Post-Contact Social Organization of Three Apache Tribes.  
© 1999 by James Q. Jacobs

Apachean is the only Athapaskan language found in the Southwest. The Southern Athapaskans migrated from Northern Canada and were well established in the Southwest during the 1500's. Southern Athapaskan culture was probably uniform before this time. Today there are seven Southern Athapaskan speaking tribes with closely related Apachean dialects.

While little was known about the cultural evolution of these tribes during the post-contact Spanish and Mexican periods, their territories were well defined. Although the Spanish and the successive Mexican governments claimed the Apachean territories, numerous military forays failed to dominate them. Despite centuries of conflict the Spaniards never subdued the Apaches. The Apache tribes were the preeminent military powers in their respective regions until after 1856. The War on Mexico affected all the Apache tribes. With the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the 1853 Gadsden Purchase Mexico ceded and then sold the majority of the Apache territories to the United States. Spain, Mexico and the Unites States have never recognized Indian titles to their aboriginal territories.

After 1850 Anglo miners and ranchers invading the Apache territories clashed with the indigenous occupants. Numerous military forts were established by the United States. Most of the Apaches were confined to reservations by 1872, when General Crook ordered that any Indians not on the reservations be hunted and killed. In 1873 300 Indian men were executed for leaving the Fort San Carlos Reservation. By 1877 over 5,000 surviving Apaches were confined. Some Apaches still refused to capitulate. Most opposition was crushed by 1883. Military conflict ended with the 1886 surrender of Geronimo.

By this time the customs described herein were disrupted. Most information about the Apaches dates from after these events. Reliable ethnographic data on the Western Apaches dates from the early 1900's, when information on pre-reservation life was collected from elders. This paper addresses what is understood about Chiricahua, Mescalero and Western Apache social organization before the conquest of their territory and the consequent disruption of their life ways.

The Apachean speaking peoples can be distinguishes into two broad groups which share kinship systems. Morris E. Opler divided the Southern Athapaskan kinship systems into two types, Chiricahua and Jicarilla. The three linguistic tribes considered herein, the Chiricahua, Mescalero and Western Apaches, share the kinship system classified as the Chiricahua, where it was first studied by Opler. The early or proto-Apachean system from which these derived was most probably matrilineal, matrilocal, and characterized by the sororate, sororal polygyny, the levirate, sister exchange and bi-lateral cross-cousin marriage.

In the Chiricahua system matrilineal marriage groups are organized by generations, with matrilineal relatives being important. Sororate, levirate and sororal polygyny was practiced. The Chiricahua kinship is bilateral and organized in generational terms. Except the parent-child terms, all terms are self-reciprocal. Parental siblings are distinguished by side but otherwise are classified together without regard for sex and with terms extended to their children. In ego's generation the two gender determined terms siblings, parallel cousins and cross-cousins are used reciprocally. Grandparent terms are extended to their siblings. Male relationship with a female sibling is restrained, yet very caring towards her offspring. In-law avoidance is common.

The Chiricahuas, Mescaleros and Western Apaches were, in all probability, derived from a single Athapaskan migration. They shared many common features of social organization. The extended matrilineal and matrilocal family, their basic social unit, was ideally composed of a couple, their unmarried children and the families of their married daughters. Extended family dwellings formed clusters with each nuclear family in a separate dwelling. The principal obligations of a married man were to the family of his wife. Women were the anchors of these basic social units. The matrilocal grouping endured for the lifetimes of the members. As a result of these characteristics, women enjoyed high status.

Extended families provided suitable-sized units for many activities, including hunting and food gathering and preparation. Division of labor by gender ordered these activities. Women gathered and preserved foods, preserved hides, built homes, gathered firewood, prepared food, cared for children, and wove baskets. Men were responsible for hunting, security, horses, making weapons and conducting warfare or raiding. With survival dependent on collective activity personal wishes were often subordinate to the extended family.

Local groups were the next order of social organization. The local groups consisted of several units of extended families occupying a given territory. The Chiricahua and Mescalero local groups had as many as 30 extended families. Among the Western Apaches the local groups were comprised of from two to six large, extended family units with three to eight nuclear families each and as many as 200 people.

Each local group had a headman or leader. Local group leaders were invariably men. Typically the leader was the most respected extended family head in the settlement and the most influential member of the local group. Leadership was informal and advisory rather than compulsive. The headman exercised little arbitrary or coercive power over individuals and yet was the arbiter of disputes. An important chiefly role was prevention of disharmony. Leaders were called upon to speak at public occasions and were expected to be eloquent. The office of chief was not hereditary, though a tendency for sons to replace fathers existed.

