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Reclaiming land and spirit in the western Apache homeland.

Many American Indian tribes are today expanding the use of their homelands beyond natural resource extraction and tourism, by turning back to their land as a source of pride, orientation, and strength. Our topic is the Ndee, also known as the Western Apache of what is today called Arizona. We discuss the indivisibility of Ndee land and culture, the historical forces that operated unsuccessfully to alienate the Ndee from their land, and how the Ndee are returning elements of their geographical, cultural, and linguistic heritage to a central place of honor while addressing contemporary challenges.

If there is a single nugget of insight to harvest from our discussion, it is from the first lesson that Welch learned from then--White Mountain Apache Tribal Council Chairman Ronnie Lupe: the deceptively simple Apache word ni'. A small word, to be sure, but a potent one. Its potency derives from multiple meanings and the somewhat elusive link between two meanings.

In the Apache language nj' means both land and mind, that is, country and way of thinking. This is no accident or random convergence. For the Apache people, as for many other Native Americans -- to borrow a bit recklessly from the great anthropologist, Levi-Strauss -- land is good to walk and good to think. The inseparability of land and thought, of geography and memory, and of place and wisdom has long been recognized by non-Indians. For a much longer period -- since time immemorial, in fact -- this unity has been put to work by Ndee, Dineh, and other people who possess spirits embedded in their place of living. What is relatively new and worth emphasizing is how this concept is at last receiving the attention it deserves from resource managers, from linguistic preservationists and cultural perpetuationists, and from historians, archaeologists, astronomers, tribal advocates, and teachers, to name just a few.


To honor this vital link between place and people fully, one must know something of the Ndee homeland, centered on the spectacular reservation lands occupied by the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache tribes. This rugged area north of the Gila River was the exclusive province of the indomitable Apache until 1870. It is a magnificent place in which to travel and to dwell. The 1.7 million -- acre Fort Apache Reservation, the place that White Mountain Ndee have called home since time immemorial, ranges from Hudsonian life zones and high-altitude cienegas at almost 11,500 feet, through more than 600,000 acres of commercial forest, descending via about eight hundred miles of perennial streams into the pinon-juniper woodland belt where most of the rapidly expanding population of about fourteen thousand White Mountain Apache tribal members live.

Below these woodlands the country breaks up even more into buttes and canyons, before yielding to true desert at the reservations southwestern border at about 2,500 feet. To put the place into a contemporary eco-challenge perspective, an adventurous soul could, in mid spring, make a morning's worth of turns at the tribe's Sunrise Park Ski Resort before spending the afternoon plummeting through the Salt River Canyon on a raft or kayak. A brief visit may not allow an outsider to grasp the place, but few leave without an appreciation of the enduring pride Apaches rightfully take in their land, their enduring birthright, and their source of distinctive identity.

But Ndee connections to their land remain vital only in spite of an astoundingly insensitive century of mistreatment of the Western Apache by the U.S. government. 1870 marked the beginning of a sad pause in Apache dominion over their homeland, for this was the date of the establishment of Fort Apache. Seeking a place for a military post that could be used to keep the White Mountain Apaches out of the hostilities erupting farther to the south, Maj. John Green led the first documented non-Indian expedition across the Salt River onto the flanks of the White Mountains. The cavalry's mission was to build an army post and prevent White Mountain bands from providing corn and supplies to hostile bands.

Major Green had received dubious intelligence reports, however, and the ostensibly nomadic barbarians greeted him peacefully and assisted in selecting the site for what was to become Fort Apache. Green described the place in glowing and revealing terms: "It seems this one corner of Arizona was almost a garden spot, the beauty of its scenery, the fertility of its soil and facilities for irrigation are not surpassed.... This post would be of greatest advantage for the following reasons: it would compel the White Mountain Indians to live on their reservation or be driven from their beautiful country which they almost worship. It would stop their traffic in corn with the hostile tribes.... It would make a good scouting post, being adjacent to hostile bands on either side" (Green, n.p.).

