESS-kal; a type of small cactus), and berries. The men left to hunt for deer, elk, mountain sheep and goats, and pronghorn (antelope). They did not eat birds, but hunted them for their feathers. (Eagle feathers were especially prized.) Fish were considered unclean, so they were not eaten.


Many children of the White Mountain Apache tribe are educated at public schools in Whiteriver. Others attend one of three schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or a Lutheran school on the reservation. A branch of the Northland Pioneer College also operates in Whiteriver. Many White Mountain Apache students go on to college.

Old Fort Apache preserves culture

Old Fort Apache, now owned and preserved by the tribe, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors to the fort can learn about Apache culture and history at the Heritage Museum and at various archaeological sites.

Healing practices

The ancient Apache people believed in the power of supernatural spirits. Some spirits were said to be benevolent (to be kind or do good), but evil witches were thought to cause sickness, insanity, and even death. Suspected witches were still feared by some tribes at the end of the twentieth century. According to Native tradition, witches could make people sick by poisoning them, by thinking evil thoughts, or by “shooting” victims with a piece of wood or charcoal, a pebble, a bead, or an arrowhead. A victim of witchcraft could either seek treatment through a ceremony conducted by a medicine man or shaman (pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun) or do nothing and allow the condition to get worse.

Traditional White Mountain healing ceremonies were performed at night. Before beginning, the shaman was given a piece of shell with an eagle feather attached to it; white shells were used for female patients, and turquoise shells were used for males. If the ceremonies worked, the witch would die and the victim would recover.

Modern-day White Mountain Apache seek the assistance of shamans and health care professionals at an Indian Health Service hospital in Whiteriver. If more specialized care is needed, a helicopter can airlift patients to Phoenix, Arizona. The reservation also offers mental health and substance abuse services, and an outpatient and emergency care clinic is available in Cibecue.


Basketry is important to the White Mountain Apaches, and their baskets, especially burden baskets, are collected by people around the country. Basketmaking is a traditional art that has been kept alive because baskets play an important role in ceremonies. They are also symbolic: the opening represents a person’s birth into the world, and the basket itself stands for a person’s life and world. Designs on the basket show the landscape the person inhabits.

>Releasing the Deer

Native Americans believed that everything on the Earth was put here by the Creator to be shared with all. They did not understand the European concept of land ownership or acquiring goods or food when others were needy. No one in the tribe would go hungry, because everyone would share what they had. Stories were often told to teach a moral. In this White Mountain Apache tale, a greedy man loses all that he tried to hoard.

Ganisk’ide was the only one who owned deer. He was the only one who brought them home and who ate their flesh. He gave none of the meat to the people who lived near him.

Ravens, who were then people, proposed that they make a puppy and desert it. They did this; they moved away and left a puppy lying there. When the children of Ganisk’ide went where the people had moved away, they found the puppy. They took it up and carried it home.

Ganisk’ide told the children to throw the puppy away, but when they objected, he told them to try the dog’s eyes by holding fire in front of them. When they brought the fire near the dog’s eyes it cried, “gai gai gai.” “It is a real dog,” Ganisk’ide said. “You may take him behind the stone door where the deer are enclosed and let him eat the entrails.”

When the children had taken the dog behind this door he became a man again. He moved the stone to one side and the deer that were inside ran out. Ganisk’ide called to his wife from the doorway to touch the nostrils of the deer.… She touched each of the deer on the nose as they ran by her and they received the sense of smell. They ran away from her.

“You said it was a dog,” he said to his children with whom he was angry, “but he turned them out for us.” The deer scattered all over the earth.

Goddard, Pliny Earle. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. XXIV, Part II: Myths and Tales from the White Mountain Apache. New York: The American Museum of Natural History, 1919. Available online at: http://digitallibrary.amnh.org/dspace/bitstream/2246/169/1/A024a02.pdf (accessed on July 2, 2007).


Festivals and ceremonies

The White Mountain Apache held a ceremony after returning from a raid. If a woman chose to join in the ceremonial dancing, the successful raider had to give her one of the livestock captured in the raid.

Some of the rich culture of the Apache people faded away during the twentieth century, but the White Mountain people are working to restore some key traditions, including the Girls’ Puberty Ceremony. During this major annual event, young girls perform the Sunrise Dance to receive special blessings.

The Crown Dance is also an important part of the traditional White Mountain Apache culture. Danced by men whose bodies are painted with lightning designs, it is a healing dance. The participants wear headdresses shaped like crowns, bedecked with eagle feathers.

Another tradition practiced by the White Mountain Apache is the Hoop Dance. Originally practiced by medicine men, the hoops enabled them to see visions of the future and evoke healing. The hoop also symbolizes the circle of life from birth to death and can be used for blessing, healing, or protection.

Current tribal issues

Problems still exist for the White Mountain Apache on the reservation. Too many people are out of work. Too much of the available housing is poor. School attendance is low, while alcoholism, drug use, and teen suicide rates are high. But the White Mountain Apache are taking renewed pride in their language and tradition. Experts feel that the outlook for the tribe is improving.

The tribe won a lawsuit against the state of New Mexico in 1982, giving them control over the fish and game on the tribal lands. Since then the group has developed one of the most respected wildlife conservation departments in the world. In 2000 they received an award for their efforts in establishing the White Mountain Apache Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation Program. The tribe hired a staff of forty workers and employs thirty additional people during the warmer months. They sell recreational and hunting permits to make money and sustain the program.

In 2006 the White Mountain Apache joined several other tribes including the Navajo and Hopi (see entries) in a lawsuit against the Forest Service. At issue was a proposal by Arizona Snowbowl, a ski resort, to use wastewater to make snow. The tribes hoped to halt the desecration of places they consider sacred. The judge ruled against them, leading many Native Americans to question whether the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993 truly does protect their religious rights.

Goodwin, Grenville. Myths and Tales of the White Mountain Apache. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2007.

Mails, Thomas E. The People Called Apache. New York: BDD Illustrated Books, 1993.

Perry, Richard J. Western Apache Heritage. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

Watt, Eva Tulene, and Keith H. Basso. Don’t Let the Sun Step over You: A White Mountain Apache Family Life (1860–1976). Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004.

Adley-Santamaria, Bernadette. “Interrupting White Mountain Apache Language Shift: An Insider’s View.” Practicing Anthropology. 21, 2 (1999): 16–19.

“The Children of Changing Woman.” Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. (accessed on July 2, 2007).

“Nohwike Bagowa: House of Our Footprints” White Mountain Apache Tribe Culture Center and Museum. (accessed on July 2, 2007).

WMAT: White Mountain Apache Tribe. (accessed on July 2, 2007).

“White Mountain Apache Tribe: Restoring Wolves, Owls, Trout and Ecosystems” Cooperative Conservation America. (accessed on July 2, 2007).

Ned Blackhawk, Associate Professor, Department of History, American Indian Studies Program, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Laurie Edwards

Laurie Edwards