The Apaches arrived in the Southwest from present-day Canada around 1400. By the early 1600s, the Chiricahua were living in southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, and northern Mexico. Late twentieth-century Chiricahua communities include the Mescalero Apache Reservation in southeastern New Mexico and a presence at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Ancestors of today's Apaches began the trek from Asia to North America relatively late, in roughly 1000 BCE. Most members of this group, which included the Athapaskans, were known as the Nadene. By 1300, the group that was to become the southern Athapaskans (Apaches and Navajos) broke away from other Athapaskan tribes and began migrating southward, reaching the American Southwest around 1400 and crystallizing into separate cultural groups.
The Apaches generally filtered into the mountains surrounding the Pueblo-held valleys. This process ended in the 1600s and 1700s, with a final push southward and westward by the Comanches. Before contact with the Spanish, the Apaches were relatively peaceful and may have engaged in some agricultural activities.
Traditionally, the Chiricahuas knew little tribal cohesion and no central political authority. They were a tribe based on common territory, language, and culture. As much central authority as existed was found in the local group (thirty-five to 200 people), composed of extended families. Its leader, or chief, enjoyed authority because of personal qualities, such as persuasiveness and bravery, often in addition to ceremonial knowledge. (All the famous Apache "chiefs" were local group leaders.) Decisions were made by consensus. One of the chief's most important functions was to minimize friction among his people.
Local groups joined to form three Chiricahua bands. One was the eastern, or Cihene (Red Paint People), also known as Mimbreños, Coppermine, Warm Spring, or Mogollon Apaches; the second was the central (Chokonen). The third band was the southern (Nednai, Enemy People, also called Pinery or Bronco Apaches), who lived mainly in Mexico. Some intermarriage occurred between bands.
Women were the anchors of the Apache family. Residence was matrilocal. Besides the political organization, society was divided into a number of matrilineal clans. Apaches in general respected the elderly and valued honesty above all other qualities.
Gender roles were clearly defined but not rigidly enforced. Women gathered, prepared, and stored food; built the home; carried water; gathered fuel; cared for the children; tanned, dyed, and decorated hides; and wove baskets. Men hunted, raided, and waged war. They also made weapons and were responsible for their horses and equipment. They also made musical instruments.
Girls as well as boys practiced with the bow and arrow, sling, and spear, and both learned to ride expertly. Although actual marriage ceremonies were brief or nonexistent, the people practiced a number of formal preliminary rituals, designed to strengthen the idea that a man owed deep allegiance to his future wife's family. Out of deference, married men were not permitted to speak directly with their mothers-in-law. Divorce was relatively easy to obtain.
All Apaches had a great fear of ghosts. Chiricahuas who died had their faces painted red and were buried the same day. Their personal possessions were burned or destroyed, including their house and favorite horse.
Chiricahua Apaches lived in dome-shaped brush wikiups, which they covered with hides in bad weather. The doors always faced east. Eastern Chiricahuas sometimes used teepees.
Chiricahua Apaches were primarily hunters and gatherers. They hunted buffalo prior to the sixteenth century, and afterward they continued to hunt deer, elk, antelope, rabbits, and other game. They did not eat bear, turkey, or fish.
Wild foods included agave; cactus shoots, flowers, and fruit; berries; seeds; nuts; honey; and wild onions, potatoes, and grasses. Nuts and seeds were often ground into flour. The agave or century plant was particularly important. Baking its base in rock-lined pits for several days yielded mescal, a sweet, nutritious food that was dried and stored.
Traditional farm crops were obtained from the Pueblos by trade or raid. The Chiricahuas, particularly the eastern band, also practiced some agriculture: Corn, for instance, was used to make tiswin, a weak beer.
The Chiricahuas traditionally wore buckskin clothing and moccasins. As they acquired cotton and later wool through trading and raiding, women tended to wear two-piece calico dresses, with long, full skirts and long blouses outside the skirt belts. They occasionally carried knives and later ammunition belts. Girls wore their hair over their ears, shaped around two willow hoops. Some older women wore their hair Plains-style, parted in the middle with two braids. Men's postcontact styles included calico shirts, muslin breechclouts with belts, cartridge belts, moccasins, and headbands.