Green was right. The army seized both strategic ground and a position of dominance over the Ndee owing to their unwillingness to consider the prospect of removal. Unsatisfied, the government took even more land, breaking the promise made to protect the roughly 14 million -- acre Ndee homeland from non-Indian incursions. The arrival of a foreign military presence kicked off complex processes that, for the White Mountain Apache people, resulted most significantly in their loss of land in both material and spiritual terms. With the initial reservation establishment the Ndee were denied access to 5 million acres. Subsequent reductions in the reservation land base -- explicitly and exclusively to serve the interests of non-Apaches -- ultimately left the Western Apache with less than 4 million acres of reservation lands (Welch 83-84, fig.3). Most Ndee have never understood how land that had belonged to their ancestors could be, as stated in the president's orders reducing their reservation lands, "restored to the public domain."

The government's confiscation and redistribution of vast tracts of once sovereign Ndee territory caused serious and still-painful injuries to the Ndee. Elder Raymond Kane said that his grandfather described the loss as an unanesthetized amputation. But the indirect consequences were almost as traumatic. The government turned millions of acres of the Ndee homeland over to miners, loggers, ranchers, and irrigation farmers. From the Apache perspective the reckless and rapacious use of the land by non-Indians lacked respect. Because the new arrivals moved from place to place as they depleted and sometimes destroyed the land, the Ndee viewed the newcomers as landless and thus, from all appearances, mindless.

Similar processes of land loss occurred on reservation lands. Federal agency representatives charged to serve as tribal trustees often took the lead in opening the land reserved by the president and Congress for the exclusive use and benefit of the White Mountain Apache people -- the reservation itself, all they had left -- to non-Indian cattlemen, shepherds, loggers, farmers, miners, missionaries, hunters, and fishermen. Various courts have recognized the material damage done to the Ndee reservations through the trustees' neglect and mismanagement, but not enough has been said about the violence done to the people's distinctive, geography-linked identity and sense of place.

The ensuing century of poverty, inhumanity, and despair on Arizona's Apache reservations can be seen as a direct consequence of the federal effort to eliminate Ndee identity by severing ties between the people and their ancient heritage. After the army finally admitted that the so-called Apache War was over in 1922, the Fort Apache post was turned over to the Interior Department for use as a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. In this incarnation Fort Apache served as a center for the acculturation of Native American youth. Mandatory Christian prayer, an English-only regimen, periodic submersion in vats of sheep dip, a psychological war of ethnic cleansing, and the sorts of corporeal punishments that today would be prosecuted as felonies were a part of the curriculum at the early Theodore Roosevelt School. Young Ndee minds and bodies were actively, even violently separated from their geographical and social birthright in the name of education. Removing Ndee from their families and lands broke a link in a great chain that had provided everything needed by the Apache people since time immemorial.

A more recent threat to the land and its connections to the people is seen in the growing emotional distance between people and place. For reasons too numerous to list, one is more likely to find an Apache youth in the same place as a non-Indian teenager -- in a mall or in front of a TV -- rather than with his or her parents or grandparents out on the land, coming to know their country, their mind, and their place in the world.


In recognizing the strength of Ndee ties to their lands, Major Green had glimpsed a fundamental and irrevocable truth about Apache culture. In his book Wisdom Sits in Places, Keith Basso, who has worked among Apaches for more than forty years, explains that the Apache have named countless springs, hills, meadows, outcroppings, and other landscape features. Many of these places are linked to stories about the Ndee ancestors who conferred the names, and many of these stories poignantly and elegantly refer to central tenets of Apache culture and morality.

