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“Traditional Apache Life”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

The Athapaskan peoples migrated south from Alaska and Canada and eventually split into seven distinct groups. By 1500, they occupied a vast expanse of territory in the American Southwest. The extreme environments they inhabited—mountains, deserts, and plains—hardened them into fierce and adaptable nomads. In their encounters with other Indian tribes as well as with Spaniards, Mexicans, and Anglo-Americans, the Apache or N’de relied on traditional ways and took on traits from other cultures.

Chief Garfield (Jicarilla Apache)“Chief Garfield (Jicarilla Apache),” Edward S. Curtis (Photographer)

Warriors and Chiefs

Because Apaches traditionally lived in family bands or small groups, they did not usually need a central leader. But when bands joined together in times of war, they chose a chief from among the warriors. The war chief was a spokesman for the people. (“Chief” in Apache literally means “he who speaks.”) People chose a man known for his courage, wisdom, and personal generosity. If a family head disagreed with the war chief at any time, he was free to take his band and leave. When friction divided the group, a chief lost his position and his following. A chief whom the people respected had great power to achieve the group’s goals.

Here is how an Apache explained the qualities of an ideal leader in the 1980s:

“The leader is supposed to talk to his people. He is supposed to be sympathetic and tell them how to live, sympathetic in the sense of giving out horses and valuables to those who need them. The leader is supposed to give something to eat to everyone who comes around [in need]. He has control in time of war. You can’t disobey him. The leader advises people to help the unfortunate, to give to those whose luck is bad. He advises against fights in the camps; he doesn’t want any quarrels within the group. He advises the people to be on the lookout all the time. He may request that a ceremony be performed by a shaman [a healer] for the benefit of the men during a raid. If the leader is advised by the shaman as a result of such a ceremony to do this or that, he carries out what the power tells him to do. A man must be wealthy and have a big following to be a chief.”
—Michael E. Melody, Indians of North America: The Apache, p. 28.

Hattie Tom (Mescalero Apache)“Hattie Tom (Mescalero Apache),” Unidentified (Photographer)

Women in Apache Society

In Apache society, a girl stayed all her life in the camp of her mother and sisters, aunts, and cousins. When a man married, he left his parents’ camp and became part of his wife’s family group. A husband was expected to care for his new family and obey his in-laws. Women usually gathered the food. Because they knew where to find edible plants and knew how to use them, women usually did the doctoring and were sometimes shamans. It was mainly the women’s job to tan hides, sew leather, make clothes, and take care of the children. Women attended celebrations and ceremonies with men. Although leaders of extended families and local groups were always men, women participated in council meetings and influenced decisions. In most Apache groups, women stayed apart from hunting expeditions, although they did catch wood rats and prairie dogs and often joined in rabbit surrounds. Men were excluded when women played stave, a popular gambling game. A girl’s puberty rite was a major ceremony within the tribe, and everyone celebrated it.

The Apache Code of Honor

Traditional Apaches had no laws, police, judges, or jails. So how did they maintain social order? During peacetime, older people passed down a code of honor to younger ones by oral tradition and example. In the late 1900s, an Apache explained the code of conduct in this way:

“Good conduct is the result of obeying the customs, and it is up to the person….A man would come to a bad end in the old days [if] he violated the customs….If you obey all the rules, you get along all right….But if a person doesn’t take hold of the customs, if he cuts loose, if he doesn’t treat other people right, he has no chance. Then the others do not help him. He is alone. He is bound to come to a bad end and perhaps be killed. A person just has to observe certain things. They aren’t laws—they are strong, we don’t need laws.”
—Michael E. Melody, Indians of North America: The Apache, p. 31

Coming of Age in Apache Society

Traditional ceremonies are essential to Apache life. Because the tribes were nomadic, their ceremonies corresponded to an individual’s life cycle rather than to the calendar. Traditionally, Apaches pierced a newborn’s earlobes so that he or she could hear important things and obey them. Apaches today still perform ceremonies to mark rites of passage from birth to death. Among the Chiricahua, for example, the family holds a cradleboard ceremony soon after birth of a child. When a child begins to walk, dressed in new moccasins, he or she follows a trail of pollen leading east to symbolize a long and successful life. In the spring, Apaches ceremonially cut the child’s hair to encourage health and vitality. Apache children learn about tribal traditions and expectations through storytelling and by witnessing many ceremonies. In the past, Apache boys and girls got up before sunrise. The girls performed demanding tasks. The boys hardened their bodies through a rigorous running and training.

