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The Apache: Customs of a Proud and Tenacious People

written by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 2/27/2014

In spite of European colonization, the Apache people remained a strong and proud nation. While similar to the Navajo in life customs, the Apache Indians' prowess in battle is legendary. In addition, their culture is rich in ceremony and wisdom.

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    People of the Southwest

    There are different nations of Apache. All are descended from the peoples that migrated from Canada and Alaska many years ago. By the 1500s, the Apache people populated the desert, mountains and plains of the American Southwest.

    While there were many different nations, the Apache had the same or similar customs.

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    Picking a Leader

    Since the Apache lived in family groups, rather than villages or communities like their peers in the eastern part of North America, they Apaches had no defined leader unless there was war. Then, the bands came together to choose a war chief known for his courage, wisdom and personal generosity. (In Apache, "chief" translates to "he who speaks.") The war chief led the Apache in negotiations and, if necessary, battle.

    The tradition of picking a leader also included what to do if the family leaders did not agree with the choice. The family head would take his band and leave the meeting. If too many left the meeting, then the chief lost his standing. For the Apache, it was important to have a chief that the people respected and in which they could place their trust and hopes.

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    Rites of Passage

    Rites of passage from birth to death are important, even today, to the Apache.

    When a child is born, the Apaches pierce the child's ears. Piercing the earlobes gives the child the ability to hear important messages so that he or she may follow them. In the Chiricahua Nation, after a child is born, there is a Cradleboard Ceremony.

    In the Cradleboard Ceremony, the medicine man or woman blesses the child with cattail pollen. If the baby is male, he is placed in the cradleboard, and then lifted by the medicine man/woman to the four directions, east always being first. If the baby is female, her cradle is lifted empty to the four directions. After this, the baby girl is lifted up facing east. She is then placed in the cradleboard.

    When babies begin to walk, a Moccasin Ceremony carries with it blessings that the child will walk a strong, straight path in life. The baby has new moccasins put on before walking a path of pollen that leads to the east.

    At puberty, girls have a rite of passage ceremony called the Sunrise Ceremony. This ceremony includes a special feast created by the girl's relatives with invitations sent to friends, neighbors and relatives. On the first day of the ceremony, the young girl has a ritual bath given by a female member of the band. She dresses in a special outfit, after which a male ceremonial singer brings her a special structure where he chants creation songs as the girl performs ceremonial dances. In the evening, masked dancers come for more ceremonial dancing. Later, men and women come to dance together. The Sunrise Ceremony lasts for four days, ending the morning of the fifth day. Apaches believe this ceremony is essential to the long life and health of young women.

    The Apache prepare boys for manhood from the time they are very young. In addition to telling the boys tales of their culture, they presented tests for them to complete. One of the customs to help boys become strong, young warriors comes when the boys become annoying to an elder. The elder will tell the boys to run to the top of the mountain (really a hill) and come back again, not stopping until they get to the top. As they get older, the distance and height grow along with their ability. Fathers have their sons hold water in their mouths so that they breathe through their nose. Breathing through the mouth in the desert causes a person to dehydrate, which is fatal.

    Boys also test themselves by attacking hornets' nests. As the boys tear the nest apart, they shout, "Make us strong." Apache believe that by enduring the stings of the hornets, the boys learn to endure hardships. This ability helps them be strong warriors.

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    The Spirit Beings

    The Apache believed that the Great Spirit gave spirit to all creation. Some animals held ghosts or evil spirits such as the bear, coyote and owl. The crow, on the other hand, is a good omen.

    The Ganhs are spirit beings from the mountains sent by the Great Spirit to teach the Apache how to live the good life. The Ganhs taught the Apache how to live as well as what ceremonies, dances and songs to do.

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    Remembering the Past

    Like other Native Peoples reclaiming their traditions and life customs, the Apache Indians remember the past by celebrating the present at powwows as well as educating their children and others for the future.

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    References/Resources

    • Photo Credit: Apache Ceremony by NPS under Public domain on Wikimedia Commons
    • Southwest Crossroads: Traditional Apache Life, http://southwestcrossroads.org/record.php?num=521
    • White Mountain Apache Tribe: History, 2011, http://www.wmat.nsn.us/history.html
    • Google Books: Chiricahua Apache Women and Children: Safekeepers of the Heritage, Henrietta Stockel, 2000, http://bit.ly/ilcxmq
    • Mountain City Elementary School: Apache, G. Miller, http://www.mce.k12tn.net/indians/reports2/apache2.htm