Who are the Western Apache?

Jason C. Chavis

The Western Apache are the ethnic group of Native Americans living in the eastern and central portions of Arizona in the United States. They are divided into six different groups, each issued a reservation of land. Some Western Apache are mixed in with other Native American tribes due to to long-standing treaties with the US government. According to anthropologists, there are five distinct dialects and three cultural heritages practiced by the groups, signifying a divergence between the nations that predates contact with European Americans.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The San Carlos Apache live the furthest south, just outside the Colorado Plateau, a geographical region that extends into New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. To the far west are the Southern Tonto Apache near the Mazatzal Mountains, a feature that separates them from the Cibeque Apache near the Salt River and Mongollon Rim. The Northern Tonto Apache are located to the west along the Verde River, not far from Flagstaff. The easternmost of the reservations is the White Mountain Apache between the White Mountains and the Pinaleno Mountains. There is also the Fort McDowell Mohave-Apache reservation on the west bank of the Verde River, a combination of the Western Apache and Mohave Native Americans.

Traditionally, the Western Apache were a hunter-gatherer community. They planted crops throughout the spring and summer as well as gathering mescal from great distances. Mescal leaves were used for making cloth and rope before the flower was adapted by the Spanish into a fermented alcoholic beverage. By the time contact with Europeans was made, the Western Apache had developed a sophisticated civilization that included infrastructure such as irrigation ditches and crop storage.

After Spanish settlers came to the region, they brought with them horses and livestock. This dramatically changed the dynamics of life for the Western Apache. Trading with the Europeans, the Native American tribes acquired horses with which they used to raid Spanish settlements and other tribes. Stealing cattle, sheep and goats, the food system of the Apache was now centered much more around raising animals.

When the US government acquired the region from Mexico, they launched an initiative of exile and extermination on the Western Apache in an effort to make way for Manifest Destiny. General George Crook led the charge and defeated a combined tribal force in 1875, leaving the Apache at the mercy of the US. The tribes were moved from their homeland to areas without fertile soil in an effort to isolate and control the populace.

As of 2010, a major effort was underway to preserve the language and culture of the people. Approximately 20,000 residents of the reservations still practiced elements from the ancient way of life and spoke the native language. Government grants and funds from casinos built on reservation land was used to hire teachers to educate younger children on the Western Apache traditions and dialect.

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Discussion Comments


How do you find out if you are part Western Apache? My dad was from Arizona, and my mom thinks that he is an Apache, but is not sure. Are there DNA tests that can prove that you are a Native American, and the tribe that you come from?

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