The Primitive Apache

The earliest Americans who came in contact with the Apache were able to study him in his original condition. As yet he was untouched by the ways of civilized man. He was strictly the creature of his environment; and, for her part, Nature had turned him out a perfect physical specimen. In appearance he was attractive rather than repulsive. The head, well formed and somewhat broad, was set firmly on a short, muscular neck. He had high cheekbones, well-formed nose, black eyes that blazed with fire and energy, strong jaws, and firm-closed lips-not thin, yet not too full. The hair, black, thick, and very coarse, was allowed to fall to the shoulders, but in front was trimmed straight across at the level of the eyebrows. Apache men had sparse beards. Such scattered hairs as did grow on their faces were plucked out one at a time with tweezers made of bent strips of tin.

The lean, supple, sinewy body of the Apache was capable of extraordinary activity and endurance. The legs and arms of an Apache brave, neither round in contour nor scrawny and thin, were shapely enough, and lacked nothing in agility and dexterity. The back was well developed and sturdy, the chest both broad and very deep, the waist slender. Rarely did the Apache attain a height of more than six feet, and just as seldom did he fall below five feet. Dr. John B. White in 1873 actually measured one hundred Arizona Apache men and one hundred women. The average results he reported as follows: “The men measured without any selection five feet, six and one-half inches and the women about five feet. The tallest man measured, standing in his bare feet, six feet and the tallest woman five feet, two inches, though there are doubtless many women among them who may exceed this height.

“The shortest man measured five feet and three-fourths of an inch, and the shortest woman four feet and seven and threefourths of an inch.”

All writers who describe the Apaches as they were when they became known to Americans emphasize their superior mental qualities. They showed instinct and sagacity akin to that of animals. They were endowed with great acuteness of perception; marked ingenuity in overcoming the asperities of climate, soil, and topography; shrewdness in forecasting the actions of their enemies and in coordinating their plans, though operating in widely scattered bands over a vast region of country. They were witty, possessed of a quick sense of humor, cheerful, companionable, and little disposed to heed the annoyances and uncertainties of life. They were ever on the alert, however, and were excitable. Unusual sounds or happenings would arouse them at once to tremendous activity.

It is a mistake to suppose that the Apaches were not a moral people. The fact is, their code of morals was as deep-rooted and binding as that of civilized men. To be sure, they were guided in their conduct by principles very different from those professed by the white man. Their highest conception of a virtuous man was that he engage in war and excel as a thief; of a woman that she toil hard and faithfully. All other people they looked upon as their enemies. Their occupation was murder and robbery. The man who could kill without being killed, and could steal without being caught, was the most honored and admired individual among them. These ideals were held be fore the child from his infancy; and the whole ambition of the growing boy was to be–a brave warrior, yes–most of all a successful raider and killer. Daring and gallant action, in itself, meant little to him. Indeed, it seemed very foolish. But to outwit and destroy his foe by craft was meritorious in the highest degree; and the evidence of such cunning and hardihood was the bringing home of the bacon. The suitor who throve best in the eyes of the maid he desired to marry was the one richest in stolen horses and cattle and best able to deck her out with spoils snatched from his murdered foe. And it was to the standard of such a leader that the ambitious young braves eagerly pressed. It is true that the very highest admiration was reserved for the very ablest warriors and chieftains, who, because of their preeminence in action and diplomacy, were equal to the task of protecting and leading the whole tribe in times of supreme emergency. To the qualities of raider, such a chief added those of intellect, strategy, and indomitable resolution. Cochise and Victorio were such leaders, and Mangas Coloradas in diplomacy and intellect, though not in military powers.

Pity was a feeling unknown to the Apache; cruelty an ingrained quality. It must be admitted that he was never able to conceive of pains more cruel than those he had suffered from his Christian enemies. The only difference between them and him was that the Apache openly confessed and practiced his creed of cruelty and rapacity, whereas the white man hypocritically professed mercy and honesty and at the same time surpassed the Apache in deeds of dishonor and blood.

So much with respect to the Apache in his attitude toward the rest of mankind. The story is a very different one if we study his conduct as it affected his own people. From birth to death he was held irrevocably to well-defined attitudes and duties toward his family and his clan or group, and disloyalty to the standards erected by his people brought pains and penalties upon him quite as severe as those that rule civilized society. Indeed, viewed from this standpoint, he was as moral a man as is the typical white man. In fact, he adhered more strictly to his social code than the white man does to his. For one thing, the Apache held it a high virtue to speak the truth. Again, he did not steal from his own tribesmen; nor would he fail to pay his debts. He was openhanded–would share what he had with his fellows. Parents fondly loved their children, and they supported other dependent members of their families. Also, at whatever the cost to their own safety and comfort, they demanded just satisfaction for injuries to their kith and kin. The labor and expense involved in marriage and burial ceremonies were shared by relatives; and in many other ways habitual regard was given to ties and obligations universally recognized among them. And, to an extraordinary degree, their women were loyal to their marriage vows and patient in the discharge of the heavy menial tasks laid upon them.

