Note: This history was taken from various sources in Diocesan archives, including writings by Fr. Don Richardson

The Apache call themselves “ndee”, The People. They entered the southwest from Alaska about 1000 A.D. They followed the buffalo herds and were dependent upon hunting and gathering. This was their subsistence for 18 centuries along with warfare with other village and agricultural tribes.

Writing in 1629, Fray Alonso Benavides gave an extensive description of the Apaches. Sharing with his compatriots an awareness of the tribe’s warlike qualities, he nevertheless singled them out for praise of character, declaring them to be “more trustworthy” than many of the other tribes encountered between Mexico City and Santa Fe. He speaks of them as truthful, says the children were trained in obedience, and gives accounts of conversations among them. From the tone of his remarks, it is possible to conclude that were he able, he would have liked to spend his life working among them.

“Feast March Ceremony”, 1903-1907. Photo from the Library of Congress, taken by Edward Curtis.

The Apaches, however, confronted with white invasions from Spain, Mexico, and then the United States, are best known today for their nineteenth century reputation of waging war that neither gave nor asked for pity. Though they were outnumbered, the Apache never surrendered. Finally, they were confined to reservations so that the southwest could be “settled”. The Apache were cheated out of their homeland, yet today they remain a sovereign and progressive people.

The White Mountain Apache People originally were nomadic. Today the tribe includes members of various sub-tribes such as the Chiricahua, Jicarilla, Mescalero, Tonto, Arivaipa and others. Their language is Athabascan, related to the Eskimos. Even after the Civil War, the famous Apache Geronimo led his band of Chiricahuas against settled towns in protest against unjust land-grabbing and lack of freedom on the reservation. From the middle of the last century until the First World War in 1914, there were many conflicts with the settlers, trappers, prospectors and bounty-hunters who invaded Apache land. The Apache always wanted peaceful relations with the U.S. Government, even when it assumed control of Apacheland in Arizona in 1853. The U.S. defeated Mexico for this territory, but neither Mexico nor the U.S. ever defeated the Apache. So they continued to raid settlements on both sides of the border.

The Apache were distrustful of white men, and for this reason were unwilling to be confined to a reservation. Also, there was much disagreement between U.S. civil and military authority on how to deal with the Indian “problem”. A consistent and constructive policy that would respect Apache sovereignty and culture was lacking. Also, the white settlers and miners appropriated Apache land with abandon and with the help of corrupt U.S. officials. However, with the capture of Geronimo and his band in 1890, the Apache settled down to cattle-raising and farming and have become the most progressive Tribe in Arizona today.

There is scant record of any attempts to bring Christianity to the Apaches since the days of Fray Benavides until the first “inashood” (Blackrobe missionaries) at the turn of the century. Since then, Christianity has been a growing tradition of Apache life. The priest/pastor and the Catholic Christian is still referred to as “inashood”. The Bible, with its many agricultural analogies, was very acceptable to the Apache. in fact, Apache culture has many similar stories. For example, in one story, the Crown-dancer (an ancient Apache deity), parts the waters of a river so that the “ndee” (the Apache People), can escape their pursuing enemy.

The old church at Cibecue.

In 1921, the first Catholic mission work in the Fort Apache Reservation was begun by Father Justin Deutsch, OFM. When he arrives he found almost no Christians among the 2600 Apaches then living on the reservation.

Fr. Justin started work on the first mission, then, at Whiteriver, dedicating it to St. Francis. The church was ready for use in November of 1922, but it was June of 1924 before it received formal dedication by Bishop Daniel J. Gercke of Tucson. The church and residence, a single building, was constructed of cement blocks which had been manufactured on the property.

St. Catherine Mission was a mission of the McNary Parish from about 1922. The Franciscan Fathers from McNary visited here periodically. The purchase of land for a Chapel took place in 1928. One and a half acres were purchased from the Apaches for the price of $150, paid in cash. Shortly after this construction of the Chapel began, and was completed in 1930. Father Fidelis Voss, O.F.M. was in charge of the Mission at that time. The Mission Chapel is built from red rocks hauled in from the surrounding valley. A stone residence adjoining the chapel was completed in May 1929.

St. Anthony’s Mission at Cedar Creek was started in 1947 under the supervision of Father Leo Simon, OFM. He reports that there was a “good attendance” at the first Mass celebrated in the chapel in September of that year.

Families at Cibecue, with Fr. Don Richardson.

In religious practices, the Apache experiences no embarrassment in the duality of his traditions. The crucifix, the rosary and holy water, all blessed by the priest, are necessary items in his home. The eagle feathers, corn pollen, turquoise jewelry and beads, all blessed by the “diyen” (medicine-man), also are necessary to show his faith in the Great Spirit, Father of all.

Cultural and Traditional Aspects of Apache Life

The most important cultural ceremony for the Apache is the “naiiees”, the Sunrise Dance. This is the coming-out of a girl into womanhood at the time of puberty. It is also the tribal tradition of petitioning the Great Spirit for fertility, to assure the continuance of the Apache. It is a summer ceremony with much dance, food, song and socializing. The young girl identifies with “White Painted Woman”; an Apache deity, who is the keeper of water and earth. The entire ceremony is very expensive. The family hires a medicine-man to conduct the ceremony. They also hire the Gan and Crown Dancers. These are impersonators of other Apache deities, the Mountain People.

