Apache Indian Culture: History, Customs and Beliefs
Historical and Cultural Background of the Apache
The Athapaskan-speaking people of the Southwest, whom the Spanish and the Pueblos would
call Apaches, originally came from regions well north of the Canadian border.
They entered the plains sometime preceding the Columbian voyage, no doubt chasing the
growing herds of buffalo that emerged after 1200, and they built a new economy and social
structure fine-tuned to the needs of the sometimes-difficult environment.
Thereafter Apache populations grew, and by 1700 they dominated the western sections of
the southern plains and the mountains of New Mexico. Apaches, more than any other group,
challenged the Pueblo Indian populations as well as the encroaching Spaniards for control of
the political economy of the Southwest.
The Apaches created a place for themselves in the Southwest at a very difficult time in
history, when other tribal societies suffered decline and destruction.
The Apaches survived and prospered outside the Spanish colonial system primarily because
they adapted to the changing ecosystems of the Southwest; they altered their economy by
creating new methods of production and expanding or contracting sociopolitical structures to meet economic demands.
Frequently such changes included the adoption of certain aspects of European culture, for
example, modified forms of pastoralism. Apaches also turned to expanding commercial
contacts, using newly arriving European goods, along with the elements of their past
economy, to help restructure the political economy of the Southwest.
Apaches survived and prospered also because they replaced, incorporated, or partially
acculturated other native peoples who had lived in the region. They accomplished this by
force on occasion.
But incorporation also occurred through the development of beneficial exchange systems
based on both fictive and affine kinship affiliations. Apaches maintained a dominant role in
these new relationships to such an extent that weaker societies often adopted aspects of
Apache culture and economy and learned the Athapaskan language.
This resulting ethnogenesis, or "Apacheanization" of the region, helped to change weaker
Indian groups into stronger ones, which changed the direction taken in the Southwest.
The process of integrating marriage partners from other tribes changed Apache culture and
social structure. Though gender roles and social patterns of inter-relating had been fixed,
the Apaches began to allow a social mobility which impacted the assimilation process, and
even included more flexibility in marriage rules.
Finally, patrilocal marriage (marriage into other groups), served to cement alliances between
various Apache bands. In 1789 the major chief of the Lipans, identified as "Picax-ende," had
taken as wife the sister of the Mescalero chief, Alegre.
Alegre had, in turn, married the sister of Picax-ende, and in similar fashion other men in the
two bands found wives, creating strong bonds of assistance when necessary.
Obviously, such intermarriage helped to alleviate the strains that had existed early on
between the haughtier Mescaleros and the Lipans.
Marriage between outside bands became the rule in southern plains Apache societies during the latter decades of the eighteenth century. When the Lipans negotiated peace at San
Antonio in 1749, they left a considerable number of their young women behind to cement the agreement and to become wives of mission Indian men, indicating the use of patrilocal
relationships in alliance.
A young male mulatto captive retaken from the Mescaleros near El Paso noted that a chief
and his two sons controlled the group that he lived with, strongly implying the handing down
of political control from father to son, along hierarchical, patrilocal, or bilateral lines.
Even more telling, Antonio Cordero y Bustamante, the most astute late-eighteenth-century
observer of Apache life, said simply that ''matrimony takes place by the bridegroom buying
[brideprice?] the one who is to be his wife from her father." In divorce, the woman was
returned to her father, a clear indication of patrilocal marriage.
The incorporation of captives on a large scale undoubtedly contributed to the flexibility of
marriage customs, since so many people, especially among the Lipans, lacked ancestors and
extended kin in the community.
As the population suffered from warfare and disease, flexible rules evolved which made it
possible to bring in new people. Perhaps this flexibility existed in the early Apache period,
but certainly after 1730 the number of captive women and children incorporated into the
various bands increased.
While poaching and raiding reinforced patrilocal rules, it also enhanced the status of males in Apache society. Such remained the case with most plains Indian groups that hunted buffalo and later adopted a herding economy. Women's status was more frequently tied to the development of basketry, pottery, and farming.
The Lipans and Mescaleros who continued to occupy the Rio Grande valley settled into a
herding lifestyle by 1810. Hunting and marketing of skins, livestock, and some manufactured
items made them an ample living.
Juan Antonio Padilla, who traveled through the region a decade later, found these groups to
be beneficial to the economy and development of the region. "They [Lipans] ordinarily live on
game and wild fruit. [But] they also eat horse meat when forced to do so," he noted.
Padilla found them unwilling to "cultivate the soil," yet they loved "Spanish cooking,'' and
most, due to their exchange activity and their many incorporated people, had learned to
speak Castilian. They came into Spanish towns frequently to sell goods and food, their tanned deer hides becoming prized items.
Apaches initially lived on the plains and remained on friendly terms with almost everyone. As
one chronicler put it, "The Teyas [Apaches] . . . were known by the people of the pueblo
Indian villages as their friends."
The apache spent part of the winter near the easternmost pueblos, such as Taos and Pecos,
exchanging mostly consumer goods and taking shelter from plains storms.
Buffalo herds went south during the winter and the northern Texas plains lacked firewood,
making it essential to remain at peace in the sheltered regions of eastern New Mexico.
As more Spanish expeditions entered New Mexico in the 1580s a better understanding of
the Apaches' evolving geopolitical and economic role in the region emerged.
"Apaches were not simply the brutal, cruel people of Spanish folklore"
The Apache Athapaskan speakers had regular contact with most Pueblo towns and remained
peaceful despite the fact that the Pueblos themselves often fought each other.
The Apaches came to aid to other Indian groups, carrying on an extensive exchange of items
found in the mountains nearby. They exchanged salt, game, such as deer, rabbits, and hares
and tanned deerskins, as well as mesquite beans and yucca fruit.
This commerce between what was slowly becoming mountain-based hunter-gathering Apache
bands and the agricultural-based Pueblo Indians had become vital to each side, a clear
example of the specialization of production based on the growing importance of the regional
The falsely held view that the Apache fought with all other groups was untrue. They
certainly went to war with others who had hurt them, and they fought with rare ferocity and skill.
Apaches Had A Great Influence on
Large numbers of non-Apache Tribes
adopted various Athapaskan dialects.
Just why this occurred has several
reasons. The answer seems to lie in
the type of socioeconomic society that
First, the economic exchange
relationships had been vital to the Rio
Grande groups for a long time before
the arrival of the Spanish, and now
they saw that the Apache had needed
goods to trade.
Second, to other tribes, the Apaches
were not simply the brutal, cruel
people of Spanish folklore.
Rather they had worked to gain access
to Jumano towns and used marriage
and exchange as a means of expanding
alliances. Accordingly, their bands
grew in population while others
The Apache's Nomadic Life Style Determined Its Physical Culture
|Taking White Hostages Would Tarnish Apache/U.S.
Relations For Centuries
The Apache Indians were nomadic people who hunted wildlife, and gathered wild plants to
survive the Southwestern environment. They needed a vast area to roam in order to find
enough food, and this took them into Mexico. Like the Plains Indians, who werwe their
neighbors, they had been primarily buffalo hunters.
As the buffalo disappeared, and encroachment by settlers had reduced their hunting
grounds, they had to raid and loot in order to survive.
The Apache had become adept as warriors, and desert survivors, and courage and endurance
were highly valued. But, they were also a gentle, affectionate toward their own people,
especially children who were valued the most.
Apache Indian raids on settlers pouring into New Mexico in the mid 1880's had increased to
a point that the U.S. Military engaged in fierce battles with the Indians. Finally defeated,
most of the Apache warriors were taken by train to a reservation in Florida.
Defeated Apache warriors
just before they were
taken by train to a