The Apache Bands

The local group was an ideal unit for any cooperative activity. So small that it could be instantly mobilized, and not too large to move rapidly and with perfect coordination, it constituted the nerve center for raiding and warfare. The closeness of families together permitted the maximum of social enjoyment, also; and while each family was economically independent of every other family, there were cooperative advantages that came to all from their proximity to each other. When the time came to lay in a supply of piñon nuts, or to gather and roast mescal, the women of half a dozen families found it to their advantage to go together and later divide up what had been secured on the expedition–to each family its due share. It was pleasant for the whole community to join in a great hunt. The women would all go along to take care of the meat and to perform all necessary menial tasks. However, after the hunt was over, there was a fair division of the game and each family was once more on its own.

In every local group several able leaders would develop. Such men came to the front by virtue of native ability and weight of personality. Though leaders, they had no claim to the title of chief, nor did they exercise any command over the group that had not been voluntarily conferred upon them. Such headmen could not bind their associates to any particular action or guarantee that they would stand by a treaty that might be made in their name. This is why, in the early days, it was so difficult for Americans ever to come to exact and enduring terms with Apaches. From among these men of mark in each group, when an emergency arose, one–the wisest, the wealthiest, the most capable–would be chosen as chief. He would speak for the group on great occasions and would lead them in time of war. Yet, while his words and his decisions would have much weight with his fellows, he possessed no authority over them except such as emanated from his superiority of personality. There was real democracy among the Apaches; it was for the rank and file to decide upon a given course of action.

So long as a chief was strong enough to protect his followers, courageous enough to lead them to victory against their foes, and sufficiently skillful to bring in the plunder, he held sway over them. When he failed to make good, an abler man took his place. A very brave and successful chief would win distinction for his group, would give it prestige so that ambitious young warriors would desire to join it, and so would force his organization into the forefront of the band to which it belonged. There was safety under his leadership, much plunder was assured, so the Apache nation as a whole came to know and honor his wisdom and prowess. It was thus that such chiefs as Mangas Coloradas, Victorio, and Cochise, who began as local rulers, rose to supreme influence in the tribe. When a chief of such honor and fame was killed or captured, it was an overwhelming loss to his local group and no effort was spared to avenge terribly his death.

The next higher coherent organization was the band. There were times when for purposes of hunting, raiding, or making war it was desirable for a number of load groups to unite in cooperative action. Tribal boundaries, and the limits within which such a particular band was supposed to wander in its search for food and plunder, were not strictly defined. Yet wide and vast as was the extent of the territory controlled by the Apaches and many as were the streams, mountains, and forests where they camped and hunted, regular supplies of water and food in that arid and crabbed Southwest were not easy to secure; and it was advantageous for each tribe to recognize its natural limits and for particular bands to seek their livelihood in well-recognized areas of country. A band would thus be composed of several local groups residing at well-identified places close enough to each other to make it possible for them to combine quickly and effectively for war. Indeed, the band was the largest manageable unit that could be relied upon for instant offensive or defensive action in time of need. From among the bold and able leaders in the various local groups that constituted the band, the strongest and most experienced would naturally be selected as chieftain. A chieftainship was never hereditary, either in the local group or in the band.

Finally came the tribal organization. An Apache when captured or required to give an account of himself would first name his tribe and then his band. But the tribal concept meant little to him as compared with the immediacy of his relationship with his local group and his band. The ties that bound him to these smaller units were close and realistic. Seldom did the tribe as a whole come into common action in an emergency. Yet there was, to be sure, real feeling of unity and a definite sense of territorial domain that held all the members of a tribe together. But the Apaches as a people were, in fact, very loosely united. They spoke the same language and possessed a basic unity of culture, but some tribes never came into contact with each other. Dr. M. E. Opler and Mr. Granville Goodwin, both of whom have lived for long periods in close association with the Apaches and have studied deeply their primitive characteristics and organizations, have adopted somewhat different tribal names and regional demarcations from those used in the past. They make the following divisions: the Mescalero, the Jicarilla, the Chiricahua, and the Western. Previous to the coming of the Americans, tribal boundaries were pretty well agreed upon among the Apaches and it was understood that the respective tribes were to keep within their own limits. The Mescaleros claimed as their domain New Mexico as far east as Hondo, as far north as Santa Fe, as far west as the Rio Grande, and on the south as far as northwest Texas–and indeed, some distance into Texas. The Jicarillas held a large section of northern and eastern New Mexico and even some contiguous portions of southern Colorado. The boundaries set for the Chiricahuas were the Rio Grande on the east, Laguna and Acoma on the north, the present eastern boundaries of the White Mountain and San Carlos Reservations on the west, and on the south as far as and a considerable distance into Sonora and Chihuahua. The Western Apaches occupied all that is now included in the White Mountain and San Carlos Reservations and a vast region in Arizona west of the limits of these two reservations.