The primitive Apache man went unclothed save for breechclout, mocassins, and, on raids or in battle, a dose-fitting helmet of hide decorated with feathers. Originally the breechdout was made of dressed deerskin, but at a later date, a strip of muslin about six feet long was used for this purpose. This band was passed between the legs and around the loins and so adjusted that the ends fell to the knee, both in front and behind. The moccasins were of buckskin and were peculiarly fitted to protect the feet and legs from venomous reptiles and thorny desert plants. They reached halfway up the thigh, and had tough soles extended and curved up at the toe, terminating in a sort of button the size of a half-dollar. The tops were often pushed down below the knees and the folds were used as pockets for such small articles as the Apache might desire to carry on his person. After the coming of the Americans, an Apache warrior nearly always wore a band of flannel or cotton cloth tightly bound about his head to hold his hair in place. The women wore skirts of deerskin extending from the waist to the knees, with a fringe of thongs and, possibly, ornamented with bits of bright metal or glass. The moccasins worn by the women were of a different kind from those used by the warriors.–not of such great length nor so durable. They came only a little above the ankle, though they had the usual buttonlike projection at the toe.

The Apache dwelling place was a circular or oval shack, called a wickiup. It was built by the women from saplings and brush. The long, slender poles were thrust into the ground about two feet apart, bent inward until they met, and then bound together at the top, a little hole being left to let the smoke out. Brush or branches were now woven into the framework, and in some instances the whole was covered with bark, or even with deerskins. After the structure had been completed, a place was scooped out in the floor, from eighteen inches to two feet deep, to serve as bedroom. The dirt was packed around the base of the wickiup and was useful both in giving solidity to the shack and in affording protection against driving storms. In cold weather a very small fire was made in the center, and around this the family huddled. When an Apache moved from one place to another, and after a member of the family had died, the wickiup was burned. These huts were from ten to twelve feet by about eight or nine feet in dimensions. The doorway was low, and sometimes there extended from it on each side a little windbreak made of poles and brush. The Apache never erected his wickiup at a distance from others; ordinarily four or five of these shelters were built in proximity to each other.

The food of the Apache was exceedingly varied. Of course he ate abundantly of flesh. He liked mule meat best of all, and next to that horse flesh. The fact is, almost any sort of animal suited his taste–from deer and buffalo to gopher and lizard. He did not eat bear meat or pork or the flesh of the turkey. He would not eat fish, nor devour any other creature that lived in the water. Yet he hunted the turkey, as well as the hawk and the eagle, for their feathers, and the mink, the beaver, and the muskrat for their skins. At times, of course, so arid and destitute was the country, that he was compelled to subsist for the most part on roots, berries, and nuts, and the seeds of grasses. Acorns, mescal, and mesquite beans were staple articles of food. The pulpy head of the mescal meant almost as much to the Apache as bread does to us. Available nearly everywhere on the desert, it was gathered by the women and roasted in pits. It could be stored and carried about. The mesquite bean and the acorn were pounded into meal and made into cakes. The fruit of the giant cactus, and the pitahaya were much in favor; and, indeed, in times of necessity the fruit of various other species of cactus was acceptable, as well as that of the yucca. Travelers likened the taste of these fruits, when cured, to the fig, the date, and the banana. After being ground or pounded to a powder on a large flat stone, the grass seeds were made into a paste with water, and were shaped into cakes.

The Apaches were a sociable people. After the chief meal of the day, which was usually eaten in the evening, they would sit or lie about their camp talking endlessly about the happenings of the day or exchanging tales of past deeds in raids and battles. On many occasions they met for feasting, or dancing; and there were innumerable ceremonial dances. Before and after battle the braves indulged in characteristic war dances while the women looked on. There were social dances in which the young men and young women were the chief participants, the older people looking on, commenting and conversing enjoying themselves as much apparently as did the young people. They all swam well, and in summer swimming was a favorite sport. Every Apache was a gambler, man, woman, and child; and there was nothing they would not stake, from their horse to their shirt (or what, in the Apache mind, took the place of the shirt). There were ball games of various kinds –the most popular and famous, that played with hoop and pole, from which women were excluded. The women raced and played games akin to our modern shinny. There were guessing games, too, and wrestling matches, and games of skill in the shooting of arrows and the tossing of rocks at a hole.