Neither the army nor the BIA was successful in breaking the Apache spirit, and a deep knowledge of places remains essential to the maintenance of Apache society. The Ndee know this and are taking steps to ensure that this knowledge is recorded, safeguarded, and given important new uses. Progress is being made through recognition that the Ndee homeland -- as it has nurtured countless Apache generations and been shaped both physically and conceptually through actions, reflections, and oral traditions -- holds the key to restoring much of the harmony and health of the White Mountain Apache community. The tribe's general strategy is to take care of the land so that the land can, once again, take better care of the people.

The specific tactics, values, and standards used in implementing this strategy and applying this care are distinctively Ndee. In close collaboration with the San Carlos Apache Tribe, the Tonto Apache Tribe, and the Yavapai-Apache Nation, the White Mountain Apache Tribe secured support from the National Park Service Historic Preservation Fund Grants to Indian Tribes to launch the Western Apache Placenames Project. Building on the efforts of the two most dedicated Ndee ethnographers, Grenville Goodwin and Keith Basso, the project has collected names and associated oral traditions linked to almost fifteen hundred individual places scattered across the Ndee homeland. These records are serving as the foundation for educational programs and for substantive consultations with the federal and state agencies that manage portions of the Ndee homeland.

While the geographic framework for Apache interests and concerns continues to take shape, the White Mountain Apache Tribe is reasserting virtually total control over their reservation land. For the first time ever, because of enforcement of the tribe's water quality standards and best management practices, cattle have been removed from degraded ranges. Riparian areas are being allowed to recover and repair themselves, while Apache high school, college, and graduate students learn the Apache names of the plants and the places. Younger and older students collaborate during annual watershed restoration summer camps. Exclosures keep elk out and allow for aspen and then spruce and fir trees to regenerate in areas affected by catastrophic blow-down events and fires. Active and ongoing consultations among students, elders, and council members focus on the way in which place and species names and other traditions provide clues to the land, how it works, and how it should be managed. Among the crucial insights gained from this process is the truth that one or more essential characteristics of a particular place -- as described in an Apache placename -- generally remain intact and available for reemergence despite poor management or other factors masking the place's natural appearance and functions.

Many other initiatives have focused on the reassertion of tribal sovereignty and the restoration of connections among Ndee minds and lands. The tribe has concluded a landmark agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that ensures tribal control over research and management programs concerning the many species on the reservation threatened or endangered due to the poor management practices of the tribe's federal trustee. The programs include an extensive effort to restore the high-elevation riparian habitat of the Apache trout, Arizona's state fish. In addition, since 1996 the tribe has closed all forty of the small dumpsites on the reservation and opened a single, state-of-the-art landfill. Draft tribal ordinances covering natural and cultural resource protection are under consideration, and a heritage tourism program involving tribal member guides was launched in the summer of 1999. Destinations include some of the outstanding cultural, geological, and birding sites for which the reservation is well known by refugees from the Tucson and Phoenix summers.

In another unique and far-reaching effort, in 1993 the White Mountain Apache Tribal Council adopted a master plan to capitalize on Fort Apache's name recognition and convert the former army post from a symbol of oppression and cultural erosion into a symbol of hope, power, and self-determination. The overall goals involve using Fort Apache to explain Ndee heritage to outsiders, to perpetuate the Ndee heritage for future generations, and to serve the diverse and dynamic needs of the White Mountain Apache community. Today, Fort Apache is becoming a forum for celebrating Ndee survival and sharing Apache perspectives on their culture and history (Welch, Mahaney, and Riley 16-19).

Through partnerships with the World Monuments Fund, the National Park Service, Arizona State Parks, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, nine of the fort's twenty-six historic buildings have been restored and given revitalized roles. In 1997 the tribe opened Nohwike' Bagowa within the Fort Apache Historic District, the new Apache Cultural Center and Museum. To remake Fort Apache into a source of Apache pride and employment, the tribe has obtained grant support for diverse projects and chartered a 501(c)(3) corporation, the Fort Apache Heritage Foundation. Fort Apache is now an official Save America's Treasures project, as recognized and supported by the White House Millennium Council.