Differences appeared among these various tribes in dress, in personal decoration, in the manner of erecting their dwelling places, and even in peculiarities of speech and vocabulary. Mr. Granville Goodwin, who has limited his studies to the Western Apaches, in a letter to me states that there are clans among them and that these clans are almost identical with those of the Navajo system. Dr. Opler finds that clans do not exist in any of the other three Apache tribes. Mr. Goodwin further says that “in dialect, culture, and tribal affiliations” some of the four tribes named above are “just as distinct from each other as any one of the Apache divisions is from the Navajo.” Indeed, he holds that the Navajo originally were Apaches.

Notwithstanding what has been said above, the Apaches recognized themselves as one people and as distinct from all other peoples. One tribe as a whole never made war on another tribe as a whole. Often they were far from cordial toward each other, and members of one tribe might show open hostility toward members of another tribe. In the seventies and eighties there was always trouble when our Government tried to force separate tribes to live together on the same reservation, and the final conquest of the Apaches was due in great measure to the fact that Army officers were able to enlist volunteers from one tribe to fight against recalcitrants of a different tribe.

The Mescalero tribe was made up of two bands: the plains people on the east and the mountain people on the west. There were two bands of Jicarillas also: the Llanero, or plains people, east of the Rio Grande, and the Ollero, or sand people, west of the Rio Grande. Three bands constituted the powerful Chiricahua tribe: the red paint people to the north, a band that operated in northern Chihuahua and Sonora, and the band called the Chiricahua in the southwest–this band, under Cochise, becoming coextensive with the tribe. The Western Apaches consisted of four groups: the Coyotero, or White Mountain, the Tonto, the Cibecue, and the San Carlos. These designations are modern, although all these groups occupied the territory in primitive times that they now inhabit in our day.

The Apache economy was essentially an economy of war. War was the Apache’s trade. A boy was instructed in the ways of the warpath almost from infancy. His earliest training was in the hands of his maternal grandfather and his father. While still small, he was given a bow and blunt arrows to play with. When he was large enough, he was taught to make his own weapons. It was a proud day in his life when he was taken on a hunt by his father and uncles; and then it was that his education in woodcraft began.

Since the local group was the basic fighting and raiding unit, it assumed responsibility for the training of the youth when he was ready for the warpath, as he was by the time he was fifteen or sixteen. Sometimes several boys were trained at once–usually in the early spring or in the fall. The youth was required to take dips in cold water, sometimes even to plunge into ice water. He had to take long runs over rough country with a load on his back. He must keep his mouth shut and breathe through his nose. By this time he was required to make his own weapons and to show skill in using them. Next, he was put through every hard exercise engaged in by men, including horseback riding. To test his will power and endurance, he was made to go without sleep for a long period, the vigil sometimes being extended to a period of forty-eight hours. Such intensive training went on for a long time, that is, until he was able to conduct himself like a real Apache, no matter how severe the test. The author was told by Jimmie Stevens, seventy-year-old interpreter at the San Carlos Reservation, whose mother was the daughter of a White Mountain Apache chief and whose father was one of the most influential American traders on the Apache Reservation in the seventies, that, as a climax to this Spartanlike training, the youth must go alone in the wilds for two weeks and live by his own skill and hardihood.

At last the novice might volunteer to go on the warpath. At this time a ceremony was performed in his behalf, and a helmet and shield were especially designed for him. A war dance accompanied this ceremony during which he must show his agility and endurance by leaping, twisting, and dodging with unwearied pep and strength. Then he was instructed in the language of the warpath by the ceremonial man in charge. He was not always able to perfect himself in these things at once; but as soon as he was well versed in it all, his request to go along with a war party would be granted. His novitiate was not complete until he had volunteered for four raids or war parties. During this apprenticeship on the warpath he must build the fires, prepare the food and cook it, look after the horses, stand guard at night, be constantly alert and observant, and never speak except in the language of the warpath. These four expeditions constituted his war college. During this period he was set in as harsh a strait jacket of behavior as the midshipman in the days of the sailing vessel. It was not until his fifth raid that he was allowed to take part in battle. But then, if he was made of the right stuff, he lost no chance to show his metal, and returned rich with the spoils of war and covered with glory.