Among the Chiricahuas and the Western Apaches local groups comprised loose confederations called bands. The bands were ephemeral territorial units, not formal political groups. Nonetheless the bands had distinct names and leadership.. The Mescalero did not have bands. No leadership existed for any of the tribes as a whole. The three tribes considered here are culture and language tribes, rather than political groups. Tribal cohesion was minimal in the sparse desert environment and no formal tribal or local group governments ever existed. This is exemplified by the absence of true native tribal names, at least no self-referencing ones.

The Chiricahua Apache were divided into three to five regional bands (depending on the source). Their total estimated population was 3,000. The Chiricahua were hunters and gathers with a limited amount of agriculture. The Eastern Chiricahuas territory was roughly southwestern New Mexico west of the Rio Grande. The Central Chiricahua band inhabited southeast Arizona, extreme southwestern New Mexico and a small range in Mexico. This group was also known as the Cochise Apaches, after their famous leader. The Southern Chiricahua band ranged in Mexico and a small area in southwestern New Mexico. Geronimo was their best known leader. Spanish accounts place Chiricahua Apache bands in these territories by the eighteenth century.

Each Chiricahua band consisted of from three to five local groups. The majority of marriages were intra-local group and families related by marriage supported each other. Typically the most well spoken person ascended to band leadership. Band rank adhered to family heads. Local group leaders gained prominence due to personal esteem and ceremonial knowledge. No peace or war determined leadership roles existed. Ceremonial experts and great fighters had higher prestige.

The Mescalero Apaches territory was east of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, along both sides of the Rio Grande in Mexico to below the Pecos confluence and along both sides of the Pecos River north to near Fort Sumner and Belen. Spanish slave trafficking prompted hostilities early in the contact era. The Spanish and Mexican eras were predominantly periods of hostilities, with only intermittent peace. There were probably around 2,500 to 3,000 Mescaleros in 1850. In 1881, at the end of hostilities with the United States, only 431 survived.

With the Mescaleros, unlike the Chiricahuas and Western Apaches, culture was uniform throughout, without notably distinct bands or moieties. The practice of hunting buffalo, available only in the eastern part of their territory, required a fluid spatial arrangement. By comparison, the Chiricahuas and Western Apaches could complete their annual rounds in distinct territories.

The Mescaleros were also hunters and gathers. Only a little agriculture was practiced by some families. From their settlements small groups exploited surrounding resources, and rarely would the entire population be in residence. During agave harvests and buffalo hunts most of the population would be absent. Unlike the Chiricahuas or Western Apaches, the Mescaleros adopted the tepee. Advantage attached to having large local groups. Many people were required for buffalo hunts and agave harvesting and large groups served as deterrence to attacks.

The Western Apaches were established in their Eastern Arizona territory during the 1700's. By the middle of the eighteenth century they had, by means of the addition of horses to their cultural inventory, established a far reaching network of trading or raiding relationships with a dozen other groups, spanning from Northern Arizona to Central Sonora. Aspects of their culture were influenced by these contacts. There territory was remote from Spanish intrusions. They were not as affected by hostilities as the Chiricahuas and Mescaleros, a fact perhaps reflected on their greater sedentism and established horticultural traditions.

Western Apache sub-tribes were the White Mountain, Cibecue, San Carlos and Tonto. Some modern authors distinguish between the Southern and Northern Tontos. These groups were autonomous and had distinct territories, separate identities and minor dialect differences that did not interfere with communication. Each group had two to five bands with separate hunting territories. The 1880 mean size of these bands has been computed at 387 individuals, with considerable variation. Within the local groups family clusters had a headman who led daily affairs, with the best headman as local group chief.

The Western Apaches led a uniform leafy. Their subsistence was about 75 percent wild food and 25 percent horticulture. Older members tended mountain gardens in the summer. Their adoption of horticulture was of sufficient extent to produce seasonal sedentism. A unique feature of the Western Apache kinship pattern seems to have developed in connection with the management and transmission of claims to horticultural lands, that being a system of matrilineal clan designations. There are 62 Western Apache clans. These derive from three archaic clans, on which basis they are grouped into phratries. Clans are associated with the clan mother's garden site. The clan name is related to this place of its origin.

Clans, unlike bands and local groups, are not spatially defined and create networks of relations that transcend bands. Clan relationships provided bonds with distant groups, enhancing cohesion for the larger groups and promoting peaceful relations. Clans are distinguished as closely related, related or distantly related. Closely related and related clan marriage is taboo. A limited amount of intermarriage took place between the regional bands. Local groups were named after their territorial location while matrilocal families bore the name of the clan of its core lineage.

In these three Apache tribes we see both the communality of their origins as expressed in their similarity, and their subsequent differentiation in response to distinct territories and environments, both physical and political. Today they have been forced to readapt by new circumstances, the forced reduction of their territory to several small reservations by the United States government. In the future these changes too will be reflected in their social organization.

Sources in: Handbook of Middle American Indians, Volume 10, Southwest. Alfonso Ortiz, Volume Editor. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D. C., 1983.

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