After children were big enough to run about, parents made little effort to control them and rarely scolded or punished them. Small boys ran races, tussled together, threw stones at each other, or practiced with bow and arrow. The little girls were more given to play than were the boys. They made mimic houses with sticks and stones, shaped dolls from bits of rag or buckskin, or from bunches of flexible plants, tied around at the top. Their miniature houses were built in imitation of their own homes and their dolls were placed in them, very much as little white children do; and, when mud could be had, they molded it into the forms of dolls, horses, men and women, even mounting their men and women upon animals.

The Apaches seem to have had little desire to create things of beauty. This is not strange in view of their nomadic and marauding propensities. In the designing and shaping of devildance masks, medicine shirts, and violins, they did display some decorative and pictorial skill; but their most notable achievement in art is to be seen in their basketry. This work was of two kinds–burden baskets and water jugs. Originally, in both kinds, beauty was subordinated to function; though in course of time Apache women attained considerable skill in the shaping and decorating of these very useful and durable domestic articles. Two techniques were employed: the twined and the coiled. Specimens of their work are preserved in various museums. The finest examples of craftsmanship and beauty are to be seen in their coiled work. It is difficult to determine to what extent the art of basketry was original and distinctive among the Apaches and to what degree it was a cultural borrowing. Very likely the development of the art among them was influenced by the work in the same kind of the Pueblo, Pima, and California Indians. A certain intermediate, very ornate, and florid type may have been derived from the Yumas. Probably influences from the sources just named were introduced by individuals held as captives among the Apaches who, by some chance, had come in contact with California, Yuma, or Pima Indians.

Both socially and economically the family was the basic unit in the integration of the Apache nation. Each family was bound together by rights and duties that were formal and well defined. Families camped together. The home of the mother was the family center. She was the head. If there were married daughters, their husbands came to dwell in the maternal camp; though it was forbidden them to look upon the face of their mother-in-law or to hold converse with her. Once for all, an individual was bound to his family. Robert Frost writes in one of his most perfect poems:

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.

Most assuredly this was true in the Apache economy. The family was supremely interested in each of its members, was responsible for his education, had much to say with respect to his choice when he married, partook of his disgrace and shared in his glory, braved defilement and the possibility of “ghost sickness” in preparing him for burial after his death, and in case he suffered a violent and undeserved death, was under solemn obligation to avenge him.

When an Apache girl reached puberty there was a simple family celebration of the event. It might last a day or two, though it was in no way formal or ceremonial. As an indication that she had arrived at womanhood, she was told to run toward the east whence the sun arises. A month or two later, however, she was given a grand coming-out party. This was as much a society event as a formal ball given in honor of a Washington débutante by her proud mother. It lasted four days, and relatives and friends from far and near were invited to attend. The festival, considered as a whole, was as beautiful in design and symbolic significance as the most involved and elaborate pattern woven upon a richly artistic Navajo rug.

The expense was borne by the parents, though other relatives often assisted, as the cost was not inconsiderable. Sometimes a father would begin saving up and making preparations many months ahead, and not infrequently closely related families would give a joint party for two or more girls. When the appointed day arrived, people from a distance would begin to make their camps near the silvan spot selected for the exercises. Here on a smooth space, properly laid out and marked off, a tepee had been set up in which the girl was to spend the next four days and nights in strenuous vigils and ceremonial dances. The host engaged a medicine man to take charge of the religious rites and made abundant provision for the feeding and feasting of the crowd. After gifts and food had been carried to the lodge of the maiden, she would make her appearance in her finest array. Bright ornaments were displayed to the best advantage on the fringe of her buckskin skirt and along the sides of her moccasins. With her attendants she entered the tepee. Outside there were social dances, and within, the girl would alternately kneel for long hours in statuesque supplication and dance her stately measures. The second day, morning and afternoon, there was dancing by the crowd; and at night the girl resumed her vigils and her exhausting dancing. The second or third night, disguised in the skins of various savage animals, the devil dancers would come and dance around a central fire. At first the warriors and the old women would seem alarmed at the appearance of these wild beasts, but, when they found that they were unable to drive them away, they would join with them in the dance, and the young girl would dance with them also. The climax came on the fourth night. All that night the dancing of the girl, as well as the social dancing outside, continued. At sunrise the final ritualistic exercises were completed by the medicine man. Then the tepee was demolished, and the girl ran swiftly toward the east. Dr. M. E. Opler writes: “It is a sun ceremony–a prayer that the force which causes all plant life to thrive, may also grant this young Apache girl health and vigor.” 1

