In the late 1200’s through the early 1400’s groups of hunting and gathering Athabascans began arriving in the Southwest from the far north in Canada. These were the ancestors of the Navajo and Apache peoples.
Traditionally, Apache religious ceremonies focused on curing, hunting and gathering rituals, puberty ceremonies, and obtaining personal power and protection. While spiritual power is available to most people, spiritual leaders–usually called medicine men and medicine women–are people who have greater access to spiritual power than other people.
While many non-Apache scholars and popular writers have labeled all the Apache as a fierce, war-like people, in actuality warfare was not glorified as it was in some other culture areas, such as the Great Plains. Warfare, in the form of raiding, was often an economic activity. Anthropologist Keith Basso, in his book The Cibecue Apache, notes:
“In pre-reservation days a significant portion of the Western Apaches’ meat supply consisted of stolen livestock.”
Bands or tribes known collectively as the Apache ranged widely throughout the American Southwest at the time of the first Spanish exploration and invasion. The Apache are Athabascan-speaking and migrated into the Southwest from Canada perhaps as early as 850 CE, but most likely between the late 1200s and early 1400s. In her entry on the Western Apache in the Encyclopedia of North American Indians, Elizabeth Brandt writes:
“Evidence from archaeological sites suggests a date around A.D. 1450 for the entry of Athabaskan peoples into the Southwest, but some scholars call for earlier dates.”
In its dealings with Indian Nations, the United States often imposed an alien form of government on them. This government was not a democracy, but usually a dictatorship in which the leaders were chosen by the United States based on their willingness to follow the dictates and changing whims of the U.S. government. For a short period of time in the late nineteenth century, one “tribe” was allowed an experiment in self-government. That “tribe” was the Chiricahua Apache.
In the late 1300’s and early 1400’s groups of hunting and gathering Athabascans began arriving in the Southwest from the far north in Canada. These were the ancestors of the Navajo and Apache peoples.
When the Spanish entered New Mexico, they recorded that the Tewa (a pueblo group) referred to one of the neighboring tribes as Navahú in reference to large areas of cultivated lands. This is in reference to the Navajo practice of dry-farming in arroyos and cañadas. The Tewa also referred to these newcomers as Apachü, which means strangers and enemies. The Spanish would later refer to these people as Apache de Navajó meaning the Apaches with the great planted fields.
There are six major divisions of the Apache: the Western Apache, Chiricahua, Mescalero, Jicarilla, Lipan, and Kiowa-Apache.
The Chiricahua Apache were in the mountains of southeastern Arizona. The term “Chiricahua” was coined by an anthropologist to refer to the autonomous tribes living in or near the Chiricahua Mountains. Tribal historian Michael Darrow reports that there were four independent political units in this area: Chíhéne, Chokonene, Bidánku, and Ndé’ndaí.
Like many other Indian tribes, there was no single overall Chiricahua leader: each of the local groups had its own political structure. Historian Robert Utley writes of the Chiricahua in his book A Clash of Cultures: Fort Bowie and the Chiricahua Apaches: “They felt little tribal consciousness and never came together as a tribe.”
According to anthropologist Norman Bancroft-Hunt in his book North American Indians: “People were free to follow the leader they chose, with the consequence that Apache bands were small and mobile, composed of people with a strong sense of independence and individual freedom.”
The lack of a centralized government or single leader created confusion for the United States government. Writing about the Chiricahua Apache, anthropologist Morris Opler, in an article in Anthropology of North American Tribes, reports: “the Chiricahua found, to their great discomfort, that the white officials assumed what no Apache would admit – that an agreement with the leader was binding upon the whole group.” Chiricahua leaders led through advice, persuasion, and example. They served as leaders only as long as their leadership proved successful.
While many non-Apache scholars and popular writers have labeled the Apache as a fierce, war-like people, in actuality warfare was not glorified as it was in some other culture areas. Chiricahua Apache tribal historian Michael Darrow, in a chapter in We, The People: Of Earth and Elders—Volume II, writes: “In our tribe we don’t have any military societies or Dog Soldiers like the Plains Indians. We didn’t have anything vaguely resembling that. In our tribe you didn’t attain special status by participating in something like that.” Darrow also writes: “In our tribe, you didn’t get an eagle feather for each enemy smacked with a coup stick or killed. You didn’t get awards for battle accomplishments because they generally avoided fighting as much as possible.”
In 1872, General Oliver Otis Howard agreed to attempt to contact Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise without a military escort. Howard and four others ignited a ring of five fires to show that five men had come in peace. Eventually two boys appeared at the Americans’ camp and led them to a secluded mountain valley containing an Apache camp. That evening, Cochise appeared in the camp.
