From Generation to Generation: The Plains Apache Way

“From Generation to Generation: The Plains Apache Way” traces the cultural heritage of the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma.  Known historically as the Ka-ta-kas, and later as the Kiowa Apaches, they are descendants of Apache groups who have inhabited the Plains since the 16th century.  This exhibit was made possible because of the cooperation of Apache tribal members who have handcrafted objects and participated in the planning and design of the exhibit.

Allies and Traders: 1541-1680

“They are gentle people, not cruel, and are faithful in their friendship.”-Chronicles of the Coronado Expedition, 1541

Arthpaskan-speaking ancestors of the Apaches and the Navajos migrated from homelands in western Canada, arriving in the Southern Plains and Southwest by A.D. 1400.  The chronicles of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition in 1341, and of other Spanish explorers, provide the earliest descriptions of the Plains Apaches.  They were nomadic people who gathered plant foods and hunted the wandering buffalo herds and other wild game.  Living in tipis of smoke-darkened hides, they camped much of the year in small groups of closely related families.  In seasons when food was plentiful, the local groups came together to renew ceremonial and kinship ties.

Apache families produced the basic necessities of life from the various parts of the buffalo, which dominated the animal life of the Plains.  Women worked with implements of sharpened bone and horn to make containers and clothing.  Long hours were spent fleshing, scraping, and softening the hides which were then sewn with sinew. Working together, women made tipi covers which required as many as a dozen hides.  Tanned hides were also used for robes and bedding, and horns were shaped as cups and spoons.  The paunch and the bladder served as containers and could be suspended over a cooking fire or filled with hot stones to boil meat.  Meat was also dried and mixed with berries to make pemmican for winter months.

With stone, bone, and wood, the men of the camp shaped tools and weapons.  Bows and arrows, as well as the lance, were used for hunting and defense.  Women gathered and prepared plant foods and were adept at moving camp and setting up tipis.  Because camps were often moved, material possessions were minimal.  Dogs provided the earliest transport of the families’ belongings.

In the course of their seasonal rounds, Plains Apaches traveled to Pueblo villages of eastern New Mexico to trade hides, meat, tallow and salt for farm produce, turquoise, shell ornaments, and obsidian.  Often they camped near these villages in winter.  As trading partnerships developed, the Plains Apaches assumed the role of allies with Pueblo villages.  When the Spaniards occupied New Mexico in the latter part of the 16th and early 17th centuries, the Plains Apaches continued their trading expeditions, acquiring metal containers and weapons as well as other Spanish goods that were adapted to the Apache hunting and gathering way of life.

Warriors in Search of Peace: 1680-1867

“They were all on horseback, and the women and children, composing by far the greatest part of the cavalcade, passed us without halting.  Every women appeared to have under her care a greater or lesser numbers of horses, which were driven before her, some dragging lodgepoles, some loaded with packs of meat, and some carrying children…”-Edwin James, Account of an Expedition to the Rocky Mountains under Major Stephen Long, 1820

By 1680, the Plains Apaches acquired horses and began to extend their hunting and trading range.  Horses, obtained from Spanish settlements through raiding and bartering, were traded north to the earthlodge villagers of the Upper Missouri for corn and other produce.  From these villagers they also obtained European goods, including firearms which the Spanish in the south refused to trade.  With horses they could travel greater distances, hunt buffalo more efficiently, and make large tipis.  Long tipi poles were dragged at each side of the animal, forming a travois for the transport of family possessions.

Attracted to the new opportunities provided by the horse and the gun, the Comanches, and later the Arapahoes and Cheyennes, entered the plains.  Apachean groups like the Lipan and Jicarilla, were forced to the more arid south and west by intruders.  Only the Kat-ta-kas, the northmost Apaches, remained to carry on the Plains Apache way.

Though speaking a different language and practicing different customs, the Ka-ta-kas had long been allied with the most numerous Kiowas.  During the summer, when the buffalo grazed in large herds and the hunt was plentiful, the Ka-ta-kas joined the camp circle of the Kiowas for the Sun Dance, an annual world renewal ceremony.  In winter their dispersed camps were often located near those of the Kiowas.  Through this association, they were known historically as the Kiowa Apaches.

Near and distant kinship ties joined all the members of the small Ka-ta-ka tribe.  The family group included not only parents and children, but aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents as well.  Several of these extended families camped together throughout the year, cooperating in various activities and sharing their harvest of plants and game. Because a young married couple often camped with the parents of the bride, this local group had a tendency to be related through the female line.  Men respected for their wisdom, experience, and generosity were recognized as leaders.  When the local groups came together, these men acted as the tribal council.

The concentration of the Comanches, Cheyennes, Arapahoes, Kiowa, and Ka-ta-kas in the Central and Southern Plains brought about conflicts over hunting and trading ranges.  Settlers entered Texas in great number, and the route to Santa Fe brought increased traffic through tribal lands.  In 1840, with the Ka-ta-kas and Arapahoes acting as peacemakers, the five southern tribes entered into an alliance that remained unbroken.

The Ka-ta-kas continued to pursue a policy of peace.  By 1865, they were camping with the more peaceful bands of Cheyennes and Arapahoes.  With the Treaty of Little Arkansas in 1865, they were assigned to a common reservation.  Unlike earlier peace treaties of 1837 and 1853, the Little Arkansas Treaty restricted the Ka-ta-ka hunting range to lands south of the Arkansas River.