The Apache armed himself in primitive times with the bow and arrow and the lance. The bow was a powerful weapon, strengthened as it was with layers of sinew on the back, laid on with such nicety that they could scarcely be seen. The arrows were more than three feet long. The upper part was made of cane or rush, but a shaft about a foot long, made of light yet hard and seasoned wood, was inserted into this. The point was of stone, bone, or iron. An Apache was able to shoot this arrow five hundred feet with fatal effect. If an attempt was made to pull the arrow from the body of the victim, the shaft came out of its socket leaving the point in the wound. Poisoned arrows were sometimes used. The lance was fifteen feet long, with a strong sharp point. An Apache horseman, in charging an enemy, held his lance above his head with both hands, controlling his horse with his knees. In battle he usually carried a shield. However, the Apache rarely fought in the open, and almost never against a large and well-armed force, unless completely taken by surprise. He was infinitely patient and skillful in ambush. He could so disguise himself with dirt and desert plants that the unwary traveler little suspected his presence until it was too late. Warriors kept watch from rocks and mountain lookouts across wide stretches of country, observing sometimes for days their intended victims before striking. They pounced upon solitary horsemen or small unarmed parties, but had a wholesome respect for large armed expeditions and soldiers. They crept up to lonely ranch houses and mines–killing, looting, and burning–and then quickly made their escape, driving stampeded herds before them. When a band was hard-pressed, or forced to do battle, it would scatter and disappear like a flock of wild turkeys, to reassemble at some preappointed spot.

The Apache was perfectly acquainted with the country that he inhabited for hundreds of miles around. He knew every spring, water hole, canyon, and crevice. There was no commissary or transportation problem for him. He could carry for days what little food he needed and could add some edible thing to his store, however and the region. He could travel on foot, over the roughest terrain from fifty to seventy-five miles a day; and such was his endurance that he could keep up this pace for several days at a stretch. He had his own sign language, too, and his highly effective telegraph system. For him there were transmitted secrets, if not sermons, in stones and running brooks, and devilish possibilities in everything. His skill as a trailer was equal to that of the most erudite scholar who traces, reads, and translates the chirography of past ages in his cold, dark cubicle. The position of an overturned stone, the manner in which a twig or the branch of a tree had been broken, the way in which three sticks had been placed, the horse manure dropped in camp or along the trail, spoke to him in trumpet tones and taught him things well worth remembering. He had perfected a system of smoke signaling over wide spaces that was swift and most effective. Both Cremony and White give details concerning the war craft of the Apache in trailing and communicating by smoke signals:

“Smokes are of various kinds, each one significant of a particular object. A sudden puff, rising into a graceful column from the mountain heights, and almost as suddenly losing its identity by dissolving into the rarefied atmosphere of those heights, simply indicates the presence of a strange party upon the plains below; but if those columns are rapidly multiplied and repeated, they serve as a warning to show that the travelers are well armed and numerous. If a steady smoke is maintained for some time, the object is to collect the scattered bands of savages at some designated point, with hostile intention, should it be practicable. These signals are made at night, in the same order, by the use of fires, which being kindled, are either alternately exposed and shrouded from view, or suffered to burn steadily, as occasion may require.” 2

Though the Apache devoted himself so diligently to the turning of live men into dead ones, he experienced the greatest horror when in the presence of a corpse. The Apaches buried their dead at the earliest moment practicable. Interment always took place in the daytime on the day of death if possible. The very unwelcome task of preparing the body for burial and of interring it fell to the nearest male relatives. Only a few assisted. Interment was made in some remote cave or crevice in the rocks if such a place of sepulture were available. If necessary, a grave was dug on low or level ground, and the deceased, together with all his personal effects, was placed therein. The body was then securely covered with brush and dirt and rocks so that coyotes could not get at it. Such burial mounds were often seen by the first American soldiers in Arizona. At the grave, before returning to camp, the burial party would brush themselves all over with wisps of a green grass and then lay these tufts of grass on the grave in the form of a cross. Upon returning to the wickiup of the deceased, they would burn it up, together with everything that he wore or came in close contact with while alive. They would also burn everything that they wore while disposing of the body. They took pains, also, to disinfect themselves by bathing their bodies in the smoke of the sagebrush. The surviving family immediately moved from the locality where the death had occurred and made themselves new wickiups. The name of the dead was never again spoken among them, nor was the place of his interment ever visited or mentioned.

Very likely they were prompted by sanitary reasons in taking these extraordinary precautions; but back of all practical considerations was the superstitious fear that the spirit of the dead might return to haunt them and harm them. The nearer the relationship that bound them to the deceased, the more terrible this dread seemed to be. If a relative had kept anything that had belonged to the departed, he would fear that the ghost of the dead man would come back to claim it. They believed that they might arouse or anger the ghost of the dead if they spoke his name or made any mention of him or went near the spot where he was buried. There are on record many instances of “ghost sickness.” It exhibited itself in the form of extreme nervousness and fright. It was most often brought on by the hooting of a near-by owl at night. The Apache had an excessive dread of the owl; and if an owl hooted near one’s camp it was an omen of the most frightful import. They believed that the spirit of the dead entered into the owl and came back to warn or threaten them. 1