Apache Sunrise Ceremony“Apache Sunrise Ceremony,” Unidentified (Photographer)

Apache Girls’ Puberty Rites

A girl’s puberty rite was of great importance in Apache society. Apaches believe that the puberty rite is essential to a girl’s vitality. The ceremony strengthens her ability to bear healthy children. When a girl reaches her early teens, her close relatives prepare special foods and invite many friends, neighbors, and relatives to the ceremony. Early in the morning of the first day, a female guide bathes the girl and dresses her in special clothing. Then a male ceremonial singer takes the girl to a special tipi or structure where he sings a cycle of creation songs while the girl performs ritual dances. In the Mescalero tradition, the girl makes four ritual runs to the east, circling a basket tray filled with ritual objects. When evening comes, masked dancers appear. Later that evening, men and women dance together. The puberty ceremony continues for four days and four nights. It ends with a ceremony early in the morning of the fifth day.

Apache Boys’ Preparations for War

From the time an Apache boy could walk, he trained for war. Mimbres Apaches devoted much energy and attention to teaching their male children what they needed to know to survive.

“If, when [a child was] playing around the ranchería, he got on the nerves of his elders, he was never, or almost never, cuffed or beaten. Instead, some adult may have directed, ‘Run to the top of that mountain! Do not stop to breathe on the way up. Run to the top without stopping!’ and the boy did so, because he must. Rarely was it a ‘mountain’ at first; just a hillock. Later a higher one would be chosen, and then one greater still, until as a full-fledged warrior he would be capable of running up a true mountain without pausing for breath, for that was one way his life might be saved when a less-hardened enemy was in pursuit.

“With other youngsters he was directed to bathe each morning, winter or summer, in the chill stream near the ranchería, not specifically for cleanliness, although the Apaches were a clean and healthy people, but to harden his body, for only the enduring endure, as the great men of the band, the surviving warriors, all knew. The shock of cold water, as every Apache was aware, made the heart strong, so one might withstand fear in war. Boys were taught to run, and some fathers, to train the child to breathe through his nose when so doing, made a son fill his mouth with water before a race and spit it out afterward to prove he had not swallowed it to take in air more easily through his mouth. Mouth breathing made one thirsty, and in the desert that could be deadly.

“The boys imitated their elders when they could and even played at war among themselves. They rarely fought each other. But when some lucky youngster discovered a wasps’ nest, the boys solemnly gathered in ‘council,’ and someone would say, ‘We hear there are some mean things living over there. Let’s go to war with them!’ Before a gallery of their elders, gathered at a safe distance, they attacked the nest. Though frequently stung severely, they carried it off in triumph, if they could endure the assaults of the infuriated insects, tore the nest apart, and rubbed themselves with it, saying ritually, ‘Make me brave!’”
—Dan L. Thrapp, Victorio and the Mimbres Apaches, pp. 10-11

Apache Cutting Mescal, ca. 1906“Apache Cutting Mescal, ca. 1906,” Edward S. Curtis (Photographer)

The Mescal (Century) Plant

The Apache tribal name “Mescalero” shows the importance of the mescal plant to the nomadic people. Apaches probably learned how to harvest mescal from indigenous Mexicans to the south. The men and boys would help the women remove the heads or crowns of the plant. Then they dug a long pit and lined it with rocks. After they had built a fire and placed the mescal in the pits, the youngest child would stand to the east of the pit and throw in four stones. Then the people covered the pit with clay and wet grass, placed a rock on top of the mound, and drew a cross-like figure with charcoal on the rock. After roasting the mescal for days, the people feasted and drank!

The Horse

The Spanish introduced horses to indigenous peoples of the American Southwest in the1500s. Used for transportation and sometimes as food, horses changed native culture. The horse allowed the nomadic Apaches to carry more and move faster than ever before over vast expanses of territory. The horse also expanded the range for hunting and raiding.


Before Spanish explorers entered the Southwest on horseback, raiding Apache warriors traveled by foot. Their main purpose for raiding was not to enlarge their territory but to acquire food and livestock for day-to-day survival. Once the Spanish arrived, Apaches saw them as a resource rather than an enemy to eradicate. In addition to food and livestock, Apache raiders also made off with weapons, supplies, and children—whom they frequently accepted into the band and raised as their own. An Apache man with many horses earned respect for his skill in raiding and for his wealth. Raiding was the major source of conflict between Apaches and other peoples in the Southwest.


Apaches sometimes took enemy scalps in raids and battles. They learned this behavior from their Mexican enemies. Popular myths about savage Apaches on the warpath overlook the fact that all sides in the Southwest committed cruel acts.