Howard and Cochise bargained for ten days. Howard wanted the Apache to settle on a reservation on the Rio Grande, but Cochise asked to keep the Chiricahua homeland at Apache Pass. Historian Robert Utley reports: “Eventually Howard bowed to Cochise’s wish to remain in his home country and proposed a reservation embracing a large part of the Chiricahua Mountains and the adjoining Sulphur Springs and San Simon Valleys.” Under the agreement, the Chiricahua were to police themselves without army supervision.
Many high-ranking members of the U.S. Army, including Generals Crook and Schofield, were not happy with the agreement. In The Indian Historian D.C. Cole writes: “The military was particularly incensed by the exemption of the reservation from military supervision.”
However, the Department of the Interior confirmed the site and the reservation was established by Presidential Executive Order. Without any major interference from the federal government, the Chiricahua peacefully governed themselves on their reservation.
In 1874, Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise died. His body was prepared in a traditional way and then taken to a deep fissure where it was lowered into the depths. His favorite horse and dog were killed and were also buried in the fissure. Taza, the son of Cochise, was selected by the Chiricahua to become their new chief. Historian Robert Utley reports: “But Taza lacked his father’s force and vision, and increasingly the Chiricahuas drifted without the strong leadership on which the outcome of the reservation experiment depended.”
In 1875, the Chiricahua Apache were accused of a number of raids. D.C. Cole writes: “The military accused the reservation Apache of raids against travelers, which were in reality the work of Cochise County white outlaws. The Mexican authorities protested Chiricahua raids in Sonora, which were in all probability the work of Mexican-based Apache of the Sierra Madres.”
In response, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs suspended services to the reservation. Investigations later cleared the Chiricahua of all charges, but the investigators recommended the removal of the Chiricahua to the San Carlos reservation in Arizona or to New Mexico in order to prevent any future incidents.
In 1876, two non-Indian whiskey sellers were illegally selling whiskey on the Chiricahua Apache reservation when they were killed by the Chiricahua. In response, and ignoring the fact that the incident was caused by non-Indians engaging in illegal activities, the Americans used this as an excuse to seize the reservation and move the Chiricahua to the San Carlos reservation. The Chiricahua reservation was abolished by Presidential Executive Order. D.C. Cole writes: “Ended, perhaps forever, was Apache faith in the honor and good intentions of the United States government. Also gone was a United States sanctioned experiment in Apache self-government by means and upon lands of their own choosing.”
The experiment in Chiricahua self-government ended as the Chiricahua bands were removed to the San Carlos Apache Reservation. The people had planted a great deal of corn which they were forced to abandon. After they moved, their houses were burned and their corn fields destroyed.
Not all of the Chiricahua followed Taza to San Carlos. A number of them joined the Nednhi Chiricahua under the leadership of Juh in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. Among those who went to Mexico is Geronimo. From here the Apache began a series of raids on American settlements in Arizona and New Mexico.
After moving to the San Carlos Reservation, Taza and several others joined an entourage organized by the Indian agent for the reservation which toured in several Eastern cities and put on a scripted “wild west show.” The show, however, was not successful and stopped performing after Cincinnati.
The reservation for the Jicarilla Apache Tribe was established in New Mexico by Executive Order of President Grover Cleveland in 1887. Following the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, the tribe adopted a formal constitution that provided for the taxation of members of the tribe as well as for non-members of the tribe who were doing business on the reservation.
In 1953, the tribe entered into a series of agreements with oil companies to provide oil and gas leases. The oil companies approached the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior about these leases and negotiated them with representatives from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The BIA then presented the finalized lease agreements to the tribal council, which was expected to approve them without debate.
Under the terms of the leases, the oil companies were supposed to pay royalties to the tribe. These royalties were not to be paid directly to the tribe, but were to be collected on behalf of the tribe by the BIA. The BIA was less than diligent about collecting royalties.
During the 1970s, Americans became acutely aware of the country’s dependence on foreign oil and the importance of oil to their daily lives. During this time, many American Indian leaders became more aware of the value of the oil and coal resources on their reservations. In 1975, the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT) was established to improve reservation conditions, to gain inventories of resources, to serve as a clearinghouse, to use resources on reservations rather than exporting them, and to supply information on the environmental impact of resource development. Twenty-five tribes were included in CERT. CERT informed the Federal Energy Agency (FEA):
“If our energy resources are to be developed at all, they are to be developed with our informed consent and participation. ”
According to CERT:
“Historical and economic forces have combined to create these problems for the people of America and the world. We have combined to see that these same forces, which we have dealt with before under many forms other than energy, do not cause the United States to react in its historical pattern of wasteful and unlawful exploitation of Native American resources for immediate needs.”
In 1976, the General Accounting Office (GOA) found that an oil well on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in New Mexico had been flaring gas for six months without approval. The U.S. Geological Service (USGS), the agency responsible for monitoring the oil wells, was unaware of the flaring as their inspectors had not been out in the field. USGS relied upon industry to inform it of problems.