Historically, the Apache made formidable enemies. Raiding was one of their most important activities. The main purpose of raiding, in which one sought to avoid contact with the enemy, was to gain wealth and honor. It differed fundamentally from warfare, which was undertaken primarily for revenge. Chiricahua Apaches did not generally take scalps, nor did they maintain formal warrior societies.
Thrust into contact with the Spanish, the Apaches, having acquired horses, began raiding Spanish and Pueblo settlements. This dynamic included trading as well as raiding and warfare, but the Spanish habit of selling captured Apaches into slavery led to Apache revenge and increasingly hostile conditions along the Spanish frontier. After 1821, the Mexicans put a bounty on Apache scalps, increasing Apache enmity and adding to the cycle of violence in the region.
Following the war between Mexico and the United States (1848), the Apaches, who did their part to bring misery to Mexico, assumed that the Americans would continue to be their allies. They were shocked and disgusted to learn that their lands were now considered part of the United States and that the Americans planned to "pacify" them. Having been squeezed by the Spanish, the Comanches, the Mexicans, and now miners, farmers, and other landgrabbers from the United States, the Apaches were more than ever determined to protect their way of life.
Some Chiricahua bands tried to stay out of trouble in the 1850s by planting fields under the supervision of federal agents, but when raiding resumed as a result of broken promises of food and protection, all sides were caught in a spiral of violence. Mangas Coloradas, a peaceful Mimbreño chief, turned to war after he was bullwhipped by U.S. miners in 1860. Cochise, son-in-law of Mangas Coloradas and leader of the central band of Chiricahua, began a guerrilla war along the Butterfield Trail after whites killed some of his men. Cochise began as central band war chief, but by force of personality and integrity he eventually claimed authority over other Chiricahua bands as well. Resistance continued until 1874, when Cochise, hungry and exhausted, surrendered. He could no longer control other Chiricahua bands, though, and their raiding continued.
Meanwhile, the U.S. policy of concentration via forced marches resulted in thousands of Chiricahua and western Apaches living on the crowded and disease-ridden San Carlos Reservation. There, a handful of dissident chiefs, confined in chains, held out for the old life of freedom and self-respect. Victorio fled in 1877, taking 350 Indians with him. He battled the army and Apache scouts until he was killed in Mexico in 1880. Nana, his successor, continued the raids until joining the Mescalero Reservation.
When soldiers killed a White Mountain Apache medicine man in 1881, Geronimo, a southern band shaman, led a group of Chiricahua away from San Carlos. In 1883 he agreed to return peacefully, but two years later, when soldiers banned the Indians' ceremonial drink tiswin, the Chiricahua fled again. In 1886 Geronimo surrendered in Mexico but on the way back to the United States escaped with thirty-six other Apaches. Their final surrender and the effective end of Apache military resistance came several months later: General Nelson Miles and one-quarter of the U.S. Army, plus Apache scouts, were needed to find and capture them. Geronimo regretted his surrender until his death as a prisoner of war in 1909.
As punishment for the freedom fighting activities of some of their group, the U.S. government sent all the Chiricahuas, including those who had been living peacefully at San Carlos, to prison in Alabama and Florida, where roughly one-quarter of them died over the following few years. Since the citizens of New Mexico opposed the return of the Apaches to San Carlos, the Chiricahuas who remained alive were sent in 1894 to the Kiowa Reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where they took up cattle raising and farming. In 1913, the Chiricahua were granted full freedom, although no reservation. Although some remained at Fort Sill, most moved back to New Mexico and life on the Mescalero Reservation.
Cattle raising and timber sales proved lucrative in the early twentieth century. Eventually, day schools replaced the hated, culture-killing boarding schools. By the late 1940s, every family had a house, and the economy at Mescalero was relatively strong. The reservation is managed cooperatively with the Mescalero and the Lipan Apaches.