Strangers in Their Own Land: 1867-1934

“When my father took me to school form the camp, I had long hair and was dressed in buckskin.  They took off my buckskin and gave me a shirt.  My hair was long and braided…They took scissors and cut the braids off and gave them to my father.  The superintendent cam in.. He said, my name was going to be James.”-Joe Blackbear in Jim Whitewolf: The Life of a Kiowa Apache Indian, 1949

Because Congress failed to ratify the Treaty of the Little Arkansas, settlers moved into reservation lands, and negotiations began for further reducing tribal domains.  Over 7,000 Comanches, Kiowa, Apaches, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes gathered as their disheartened leaders reluctantly signed the Treaties of Medicine Lodge in 1867. Renewing their old friendship with the Comanches and Kiowas, the Apaches were assigned with these tribes to a reservation in present southwestern Oklahoma.

Through the years of disruptive warfare, tribal dislocations, and epidemics of cholera and smallpox, the Apaches maintained their tribal unity and continued to observe bonds of kinship and cultural tradition.  With each new generation, relatives came together to celebrate the birth of a new family member.  Later the child was ceremoniously given a name honoring a forefather or a special event.  By the time boys and girls were old enough to walk, they belonged to Kasowe, or Rabbit Society.  Through this association they formed many lasting friendships.

The relationship between grandparent and grandchild was especially warm and close.  From their grandparents, the young learned the Plains Apache way.  Through observation and instruction, they soon assumed the responsibilities of camp life, and when they married, families celebrated with feasting and giftgiving.  Men were honored by initiation into the Manatidie and Klintidie Societies.  The Izuwe, a secret society, was reserved for elder women.  As they took their places as tribal elders, they were much respected for their knowledge and experience which could be passed on to the new generation.

During the reservation years, federal policies sought to suppress traditional values, beliefs, and practices. Religious ceremonies were discouraged and attempts were made to disrupt family and kinship ties.  Absent from the camps were children who had been placed in boarding schools, where they were given English names and were forbidden to speak their native language.  As the last of the great southern buffalo herds were slaughtered by commercial hide hunters, families suffered from food shortages and were forced to rely on limited government rations guaranteed by the Medicine Lodge Treaty.  Although a primary goal of the government was to make farmers of the Apaches, drought, insects and lack of instruction hampered success.

Traditionally the spiritual life of the Apaches emphasized the harmony of man and nature, and worship centered on four sacred medicine bundles.  As churches were established on the reservation, many accepted the messages of Christian missionaries.  Others turned to the more traditional teachings of the peyote religion, which was chartered as the Native American Church in 1918.  Apache Ben, one of the ten original charter members, helped to organize the Native American Church and preserve the religion for later generations.

During their lifetimes, tribal elders witnessed the gradual reductions of their vast hunting range and, in the early 1900’s, the final destruction of the tribal estate.  As pressures increased to open reservation lands to homesteaders, the process of allotment began.  Tracts of 160 acres were assigned to tribal members, and the remaining tribal land (called “surplus land”) was opened to settlement.  When allotment was completed, the Apache were left with 32,643 acres from the original reservation of 2,968,893 acres.  Now they were indeed strangers in their own land.

From Generation to Generation: 1934-Present

“We know enough to try to respect our culture.  When a person receives an Indian name, the family is hoping that he or she will follow in the footsteps of the person who had that name before.  We tribal members, we respect the names, all of out names.  We’re proud, proud, to be called a name that has been handed down from generation to generation.”-Alfred Chalepah, Sr., 1980

The horse-using, buffalo-hunting way of life is remembered in the oral tradition of the Plains Apaches.  As events of that era have become history, the values of family and social life have endured.  During the reservation years, extended family groups continued to camp together.  At allotment, family members took adjoining lands bringing households together in the old tradition of sharing and mutual aid.  Today, family members often build their houses near one another so that they can visit, care for children, and work together on a daily basis.  Grandparents continue to play an important role in the rearing of children, and the stories they tell of how things used to be provide continuity with the past.

The historic Ka-ta-kas are organized by constitution as the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma.  In contemporary life they are students, homemakers, farmers, and skilled and professional workers.  Crafts-people and artisans continue to make clothing, jewelry, and accessories using traditional and modern designs and materials.  The ability to change, innovate, and adapt to new conditions has always been part of the Plains Apache way.  Today tribal identity and traditions not only flourish, but have been shaped to serve the modern purposes of the Apaches.

The ceremonial focus of tribal identity is the Blackfoot Dance, which developed from the revival of the Manatidie Society.  All Apache families are represented in two Blackfoot Societies that perform on special occasions and at an annual dance held each summer.  The dance focuses on four ceremonial staffs.  Tribal tradition maintains that the original staffs were captured from enemy tribes long before recorded history.  As in earlier times, a high value is placed on honor and bravery in defense of one’s nation.  The Blackfoot Dance therefore pays special homage to Apache veterans and men and women in the armed forces.

In summer camps and community gatherings, kinship ties and the legacy of common heritage continue to bind together young and old.  Children are introduced into Apache society in the giving of an Apache name and in the performance of the Rabbit Dance.  Apaches of all ages participate in family-organized gatherings and traditional songs and dances.  These are occasions that bring family and tribe together to renew a heritage that has been handed down from generation to generation.

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