The Apache are a Native American people from the southwestern United States. They resisted the Spanish and Mexicans for centuries and were the last Native Americans to submit to the USA. Today, they live in seven reservations across Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
The Apache were never a single nation. They lived in different tribes, including the Chiricahua, Lipan and Mescalero, who spoke a common language and shared a common way of life. Historically, the Chiricahua were the most defiant.
Apaches speak an Athabaskan language, closely related to Navajo, and distantly to Tlingit. Their ancestors migrated from Siberia thousands of years after the initial settlement of the Americas and lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Over the centuries, Apache drifted from Alaska to the Great Plains of the USA, where they hunted buffalo and trained dogs.
In the 18th century, the Comanche drove the Apache into the deserts and mountains of the American Southwest. As the land was barren and lacking in buffalo, Apache raided for supplies, their victims the settled Puebloans and Spanish colonists.
Traditionally, Apache lived in wikiups and tipis. They mainly hunted deer, pronghorn and rabbits, gathered a range of wild plants and made clothing from leather and buckskin. Women fought alongside the men.
In the Southwest, the Apache became expert guerrilla fighters. They struck isolated farms and villages, seizing resources and livestock, then melted away into the mountains and deserts. Their unsurpassed tracking skills and ability to survive in extreme climates made the Apaches a tenacious foe. Hundreds of Apache scouts would serve in the US military.
The Apache fought the Spanish for 120 years, the Mexicans for 80 and the Americans for 25.
While Apache saw raiding as a necessary peacetime activity, their enemies considered it an act of war. In 1835, the Mexican government issued ‘scalp bounties’ for killing Apaches– 100 pesos for a man, 50 for a woman and 25 for a child. Bounty hunters made a living murdering Apache, and revenge killings intensified.
The US – Apache Wars (1853 – 1886) were the longest in American history. When the USA took over Arizona and New Mexico, they found themselves at odds with their new neighbours. Apaches raided with ferocity, while the US broke treaties constantly and forced Apaches onto barren reservations. Disaffected Apache broke out and fought as guerrillas in the hills.
Four great leaders fought the Americans and Mexicans:
- Mangas Coloradas (Red Sleeves) – raided both sides of the border, murdered at peace talks in 1863.
- Cochise – fought the United States for ten years after being wrongfully accused of kidnapping, died of natural causes in 1874.
- Victorio – led a breakout of 200 warriors, killed at Tres Castillos in 1881.
Geronimo (pictured right) led the last rebellion in 1886. With only 37 warriors, he held out in the Dragoon Mountains of southern Arizona for one year while 5,000 soldiers – a quarter of the US army – hunted him down. When Geronimo surrendered, the US took him and 300 Chiricahua to captivity in Florida then to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where most died of tuberculosis. They did not return until 1912. Geronimo became the most famous Apache and a figure of American myth.
As of 2010, there are 111,810 people of Apache descent. Most live one of 11 federally recognised reservations:
- Apache Tribe of Oklahoma
- Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Oklahoma
- Jicarilla Apache Nation, New Mexico
- Mescalero Reservation, New Mexico
- Fort Apache Reservation, Arizona
- San Carlos Reservation, Arizona
- Tonto Apache Tribe of Arizona
- Camp Verde Indian Reservation, Arizona
Sources: Dan Carlin – Apache Tears, Chiricahua Apache Nation, Indians.org, Legends of the Old West, Mescalaro Apache Tribe