Apache – The Fiercest Warriors in the Southwest


Apache Before the Storm, Edwards S. Curtis, 1906

Apache Before the Storm, Edwards S. Curtis, 1906

Apache is a collective name given to several culturally related tribes that speak variations of the Athapascan language and are of the Southwest cultural area. The Apache separated from the Athapascan in western Canada centuries ago, migrating to the southwestern United States. Although there is some evidence Southern Athapascan peoples may have visited the Southwest as early as the 13th century AD, most scientists believe they arrived permanently only a few decades before the Spanish.

The Zuni, a Pueblo people, gave them the name Apachu, meaning “enemy.” In their dialects, the Apache call themselves Tinneh, Tinde, Dini, or one of several other variations, all meaning “the people.”

Early Apache were a nomadic people, ranging over a wide area of the United States, with the Mescalero Apache roaming as far south as Mexico. They were primarily hunter-gatherers, with some bands hunting buffalo and some practicing limited farming.

Apache woman and basket

Apache woman and basket

Men participated in hunting and raiding activities, while women gathered food, wood, and water. Western Apache tribes were matrilineal, tracing descent through the mother; other groups traced their descent through both parents. Polygamy was practiced when economic circumstances permitted and marriage could be terminated easily by either party. Their dwellings were shelters of brush called wickiups, which were easily erected by the women and were well adapted to their arid environment and constant shifting of the tribes. Some families lived in buffalo-hide teepees, especially among the Kiowa-Apache and Jicarilla. The Apache made little pottery, and were known instead for their fine basketwork. In traditional Apache culture, each band was made up of extended families with a headman chosen for leadership abilities and exploits in war.  For centuries they were fierce warriors, adept in wilderness survival, who carried out raids on those who encroached on their territory.

Religion was a fundamental part of Apache life. Their pantheon of supernatural beings included Ussen (or Yusn), the Giver of Life, and the ga’ns, or mountain spirits, who were represented in religious rites such as healing and puberty ceremonies. Men dressed elaborately to impersonate the ga’ns, wearing kilts, black masks, tall wooden-slat headdresses, and body paint, and carrying wooden swords.

Trade was established between the long established Pueblo peoples and the Southern Athabaskans by the mid 16th century, exchanging maize and woven goods for bison meat, hides and material for stone tools.

The Apache and the Pueblo managed to maintain generally peaceful relations; however this changed with the appearance of the Spaniards. Arriving in the mid 1500s, the first Spanish intruders drove northward into Apache territory disrupting the Apache trade connections with neighboring tribes.

In April 1541, while traveling on the plains east of the Pueblo region, Francisco Coronado wrote:

After seventeen days of travel, I came upon a rancheria of the Indians who follow these cattle [bison.] These natives are called Querechos. They do not cultivate the land, but eat raw meat and drink the blood of the cattle they kill. They dress in the skins of the cattle, with which all the people in this land clothe themselves, and they have very well-constructed tents, made with tanned and greased cowhides, in which they live and which they take along as they follow the cattle. They have dogs which they load to carry their tents, poles, and belongings.

When New Mexico became a Spanish colony in 1598, hostilities increased between Spaniards and Apache. One source of the friction with the Spaniards was with the slave traders, who hunted down captives to serve as labor in the silver mines of Chihuahua in northern Mexico. The Apache, in turn, raided Spanish settlements to seize cattle, horses, firearms, and captives of their own.  Before long, the prowess of the Apache in battle became legend. The Apache were not so numerous at the beginning of the 17th century; however, their numbers were increased by captives from other tribes, particularly the Pueblo, Pima, Papago, and other peaceful Indians, as well as white and Spanish peoples. Extending their depredations as far southward as Jalisco, Mexico, the Apache quickly became known for their warlike disposition.

An influx of Comanche into traditional Apache territory in the early 1700s forced the Lipan and other Apache to move south of their main food source, the buffalo. These displaced Apache then increased their raiding on the Pueblo Indians and non-Indian settlers for food and livestock.

Apache raids on settlers and migrants crossing their lands continued into the period of American westward expansion and the United States acquisition of New Mexico in 1848. Some Apache bands and the United States military authorities engaged in fierce wars until the Apache were pacified and moved to reservations.

The Mescalero were subdued by 1868 and and a reservation was established for them in 1873. The Western Apache and their Yavapai allies were subdued in the U.S. military’s Tonto Basin Campaign of 1872-1873.

The Chiricahua Chief Cochise signed a treaty with the U.S. government in 1872 and moved with his band to an Apache reservation in Arizona. But Apache resistance continued under the Mimbreno Chief Victorio from 1877 to 1880.

Geronimo, Apache War Leader

Geronimo, Apache War Leader

The last band of Apache raiders, active in ensuing years under the Chiricahua Warrior Geronimo, was hunted down in 1886 and sent first to Florida, then to Alabama, and finally to the Oklahoma Territory, where they settled among the Kiowa-Apache.

The major Apache groups, each speaking a different dialect, include the Jicarilla and Mescalero of New Mexico, the Chiricahua of the Arizona-New Mexico border area, and the Western Apache of Arizona. The Yavapai-Apache Nation Reservation is southwest of Flagstaff, Arizona. Other groups were the Lipan Apache of south-western Texas and the Plains Apacheof Oklahoma.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe is located in the east central region of Arizona, 194 miles northeast of Phoenix. This group manages the popular Sunrise Park Ski Resort and Fort Apache Timber Company. The Tonto Apache Reservation was created in 1972 near Payson in eastern Arizona. Within the Tonto National Forest, northeast of Phoenix, the reservation consists of 85 acres, serves about 100 tribal members, and operates a casino.

Noted leaders have included Cochise, Mangas Coloradas, Chief Victorio and Geronimo, who the U.S. Army found to be fierce warriors and skillful strategists.

Apache Bands:


The Chiricahua “great mountain” Apache were called such for their former mountain home in Southeast Arizona. They, however, called themselves Aiaha. The most warlike of the Arizona Indians, their raids extended into New Mexico, southern Arizona, and northern Sonora, Mexico. Some of their most noted leaders included among their most noted leaders being Cochise, Victorio, Loco, Chato, Naiche, Bonito, Mangas Coloradas, and Geronimo.

The nomadic Chiricahua lived primarily in wickiups, frame huts covered with matting, of bark and brush. When they moved on they burned them. They were both hunters and gatherers, surviving on berries, nuts and fruits and well as game. They horse and mule flesh as delicacies. During the summer, they also did limited farming of corn and melon.

The Chiricahua formed clans and chiefs were chosen for their ability and courage, although there is evidence that chiefship was sometimes hereditary, as in the case of Cochise and his sons, Taza and Naiche.

1 thought on “Apache – The Fiercest Warriors in the Southwest”

  1. So sad! They respect human life and all humanity and treated by the Spanish, French and mostly Britain
    And the genocide and the facts are we whites taught them how to kill, with guns, and have moved them from “reservations all ove. Places unfit to thrive, then cut them down
    I am so ashamed. My family and I were taught respect for all life with all animals including the homosapian it humans we call all life. What happened to life, respect for others with the love all our “fathers” taught us. Me and mine still have it and I am proud of us all. I am the oldest of ten and my family came from Ireland. I am a cradle Catholic. We all believe life begins at conception. And we do a birth control. Failure and conception means to have a human child…..

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