Cowboy Ross Santee wrote about tensions between Mexicans and Apaches in the early 1800s: “… It was about this time that the Mexican States offered a bounty for Apache scalps, one hundred pesos for a man’s, fifty pesos for a woman’s. How the authorities distinguished between the scalp of a man or woman has never been explained. But for a short time the scalp industry flourished, even bringing in some American scalp hunters.”
—Ross Santee, Apache Land, p.34

Apache Scouts After the Hostilities, ca. 1880-1885“Apache Scouts After the Hostilities, ca. 1880-1885,” J. C. Burge (Photographer)


Many bands of Apaches scouted for the US Army during the long campaigns against other Apaches. Why would Apaches scout for the “White Eyes,” who had become their enemies? Between the 1850s and the 1880s, Apache bands were rapidly losing their hunting grounds to encroaching American settlers. Scouting must have seemed a way to stay on their lands and preserve their way of life. Apache scouts served the officers and troops of the US Army with skill and loyalty. Without them, the army could not have found the Apache bands hiding in remote regions of the Southwest. Here is how US Army Captain John G. Bourke described the Apache scouts on the campaign in pursuit of Chiricahua Apaches in 1883:

“He does not read the newspapers, but the great book of nature is open to his perusal, and has been drained of much knowledge which his pale-faced brother would be glad to acquire. Every track in the trail, mark in the grass, scratch on the bark of a tree, explains itself to the untutored Apache. He can tell to an hour, almost, when the man or animal making them passed by, and, like a hound, will keep on the scent until he catches up with the object of his pursuit.

“In the presence of strangers the Apache soldier is sedate and taciturn. Seated around his little apology for a camp-fire, in the communion of his fellows, he becomes vivacious and conversational. He is obedient to authority, but will not brook the restraints which, under our notions of discipline, change men into machines. He makes an excellent sentinel, and not a single instance can be adduced of property having been stolen from or by an Apache on guard.”
—John G. Bourke, An Apache Campaign In the Sierra Madre, p.51

Tragically, after the military campaigns against the Apaches, the US government deceived the scouts. The government imprisoned the scouts along with the captured Apaches and sent them to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico and Fort Marion in Florida.


Apachería was the name Spanish and American settlers used for the vast area of the American Southwest where Apaches lived. The Jicarilla, Mescalero, and Kiowa-Apache groups lived in the eastern part of the Apachería. They hunted bison very much as their Plains Indian neighbors did. Jicarilla and Kiowa-Apache cultures were especially centered on bison hunting. They ate bison meat roasted, baked, boiled, and even raw. Apache women tanned, cut, and sewed bison hide into moccasins, robes, bags, scarves, and blankets. Apache men made shields, cords, and lariats from bison hide. When American bison hunters slaughtered millions of the animals in the late 1800s, Apaches lost their main source of food, clothing, and shelter.

The Tipi and Wickiup

Edith (San Carlos Apache), 1885“Edith (San Carlos Apache), 1885,” Margaret McKittrick (Photographer)

The Apaches designed their houses to fit their environment. The Kiowa-Apaches, Jicarillas, and some Chiricahuas lived in tipis on the edge of the plains. Some Apaches made tipis from wooden poles covered with bison hide. Tipis offered temporary, portable housing as the people followed bison herds across the plains.

Most Apache bands lived in wickiups, round huts made of brush with scooped-out earthen floors. The wickiup’s outer covering changed with the weather. In summertime, people draped leafy branches over the dwelling to provide shade and ventilation in the hot weather. In winter they used tanned animal hides for insulation. They often built larger wickiups with a hole in the center so that smoke from cooking fires could escape. Both tipis and wickiups were ideal housing for hunters and gatherers who moved around their lands as the seasons changed.

Farming On Apache Reservations

San Carlos Apache Line Rider, ca. 1885“San Carlos Apache Line Rider, ca. 1885,” Margaret McKittrick (Photographer)

For the most part, Apaches were hunters and gatherers who depended on a nomadic existence. However, they sometimes grew crops such as corn, a skill they probably learned from the Pueblo people. When the US government forced Apache bands onto reservations, they could not sustain their traditional way of life. Reservation lands were too small and densely populated for good hunting. Food rations from the US government were not always adequate. People suffered great hunger and poverty. Apaches tried to farm the dry reservation lands, but it was very difficult. The government often changed its policy towards the Apaches, which also undercut their efforts to farm.

Cattle Raising on Apache Reservations

As nomads, Apaches quickly consumed the cattle they got from raiding. Once the US government made them stay on reservations, they began to herd and raise cattle. They became expert ranchers. Today, cattle ranching brings money to the reservations.