Origin and Distribution of Apache Indians

The author of this volume has no desire to put on a wise look or to ape the manner of erudite scholars. He prefers, rather, to come to grips at once with the subject that interests him–the Apache Indians. The fact is, no scholar has been able to trace satisfactorily the exact origins of this spectacular people or to say just when they made their appearance in the Southwest as a distinct nation. Concerning one simple fact all ethnologists agree: the Apache belongs to the Athapascan family, the most widely scattered of all North American Indian linguistic families. In remote times it covered the greater part of the continent. Its various tribes inhabited the Arctic and the Pacific coasts and extended as far south as northern New Mexico and as far east as the Rio Grande.

Such are the peculiarities of the Athapascan languages that they may be definitely discriminated from the languages of all other American Indians, even though, during the long period of time that this family has been dispersing itself over the North American continent, differences in language and physical appearance have arisen in widely separated groups. The peculiarities of the languages of the Athapascan family Dr. Frederick W. Hodge describes as follows: “Phonetically they are rendered harsh and difficult for European ears because of a series of guttural sounds, many continuants, and frequent checks and aspirations. Morphologically they are marked by a sentence verb of considerable complexity, due largely to many decayed prefixes and to various changes of the root to indicate the number and character of the subject and object. Between the various languages much regular phonetic change, especially of vowels, appears and while certain words are found to be common, each language, independently of the others, has formed many nouns by composition and transformed the structure of its verbs.”

The Reverend Frank Uplegger, of San Carlos, Arizona, a linguistic scholar of eminent ability, who has lived among the Apaches for fifteen years and has preached to them regularly in their own tongue, kindly prepared for me the following account of the genius and peculiarities of the Apache language:

“The chief characteristic of the Apache, as of other languages of the large Athapascan family, consists in its being a tone language in a very strict sense of this term. Of vowel sounds it has those of Spanish, but tone-coloring, modulation, quantity, pitch, bring their number up to sixty, all serving to form mental pictures, in their combination with consonants and glides of the voice from middle to a higher or lower position in the scale, which are to the non-Apache ear often as unnoticeable as a quarter note deviation of tone is to many a beginner at violin-playing.

“The consonant register comprises more than thirty sounds, omitting f, p, r, v. and x, but having a number of consonant colorings and combinations foreign to European languages. The language is not ‘guttural,’ but frequent in it are aspirates, explodent sounds, final breathings, breath checks or glottal stops. Rich in sound variations, it also has a copious vocabulary at its command. In fact, with its wealth of word stems or roots, there is no limit to the easy formation of new words, as new objects enter the speaker’s vision. These stems are so easily joined together that values expressing action, its subject, object, indirect object relation to what preceded, mode of execution, together with indication of time, smoothly form one word where we in English hear, as units standing apart, a leading concept or statement with a relative phrase or sentence. This feature of expressing a very complex thought in a single word, together with its character as a tone language, and the facility of utterance to the native, requiring only little noticeable movement of the organs of speech, renders it difficult for European ears and tongues and has kept interested non-Apache listeners from proceeding toward a true appreciation of its logic and its music.”

The Athapascan family consists of three divisions: the Northern, the Pacific, and the Southern. It is the Southern division with which we are interested. The tribes that constituted this division were dispersed over a wide area in the Southwest–including parts of southern Colorado and Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, the western portions of Kansas and Texas, and Mexico as far as the 25th degree of latitude. Among the Athapascan tribes that inhabited this region were the Navajo and the Apache. That these two peoples are closely related is shown both by their languages and their physical characteristics. Adaptability, a marked quality of the Athapascan family in general, is illustrated in both the Apache and the Navajo by virtue of the fact that they in common adopted and absorbed various rites and ceremonies from the Pueblo Indians with whom they have had long, and at times, close contacts. The vocabularies and basic characteristics of the Apache and Navajo languages are almost identical.