Some writers assert that the Apache is destitute of the religious sense. In fact the primitive Apache had an ever-present consciousness of the supernatural. There is not space here to discuss the myths of the Apaches that deal with the creation of the world or to record their stories of the birth and miraculous exploits of the culture hero; but assuredly they believed in some impersonal force, creator of the world, and source of all power, that influenced the affairs of men. This being was not thought of as wholly benign; but, whether for good or for evil, they recognized its sway over them. It was through the medicine men that this supernatural power worked for the good of man, or for his hurt, since there were among men those who sought through supernatural aid to do their fellow men harm as well as those who desired to help them. Those who trafficked with the supernatural for evil purposes were witches; and the Apache had a superstitious dread of a witch. These malevolent beings worked their evil spells through certain animals and natural forces–the bear, the owl, the snake, the coyote, clouds, lightning, etc.

John G. Bourke asserts that the medicine man was at once the most powerful and the most injurious influence in the life of the primitive Apache. He was the purveyor of fear, witchcraft, and idolatry. There was no particular family or clan set apart as supernatural practitioners. Any youth might aspire to become a medicine man. In order to succeed, he must, of course, convince his people that this higher power was willing to work through him. To become eminent he must be a dreamer of dreams, must give evidence of great spirituality, must fast, and keep lonely night vigils in the high places, must be able to interpret omens, and must master the art of swallowing fire, arrows, and spearheads. He might be a warrior as well as a shaman. Some very influential medicine men were blind and decrepit, and in some instances the function was exercised by women. The usual way to become a medicine man was to learn the art from a successful and renowned practitioner and to pay him well for his instruction and influence.

There were no set doctrines of practice. Each shaman did what he could do best. Some professed the power to bring rain; others to cure the sick; others to control snakes; and still others to recover lost or stolen property. Some there were who devoted themselves to the consulting of the spirits, but made no attempt to heal the sick or exercise miraculous power over the elements or over the animal world. All claimed to be able to work magic; but always with the qualification that witches, or some ghostly power, do not interfere. The most sacred and solemn of incantations was the spirit dance; but even in this highest of religious functions, all medicine men did not have recourse to exactly the same symbolism or make use of the same ceremonial dress.

It was the practice of medicine men to resort at times to secret and sacred caves. Apaches were exceedingly secretive concerning their religious ceremonials. Special virtue seemed to reside in the hair of the medicine man. He took care that no one should touch it. When in full regalia he no longer considered himself a mere man; he believed that he became the very power that he represented. Monotonous chanting, or beating incessantly upon a drum, seemed to have a sedative effect upon a patient and was much practiced. Medicine men held no free clinics. They demanded pay at time of treatment, either from the patient or his friends.

The sacred articles that the medicine man made use of were hoddentin, the medicine hat, the medicine shirt, and the medicine cord. Other charms and amulets of various sorts were employed, but these four were very important. Hoddentin was a kind of powder made of the tule. It was carried in a little buckskin bag and rarely was an Apache without such a bag. This powder he considered efficacious under almost all circumstances. It was regularly made use of by the medicine man. A pinch of it was applied to the breast or forehead of the sick; it was scattered on the path before a sick or wounded man; a pinch of it was thrown toward the sun at planting time, and when a war party set out; and it was sprinkled on the body of the dead. In cases of sickness it was eaten as a remedy; and the strength of an exhausted warrior was restored when it was placed upon his tongue. Among other supernatural powers inherent in the medicine hat and the elaborately constructed ghost-dance headdress were ability to cure sickness, and insight into the future, whereby a medicine man could see and forestall the coming of an enemy. The medicine shirt was an artistically ornamented shirt of buckskin. The decorations were symbolic of the sun, the moon, the stars, hail, rain, lightning, rainbow, and clouds, among elemental objects, and of the snake, the centipede, and the tarantula among animals. The medicine shirt also possessed the magical quality of providing security for the warrior against the arrows and bullets of his foe. One of the most efficacious yet mysterious accessories of the medicine man was the medicine cord. There were cords of one, two, three, or four beautifully decorated strands. Strangers were not allowed to look upon or talk about these medicine cords, so sacred were they. It was only with the greatest difficulty that Bourke was able to secure specimens of them. Only on the most solemn and important occasions were they in evidence on the person of the medicine man. They were believed to possess the very greatest efficacy. Only the leading medicine men could make them; and before a new owner could put one on, it must be sprinkled with “heap hoddentin.”Citations:

  1. For an extended and exceedingly interesting account of the Apache attitude toward the dead, read Dr. M. E. Opler article, “An Interpretation of Ambivalence,” etc., in The Journal of Social Psychology, 1936, Vol. vii, pp. 82-116.[]

Apache, History,


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