For an Apache girl, the mother’s wickiup was the hub of the universe. Mother and daughter were almost constantly together. They toiled side by side in domestic work, accompanied each other on expeditions to gather food; and, after the maiden had made her debut, she went with her mother to dances and other social affairs where she met the young men. In the social dance she chose her own partner. Cupid was no less adept with Apache than with Greek bow and arrow; in spite of the severity of the social code by which they were hedged about, young people found ways to make known their mutual love. It is true that the families both of young men and young women exerted a powerful influence over them in their choice of a life partner. Yet in most cases they chose for themselves. After an Apache youth had made his choice, he must secure the consent of his own family to the union. Next it was necessary to make known to the girl’s parents, his desire to marry their daughter. His father or his brother would probably discharge this office for him. Now came the actual proposal. This formality consisted in the offering of presents to her and her family. As his wealth consisted chiefly of horses, in the night he would take one, or two, or more animals, and tie them near the girl’s wickiup. The number of horses he brought indicated to the family the measure of his riches and the degree of his ardor for the girl. The offer of only one horse would be thought a “one-horse affair.” If the girl took care of the animals–led them to water and fed them–the youth knew that his suit was successful; but if they were left uncared for, it was all too plain that he was rejected. The maiden was allowed four days to come to a decision. It was not good form to care for the animals the first day; but on the other hand, if she allowed them to suffer without forage or drink more than two days, she would be thought vain and proud. If the horses remained on the picket, neglected and starving at the end of the fourth day, there was nothing for the lover to do but to take them back.

After a suitor had been accepted, there followed a wedding feast that extended over three days. During this time the engaged couple were not allowed to speak to each other; but on the third night they would suddenly disappear–eluding, supposedly, the vigilance of the older people–and escape to the temporary wickiup provided by the groom in some hidden place in the woods not far away. After an absence of a week or more, they would return to the parental camp as suddenly as they had departed, unheralded and unnoticed. They would now erect their wickiup near that of the girl’s mother, but facing in an opposite direction. “Avoidance” was the term applied to the very definitely fixed formality that forbade a son-in-law to see his mother-in-law or to talk with her. In order to observe the strict amenities, the son-in-law, even though his own wickiup faced in an opposite direction from that of his wife’s mother, had to acquire a good deal of skill in quick dodging and sudden skipping. A man was not limited to one wife. If he was able to do so, he might at any time marry one or more additional wives, though he would be limited in his choice to sisters or unmarried cousins of his first wife. In case of the death of his first wife, he would be expected to remain in mourning for one year and then to espouse a sister or a cousin of his former wife.

When once married, a man said good-by forever to his own family. They no longer had any claim upon him. His whole obligation after that was to the family of his mother-in-law. As long as he lived he must support and protect the domestic circle into which he had married. He must bring to them the spoils of the chase and must be their avenger in case they suffered unjust injury. When he returned from the hunt, loaded with game, it was carried by the daughter to her mother’s wickiup; was there dressed and cooked, along with other food; and then their share was brought by the wife to be eaten with her husband and children in their wickiup. Divorces were few. No matter how dissatisfied a husband might become, or how hard his lot, he dare not seek separation except upon good and well-established grounds; and to run away would be to make him a social outlaw and to draw upon his head the animosity of the entire family into which he had married.

The local group was the next unit of organization after the domestic family. It was made up of several affiliated families, though blood relationships were not obligatory for membership in such a group. It was community of interest that drew members of a particular group together and, if mutually desirable, any person might attach himself to it. Such a community found that in union there was increased security and efficiency, both in economic and in warlike activities. A group was always known by some geographic name descriptive of the spot they chose for their settlement. The place might be a mountain, a canyon, a stronghold, or a spring. It might have been selected merely because it was a pleasant region in which to camp, with plenty of wood and water at hand, or because it offered unusual advantages for the storing of food and supplies, or because it was a good rallying point and easy to defend.Citations:

  1. For a full and scholarly account of this festival, read Dr. M. E. Opler, An Analysis of Mescalero and Chiricahua Apache Social Organization. In Mrs. White Mountain Smith’s Indian Tribes in the Southwest, there is a fragmentary but attractive description. I have drawn upon these accounts, as well as upon oral descriptions given me by the Reverend Frank Uplegger and others who live in the Apache reservations.[]

Apache, History,


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