The Jicarilla Apache filed suit against oil producers on their reservation, noting the failure of the Department of the Interior to exercise its fiduciary responsibilities. Had the Secretary of the Interior simply ordered the oil companies to perform as required by their leases this lawsuit could have been avoided. While the tribe was successful in its litigation, the Department of Interior opposed the tribe in the litigation. As the tribe’s trustee, the Secretary of the Interior would not approve the settlement agreements until the tribe agreed to dismiss their claims against the Secretary.
In 1976, the Jicarilla Apache enacted a tax ordinance to impose a severance tax on mineral development companies. The tax, which was on oil and natural gas severed, saved, or removed from tribal lands, was only 29 cents per barrel and had little impact on consumers. However, New Mexico’s newspapers were filled with derisive letters and editorials criticizing the idea of a little Indian tribe taxing non-Indians.
Major oil companies responded to the Jicarilla Apache tax by filing suit against the tribe, claiming that they were not subject to tribal jurisdiction and should not be subject to double taxation by the tribe and the state. The District Court ruled against the tribe finding the tribal tax to be “illegal, unconstitutional, invalid, and void.” The tribe appealed.
In 1979, the ruling of the District Court was overturned by the Tenth Circuit Court which found that the tribe had the inherent power under tribal sovereignty to impose taxes on the reservation. The oil companies responded by appealing immediately to the U.S. Supreme Court. CERT and the Navajo Nation filed briefs supporting the Jicarilla Tribe.
In 1982, the Supreme Court in Merrion v. Jicarilla Apache Tribe ruled that the tribe could both receive royalties on oil and gas leases as a property owner and tax oil and gas companies as a sovereign power. According to the Court:
“sovereign power, even when unexercised is an enduring presence that governs all contracts subject to the sovereign’s jurisdiction, and will remain intact unless surrendered in unmistakable terms.”
The Court also said:
“The power to tax is an essential attribute of Indian sovereignty because it is a necessary instrument of self-government and territorial management.”
The Court also ruled that the way in which a reservation was established – by treaty or by executive order – did not affect the tribe’s sovereign power. The Court noted that only the Federal Government may limit a tribe’s sovereign authority.
Immediately following the decision by the Supreme Court, the BIA proposed new regulations which would have severely limited the ability of Indian tribes to impose severance taxes. The tribes complained about the proposed regulations and the BIA eventually dropped them. The very fact that the BIA proposed these new rules, however, showed that the BIA was more concerned with the welfare of the oil companies than with the welfare of Indians.
Looking toward the future, the Jicarilla Apache Tribe in 1977 bought the interest of Palmer Oil Company on the reservation. The Jicarilla Apache became the first tribe in the country to own and operate producing oil and gas wells on its reservation.
While the idea of “indefinite detention” of people determined to be “enemies” of the United States is currently being debated, for American Indians this is an old issue and one in which they have had a great deal of experience. In 1885, the Chiricahua Apache-men, women, and children-surrendered to the United States Army on the condition that they were to be held as prisoners for two years and then they were to be allowed to return to their own land. Instead, they spent the next 27 years as prisoners of war in prisons in Alabama Florida, and Oklahoma.
One of the leaders of the Chiricahua Apache was a warrior and medicine man known to the Americans as Geronimo. In 1876, the Chiricahua Apache settlement near Fort Apache, Arizona, had been broken up by the Americans and the people were forced to move to the San Carlos Apache Reservation. A number of Chiricahua Apache, however, did not go to San Carlos, but instead fled to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico. From here, Chiricahua Apache warriors under the leadership of Juh and Geronimo raided American settlements in Arizona and New Mexico.
During the peace negotiations, Geronimo insisted that his reputation had been ruined by rumors and innuendo. He claimed that he was simply the victim of gossip and that he was not responsible for the murders and other crimes which had been attributed to him.
The American authorities planned to send the Chiricahua Apache to the Fort Marion Prison in St. Augustine, Florida. They were not charged with any crimes, nor did they get an opportunity to plead their case in any court of law. The United States simply held them indefinitely. While the government would claim that they were technically prisoners of war, Chiricahua Apache historians tend to characterize them as political prisoners.
The United States Army did not track down the Chiricahua Apache in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains on their own: they were led to Geronimo’s camp by Apache scouts. Following the surrender negotiations, the Army disarmed the Apache scouts and imprisoned them with Geronimo’s people as prisoners of war.
Chatto and about a dozen other Chiricahua Apache who had served as scouts for the army were summoned to Washington where they met with the Secretary of the Interior. During their return trip to Arizona, their train was suddenly turned around and they were taken to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where they were held as prisoners. The telegram ordering their incarceration read:
“I think it is the wish of the President that the Indians who came to Washington should, none of them, return to Arizona within reach of communication with those at Fort Apache until transfer to Fort Marion has been consummated.”