Photo from Library of Congress by Edward Curtis, 1901-1907.

The ritual lasts for four nights. A “wickiup” (Apache-tipi), is constructed at the campground to house the young girl and her older attendant (godmother). The girl is dressed in buckskin and the ceremonial garment is made by someone of her family. She is painted with corn-pollen, the sacred symbol of fertility, and decorated with symbols of the sun, moon and stars. Many taboos are observed, such as not smiling or laughing, which would cause premature wrinkling. The medicine-man sings long chants and the girl does special dances. The “Gan” and “Crown” dancers perform on each of the nights to bless the gathering and drive off evil spirits.

In the evenings there is also social dancing for all the relatives and friends that come. Food is served to all the people. Special gifts are given to the god-mother that attends the girl. These are usually dresses, blankets and sometimes a horse and saddle. A year later the godmother will reciprocate with another party and gifts to the family of the girl. Eagle feathers, buckskin, drums, cattail pollen, cotton-wood walking cane, chants and dance are the essentials for the ceremony of “naiiees” and assure the Apache that their culture will continue for many centuries.

Apache Lifestyle, Philosophy and World Outlook

The most characteristic Apache attitude is their great sense of humor. Though by nature the Apache are a quiet people and somewhat suspicious of the white men, they enjoy humor at their own expense, I believe, to show their basic friendliness. For example, a few days after Christmas, the writer went to the town-dump with a load of garbage. I encountered a man there poking through the refuse and asked what he was looking for. The Apache replied, “he was doing his next year’s Christmas shopping”.

The Apache still consider themselves tillers of the land and cattle-raisers. Their rural heritage is maintained. Their diet of corn, beans, squash, acorns and venison is very well balanced and nutritious. Almost every Apache family is a member of one of the tribal cattle-coops on the reservation. They may have three to fifteen head of cattle that are expertly cared for by the Indian cowboys. Each season, at beef-selling time, they enjoy a few, small profits. Also, for special feasts and lean times, they can slaughter a cow to be shared with by all their neighbors.

In a 1982 letter to Bishop Hastrich, then-Pastor Donald Richardson wrote:

“We are located in a valley, surrounded by mountains, which are loaded with pine. The dirt-mud roads pass through deep canyons. It is an ideal place to commune with nature and the Divinity. Elk and deer provide much of the meat that the Apaches eat. There are also cougars and small bear in the mountains. The streams are crystal clear, but with the rains, the roads are muddy and slippery.

“The Apache People consider themselves cattle-raisers, so they refer to their work as cowboy-work. They also plant corn and beans on small plots of mountain-land. Still they remain poor. Many do not have electricity nor plumbing in their homes. But their simple, hard life still gives them dignity and satisfaction.

“Farming is a family affair. in spring, all the family members gather in their field for planting. They follow the plow as the ground is broken, dropping seeds. In fall, at harvest time, great quantities of corn are roasted in a pit over coals right in the field. Later this corn is dried to insure a year-round supply. Corn bread and tortillas are the popular dishes. But “tulapai” (an alcoholic beverage) is also brewed from corn and is the common Apache drink.

“All nations have their own outlook on life. The white-man, for the most part, sees man as superior to other forms of life and creation to be used as he wishes. This has led the white-man to technological development and justifies his attitude of being the master of nature for his own benefit. On the other hand, the Apache see man only as one component of a balanced creation. All life forms interrelate and interact, with no one part more important than another. It would be good for the white-man to learn this Apache wisdom.”

Confirmation class at Cibecue.

A priest who visited the area in the 1990s wrote of his impressions of this new culture:

“…we went immediately to the San Carlos Reservation for a celebration of life. We had been invited to the Sunrise Dance of a young girl from our parish. This was Marion’s transition into womanhood. It is the central ceremonial of the Apache people. In it all the virtues of the Apache are expressed. It is a time to ask God to pour down all the blessings of life on this young girl and on the tribe.

“We arrived in the afternoon between dances. We spent the time in the family’s compound eating and talking until the early evening when the dance would be held. As sun was setting we moved over to the dance ground and parked the car strategically. We would have to leave early. Unfortunately we would see only part of this four day ceremony, but an important part, the blessing of the Crown dancers.

“As the light faded, the bonfire was lit, cars streamed in to surround the ground, the crowds swelled as Apache from all comers came to join in this celebration of life and encourage this young girl in her long hours of dancing. We recognized members of our own congregation and joined them to watch and pray. The drums began, the chants rose and fell and the girls danced and danced, never seeming to tire. Marion told me later that she was never tired. Was it because she was only eleven or was there something more!

“Then out of the shadows came the Crown dancers, with their fantastic headdresses, turning and twisting this way and that. Once they have begun, we have been told, they are taken over by the mountain spirits, and from then on they are led and sustained by these spirits. These are the ones who bless the girl. As they circled and drew the girls into the dance, we had to leave. It was, Marion told us later, the part of the ceremony which made the greatest impression on her. Would that we would celebrate our ceremonials with as much intensity and devotion!”

In recent years, many Apache have become active Cursillistas, anxious to participate with others in courses and conferences to learn more about their faith. The National Tekakwitha Conference, held in different parts of the U.S., attracts many Apache, since they can share their faith and customs with other Native American Tribes.