With the most imminent threats to individual historic structures addressed, the tribe has initiated interpretive and site development projects intended to return Fort Apache to active duty -- this time in support of, instead of against, the Apache community. The public representation of Fort Apache as a place with multiple, distinctive histories is the central theme being explored in the interpretive planning process supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The process will provide the basis for relating previously unavailable White Mountain Apache perspectives on their ancient traditions, their contacts with non-Indians, and their contemporary status and interests.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe ushered in the next chapter in the history of Fort Apache with the first annual Great Fort Apache Heritage Reunion. On 20 May 2000 more than four thousand people who share in the history and legacy of the fort and who care about local history and culture came together to launch community involvement programs for the Fort Apache revitalization effort. Following the inaugural procession of diverse tribes, government representatives, and community leaders, a presentation of song and dance was intermingled with violence-free historical reenactments by military groups and personages. Participants were encouraged to join formal and informal reconciliation programs, such as the listening post, where people shared memories and feelings about the fort and the boarding school. The objective was to encourage Apaches and non-Apaches to confront their ambiguous, even hostile sentiments and to think about the relationship between memories, emotions, and the future. The event laid a strong foundation for mutual respect and collaboration among the diverse groups of people sharing histories and interests in Fort Apache.

At no other place that we know of has an American Indian tribe adopted a frontier military outpost that was established to control them and, on its own initiative, decided to re-embrace that place in its entirety and use it to promote their interests. Through a unique integration of physical restoration and social reconciliation the White Mountain Apache Tribe is asserting its understanding of Fort Apache as a significant, though briefly foreign, place within an Apache landscape.

Once sovereign over and intimately dependent upon a region the size of West Virginia, Western Apache people today reside on and know only a small fraction of their great-grandparents' landscape. Although more than a century of federal policies has systematically alienated Western Apaches from their land and the material and cultural vitality they once derived from it, Apache elders and cultural specialists have safeguarded vast knowledge of oral traditions associated with landscape features, functions, and values. Ongoing intertribal efforts to document place-based oral traditions and give them new uses have been successful in preserving fragile and beautiful traditions. At least as important, the information being collected has well-established though incompletely understood uses in ecological restoration, cultural education, and the protection of sacred sites and other places having Apache cultural and historical significance.

Apache people are creating opportunities to use their heritage to make their lives better, both materially and spiritually. Work being done in pursuit of this goal emphasizes cultural perpetuation rather than preservation. The elected and cultural leaders of the White Mountain Apaches are committed to finding innovative and meaningful uses for their culture, their language, and their history in the areas of economic and community development. Again, the goal of the diverse activities conducted under the aegis of the tribe's Heritage Program is not merely to preserve Apache culture, but to revitalize the most important and useful elements of the past to guide Apaches through the present and into the future.


We are forever grateful for the guidance we have received from our elders and our other wise and patient teachers: Glenn Cromwell, the late Nashley Tessay, Ronnie Lupe, Eva Watt, and other Ndee wisdom keepers too numerous to name.


Basso, Keith H. Wisdom Sits in Places. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Green, John. "Reports of Bvt. Lt. John Green to Acting Assistant Adjutant General, Department of California, 20 August 1869 and 6 December 1869," in Miscellaneous Records Relating to Arizona Territory, 1868-1872. National Archives, Record Group 98. Not paginated.

Welch, John R. "White Eyes' Lies and the Battle for Dzil Nchaa Si An," American Indian Quarterly 27(1) (1997): 75B109.

Welch, John R., Nancy Mahaney, and Ramon Riley. "The Reconquest of Fort Apache: The White Mountain Apache Tribe Reclaims Its History and Culture," CRM 23(9): 16B19.
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Author:Welch, John R.; Riley, Ramon
Publication:The American Indian Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Previous Article:Introductory remarks.
Next Article:Trust me, I work for the government: confidentiality and public access to sensitive information.

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