Following their surrender 383 men, women, and children, were taken by train from Arizona to their prison in Florida. All of the windows in the train were closed and nailed shut. They were given buckets and cans to serve as chamber pots. The train stopped frequently so that crowds would be able to see the Apache prisoners. Overall, the stench in the train cars was unbearable.
After the first 75 Apache prisoners had arrived at Fort Marion, the commander was asked how many Indians can be incarcerated at the fort. He replied that they could take only 75 more, but recommended that no more be sent because the fort was so small. The army sent a total of 502 Apaches to the fort.
After the Apaches had arrived at Fort Marion, one of the first actions of the army was to take some of the men and older boys to an island where they were left with fishing tackle and expected to catch and cook fish for themselves. The army ignored the fact that eating fish was a cultural taboo for the Apache and continued to use fish as one of the mainstays of the rations which were issued to the prisoners.
While at Fort Marion, at least two Apache warriors-Gray Lizard and Massai-managed to escape and to make the 1,200 mile trek back to their homeland.
In 1894, Congress passed a special provision which allowed the Chiricahua Apache prisoners to be transferred to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). After spending eight years at Fort Marion, the Chiricahua Apache men, women, and children who were being indefinitely detained as prisoners of war were transferred to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Following their transfer, General Nelson Miles visited the prisoners and told them that this was now their permanent home.
In 1897, the leaders of the Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa-Apache tribes in Oklahoma proposed selling part of their reservation to the homeless Wyandot and to the Apache under the leadership of Geronimo. The Indian agent endorsed the idea, but it was stopped by Congress.
While being held as a prisoner, the United States capitalized on Geronimo’s fame among non-Indians by displaying him at various events. For the United States this provided proof of the superiority of American ways. For Geronimo, it provided him with an opportunity to make a little money. In 1898, for example, Geronimo was exhibited at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exhibition in Omaha, Nebraska. Following this exhibition, he became a frequent visitor to fairs, exhibitions, and other public functions. He made money by selling pictures of himself, bows and arrows, buttons off his shirt, and even his hat. In 1905, the Indian Office provided Geronimo for the inaugural parade for President Theodore Roosevelt. Later that year the Indian Office took him to Texas where he shot a buffalo in a roundup staged by 101 Ranch Real Wild West for the National Editorial Association. Geronimo was escorted to the event by soldiers, as he was still a prisoner. The teachers who witnessed the staged buffalo hunt were unaware that Geronimo’s people were not buffalo hunters.
In 1909, Chiricahua Apache chief Geronimo died and was buried at Fort Sill.
Shown above is Geronimo’s Grave at Fort Sill.
In 1910 the United States Senate passed a bill to provide allotments to the Chiricahua Apache in Fort Sill, Oklahoma and to free them from their prisoner of war status. The measure was defeated in the House by representatives from Oklahoma.
In direct violation of promises made to the Chiricahua Apache, the School of Fire for Field Artillery was established at Fort Sill in 1910. While the Apache had been told that this would be their permanent home, the army had no intention of abandoning the post and felt that the Apache must remain prisoners. In spite of the promises made to the Apache by General Nelson Miles, when the War Department determined it was in the nation’s best interest to retain Fort Sill as an army field artillery school, they reneged on the pledges. Artillery began firing into Apache hay fields, corn fields, and grazing areas. The army notified the prisoners that shelling would not stop for livestock.
The plight of the Chiricahua Apache prisoners at Fort Sill did not go unnoticed by non-Indians. In 1911, Reverend Walter C. Roe of the Reformed Church in America describes their situation:
“The men are subject to orders; their affairs are under the direction of others; they cannot leave the reservation for more than 24 hours without permission; they cannot marry outside of their band, because no one wants to enter their condition of captivity; in fact, for the most far-sighted and intelligent among them there is no light ahead.”
Apache leader Naiche told the army:
“All we want is to be freed and be released as prisoners, given land and homes that we can call our own.”
In 1912 legislation was introduced in Congress which would free the Chiricahua Apache at Fort Still in Oklahoma from their prisoner of war status and relocate them on the Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico. The legislation was opposed by the New Mexico delegation as they wished to preserve non-Indian grazing rights on the Mescalero Reservation.
In 1913, the Chiricahua Apaches, held as prisoners of war by the Army since 1886, were transferred from Oklahoma to the Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico where they were placed under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department and given their freedom. A total of 187 Apaches went to New Mexico, while 77 remained in Oklahoma. Those who elected to stay in Oklahoma were promised allotments and rations. The following year, the government released the Chiricahua Apache in Oklahoma from their prisoner status and granted them allotments of land.