Once our people roamed freely over a land as large as Texas where we were free to hunt, raid, and gather plants for food, medicine, and religious purposes. This was a period of great pride, a period in which our spirits soared, and our medicine was strong. Great medicine men led the people in their traditional religion. In war, we were almost undefeatable and our successes were many.
The region we have lived in for centuries is one of great diversity. From the low desert grasslands to the pine animals which were around us was extensive, and we moved as the land and seasons best directed us. Everything we made and used – our tools, clothing, food, and shelter – was taken directly from this land. In the spring, we left our winter camps in the river valleys and travelled to the high country to prepare our fields for the planting of squash, corn, and beans. Groups went out from these sites to collect Mescal, a type of agave central to our traditional diet.
As the crops ripened during the summer months, groups of women collected other important foods such as Mesquite beans, fruit of the yucca, and Emory’s oak acorns. Acorns still remain an important staple in the diet of the Apache people. After the crops were harvested in the fall, our men went out to hunt deer and antelope; the women and children collected juniper berries and the buts of the pinon pine. The coming of winter signaled our return to our camps in the river valleys. It was during these months that our men most frequently went out on raiding parties if the supply of our foods stored from our hunting and gathering during the rest of the year ran low.
Tensions quickly rose in the 1870s as settlers demanded more and more of Apache territory. We were increasingly unable to carry on our traditional movements with the seasons to hunt, gather, and collect those things that kept us clothed, fed, sheltered and happy. We resisted by increasing raids on their farms, ranches, and towns. This was a course of action taken out of necessity by countless other American Indian cultures across North America, but led to increased conflict…and bloodshed.
This rising tide of violence and hatred resulted in the Camp Grant Massacre. In the early morning hours of April 30th, 1871, a group of Anglo-Americans, Mexicans and Tohono O’Odham from Tucson slaughtered over 140 unarmed Aravaipa Apaches living peacefully five miles outside of Camp Grant, a military establishment north of Tucson. Many Americans were appalled by the vigilante actions at Camp Grant. Its Army commander, Lt. Royal E. Whitman, rushed to help the Apache victims as soon as he learned of the atrocity. Shortly afterwards he described the scene:
The camp was burning, and the ground strewed with the dead and mutilated women and children. I immediately mounted a party of about twenty soldiers and citizens, and sent them with the post surgeon, with a wagon to bring in the wounded, if any could be found. The party returned to the late P.M., having found no wounded and without having been able to communicate with any of the survivors. Early the next morning I took a similar party, with spades and shovels, and went out and buried all the dead in and immediately about the camp.
That evening they began to come from all directions, singly and in small parties, so changed in forty-eight hours as to be hardly recognizable, during which time they had neither eaten nor slept. Many of the men whose families had all been killed, when I spoke to them and expressed sympathy, were obliged to turn away, unable to speak, and too proud to show their grief. The women whose children had been killed or stolen were convulsed with grief… Children who two days before had been full of fun and frolic, kept at a distance, expressing wondering horror.
The tragedy illustrated the lack of an organized federal policy to protect Indians against vigilant groups and led directly to the creation of the reservation. Our ancestors were finally forced to accept the demands of the U.S. Government and confined to reservations. In 1872, the United States created Camp San Carlos for the purpose of concentrating and detaining thousands of Yavapai, Chiricahuas and Western Apaches from around the state. Many of these were our traditional enemies and there was much tension and suspicion. Cut off from our traditional lives, we starved physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Our freedom had been taken away.
With the establishment of the San Carlos Indian Agency in 1872, the Western Apache people witnessed a rapid and dramatic change from our traditional lifestyles. Under the reservation system the Federal government adopted a policy of assimilation to force our people to adopt Western values and institutions, such as private ownership of land, cash-based agriculture, and Christianity.
Education was a major part of the policy of acculturation. The schools forbade us to speak in our own language, wear traditional clothing, practice rituals, or for boys to have long hair. Children were separated from their own families to prevent parents to educate them in traditional ways. Boarding schools practiced harsh discipline and punished resistant students with solitary confinement with only bread and water to eat, whipping, or shackling with ball and chain. School curriculums were aimed only at teaching basic technical skills to boys and home economics to girls; there was little attempt to provide them with advanced literature or scientific knowledge.
As part of life on the reservation, we became dependent upon the handouts issued to us by the government of the United States. Often these rations failed to meet our basic needs; during the early reservation years, food and supplies promised by the government were often sold off by dishonest Indian Agents, leaving us with shortages of food, cloth, or wood for cooking and warming our homes. In desperation our people left the reservation to hunt, gather plants, and raid in traditional ways. These forays to relieve our poverty were commonly referred to as “outbreaks” in the local press. We were branded criminals in the struggle to maintain our dignity.
The arrival of outsiders into the region brought hostilities and change. The newcomers had little regard for our aboriginal ties to the land. In an effort to protect our traditions and culture, our ancestors fought and won many battles against the soldiers and citizens of Spain, Mexico, and the United States. But overwhelmed by superior numbers and modern technology, our grandfathers and great-grandfathers were forced to finally accept the demands of the U.S. Government. We were forced to give up our life of the wind and live on reservations.
Archaeologist began to systematically excavate sites such as Point of Pines in the San Carlos area in the 1940s. For the next 15 years, teams of archaeologists from the University of Arizona uncovered the material legacy of the early inhabitants. Their findings revealed a culture that possessed sophisticated knowledge of architecture, pottery, and agriculture. Layers revealed almost continual occupation of the region since 2000 BC.
Apaches still honor spiritual traditions. Today, the Ga’an are called upon to evoke blessings and to ward off illness and evil at ceremonies, such as the Changing Woman and Ga’an ceremonies.
The Ga’an is performed by selected men who represent the mountain spirits. Typically, four dancers representing the four directions participate in the ceremony. Their bodies are painted in black, white and with designs which have special meanings. They are accompanied by a fifth dancer, or Lebaye, painted gray and twirling a bull-roarer.