The inclusive name of the Athapascans who inhabited Canada is Tinnë. Both the Apaches and the Navajos belong to this branch. Originally, the Apaches and the Navajos were one people. When these two tribes separated, and for what cause, is unknown. The Navajos have always outnumbered their cousins, the Apaches. It may be that the latter were ejected by the Navajos because of their mischief-making proclivities and excessive turbulence. On the other hand, the Apaches may have withdrawn on account of their desire for a more roving and adventurous way of life. During historic times the Navajos have been more given to agriculture–particularly to pastoral pursuits–than have the Apaches. The Apaches have not adhered so closely to the culture of the Athapascans of the North as have the Navajos, nor have the Pueblo Indians left so definite a mark upon them. There seems to be little doubt that when the Apaches first appeared upon the historical horizon, in 1540, they were wholly detached from the Navajos and were neither a very numerous nor a very important people.

Patient inquiry shows that the Apaches have no definite knowledge as to their racial origin or earliest habitat. It is rare indeed to find an Apache who is able to give any information concerning an ancestor more remote than his grandparent. The creation myth is the only widely known legend of the origin of their people, though several clans among the Western Apaches have definite stories concerning migrations of their people from the north and northeast–that is, from the regions now occupied by the Navajo and the Hopi. Though there is great vagueness with respect to the time at which this southern movement took place and the exact country from which they came, there can be little doubt that at no remote time there was a migration from somewhere in the northeast to the region they now occupy south of the Little Colorado River and north of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Tradition attributes great cruelty to the Apaches, even before historic times. The Apache was the original “bad man” of the Southwest. The Pueblo Indian was his victim long before the coming of the white man. Not until after the Pueblo Indians came under the sway of the Spanish–and, in consequence, under their protection–did warfare against the white invaders become the order of the day. From the first, the Apaches have been the most hardy, warlike, mobile tribe known to history. They “wandered everywhere and dwelt nowhere.” Marauding and murdering, they were constantly on the move–the most disconcerting and harassing of enemies. So cunning were they in ambush and so stealthy in attack that a handful of them could keep a community in terror or an army in disorder. Says Bandelier: “They stood toward the land-tilling Indians in the relation of a man-eating tiger to the East Indian communities. Nobody knew, even if there were but a single enemy in the neighborhood, where he might strike next. One Apache could keep a pueblo of several hundred souls on the alert, and hamper them in their daily work. He had nothing to attend to but his purposes of murder, rapine, and theft, which were his means of subsistence, whereas the others had their modest fields to till, and in the performance of such duties danger was lurking unseen, always likely to display itself when and where it was least expected.”

The Apaches gave fixed allegiance to no supreme leader, did not acknowledge hereditary chiefs. The position of leadership, so far as it existed and so long as it lasted, was won by military prowess in time of great emergency. The Apaches, more than any other force, changed the ethnological map of the Southwest. They constituted such a threat to the Pueblo Indians as to halt their natural advance toward the east, and even drove back their eastern limits. At a later period their pressure upon the Sobaipuri Indians of the San Pedro Valley in Arizona caused this tribe to retire westward to the Santa Cruz, there to unite themselves to their Pima cousins, the Papagos, and at last to lose their tribal identity altogether. Other hostile tribes that were induced to enter into alliances with them were eventually absorbed–if not exterminated as a result of such unhappy alliance, as in the case of the Mabos. Even in the memory of living Americans, during the Civil War and just afterwards, the Apaches made large areas of the most fertile parts of Arizona uninhabitable.

From the dawn of Southwestern history there have been confusion and uncertainty with respect to the geographical distribution of the Apaches, their numbers, and the names by which widely separated tribes or divisions were designated. They are first referred to in history by Castañeda, chronicler of the Coronado Expedition. The Spaniards first met them in eastern Arizona, near the Gila River. A very different division of the Apaches was encountered by Coronado and his army early in 1541 in northeastern New Mexico. Castañeda calls these Indians “Querechos.” More than a generation later, Oñate comes across a tribe of them and calls them the “Apiches” or “Apaches”; and Benavides, in The Memorial, classifies them Gila Apaches, Navajo Apaches, and Apaches Vaqueros. This same confusion persists down to modern and even present times. The Spaniards gave the generic name Apache to the Tontos, Chiricahuas, Gileños, Membreños, Taracones, Mescaleros, Llaneros, Lipanes, and Navajos. The specific names are Spanish words descriptive of some animal, or product of the soil, or geographic feature, or peculiarity that marked a particular group.

Apache, History,


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