Athabaskan Peoples

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Relations with Athabaskan migrants also shaped the course of New Mexico’s histories in the years before the arrival of the Spanish. The Athabaskans were the ancestors of the modern Navajo and Apache peoples, and they fanned out across the region in smaller bands after their initial arrival. As mentioned above, scholars continue to debate the exact time frame in which they came to New Mexico. The term Athabaskan refers to the linguistic group from which these people descended. One school of thought maintains that the migrants left their former homes in present-day western Canada in the 1200s, arriving in the Puebloan region by mid-century. Others argue that their arrival came much later, on the eve of Spanish contact.

Whatever the case, three Athabaskan tribes remain in the state today: the Navajo, the Mescalero Apache, and the Jicarilla Apache. The Chiricahua Apache people lived in the southwestern corner of the state until they were forcibly removed from their homeland during the Apache Wars of the late nineteenth century. Headman Geronimo surrendered to combined U.S and Mexican forces in the Chihuahua sierra in 1886. He and those that accompanied him were removed to a reservation in Florida. Later, the Chiricahua people were moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. In the early twentieth century most were able to move to the Mescalero Agency in south-central New Mexico. Never again, however, did the Chiricahua people reclaim their homeland. Despite sustained repression and historical hardships, the other Apache bands as well as the Navajo people count themselves lucky to have retained at least a piece of the lands bestowed upon them by the Creator.

Just as the Pueblos, Navajos and Apaches count their history “from the beginning.” To the Diné, the time of their arrival in their homeland is not the most important question to be answered. Instead, it is most significant that the Dinétah (the traditional Navajo homeland) was the sacred place in which Changing Woman (Asdzáá Nádleehí) was born. Like many other indigenous origin stories, that of the Navajos is a tale of migrations. According to tradition, First Man and First Woman were placed in the Dinétah when they arrived in this world, the Fourth World or the Glittering World. Their homeland was defined by six mountains: Blanca Peak (Sis Naajiní, white) in the east, Mount Taylor (Tsoodził, turquoise) in the south, San Francisco Peaks (Dook’o’oosłííd, yellow) in the west, Mount Hesperus (Dibe Nitsaa, black) in the north, Huerfano Mountain (Dził Na’oodiłii) in the center, and Gobernador Knob (Ch’ool’į’į) to the east of center. The four mountains on the edges were assigned particular colors and associated with specific seasons. They also defined the edges of the Dinétah.

After the arrival of First Man and First Woman, their world was shaped through ceremonies in which the first hogan was built, the first sweat bath taken, seasons established, day and night set apart, stars placed in the sky, and sun and moon created. Changing Woman was born atop Gobernador Knob, and she matured to puberty in just a few days. Through her the first puberty ceremony (Kinaaldá) was introduced, and she gave birth to twin boys known as Born for Water (Tóbájíshchíní) and Enemy Slayer (Nayeé Neizghání). The boys received weapons from their father, the Sun Bearer, to aid them in their battles against the monsters that afflicted the people. Together, they defeated One Walking Giant (Ye’iitsoh Ła’í Neizghání). His dried blood can still be seen in the form of the lava formations near Mount Taylor. The twins also killed the Monster Bird that lived at Shiprock.

The rock formation Shiprock is known in Navajo as “Tsé Bit’a’i” meaning “rock with wings.” It plays an important role in Navajo religion, mythology, and tradition. The cultural and religious significance of the rock warns people to keep their distance because terrible things happen to anyone at the peak.
Courtesy of Transity

To help the Diné in their day-to-day lives, Changing Woman or the twins (traditions vary) introduced livestock and horses that corresponded to the four directional colors and sacred mountains. Changing Woman also instituted the matrilineal clan system. Eventually, sixty different clans came into being with nearly one-third connected to people of Puebloan lineage. At various points in time following the Spanish conquest, different Pueblo peoples fled to find refuge with the Navajos. Such was especially the case in the 1690s just after Diego de Vargas’ Reconquest. The tales of Changing Woman, Born for Water, and Enemy Slayer set the tone for Navajo history and culture. Each played an important role in establishing Diné lifeways and worldview. The twins’ various achievements set the pattern for Navajo healing and protection rites. Together, the stories of how mothers and sons related to each other set the standard for how the Diné should behave and pattern their lives.5

The extent to which Navajo people were “cultural borrowers” has been one of the more lively points of debate between scholars and Diné people themselves in recent years. The prevailing interpretation of Navajo history has been that they arrived in the Southwest as a group of people that shared a common tongue, but that possessed no other defining cultural traits. Their culture grew out of their interactions with other people, especially the Pueblos. Such narratives cast the Diné as “nomadic vagabonds” that sapped the energy and patience of the people that already understood how to survive in the region.

By reading Navajo traditions together with anthropological and archaeological evidence, a sharper picture of cultural sharing and adaptation comes into view. From this angle, Athabaskans were not just marauders that forced Ancestral Puebloans from their great sites. Instead, it seems most likely that they lived alongside the people in Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, the Aztec ruins, and Canyon de Chelly. Such findings lend more credence to the idea that the Athabaskans arrived in the 1200s, if not even a little sooner. Another possibility is that the peoples that abandoned the Ancestral Puebloan sites migrated toward Navajo lands, as well as toward the Rio Grande. Within the past couple of decades, officials at Chaco Canyon National Historic Park and Mesa Verde National Park have acknowledged these connections and have begun to consult the Diné along with Pueblo peoples regarding the proper handling of Ancestral Puebloan artifacts. Navajos brought their own unique culture with them to the Dinétah, and they shared their knowledge with others that joined them. Their culture morphed over time as new people arrived and other ideas incorporated. Such has been the case with all human societies over the course of history.

When the first Athabaskan migrants arrived in the New Mexico region, they practiced nomadic lifeways. Those who became Diné traded hides and jerky with Puebloans in exchange for cotton cloth and vegetables. Eventually, they adopted semi-nomadic or pastoral lifeways. They continued to migrate with their animals based on the seasons. After Spanish contact, livestock, especially sheep, further solidified Navajo reliance on this way of life. Families constructed summer and winter hogans that facilitated their pastoralism. Their early hogans consisted of three upright posts that were the frame that held up horizontally placed logs that were then plastered with mud. Extended families constructed their hogans near one another, but Navajos did not consider such groupings to be villages because they typically did not include anyone outside of the clan.

Diné people augmented their pastoral lifestyle with agricultural production. Through trade with Puebloans, they acquired the seeds and knowledge to cultivate corn, beans, and squash. Like the other inhabitants of the region, their principal crop was corn. Indeed, the name “Navajo” may have derived from a Tewa word that translates to “arroyo of the cultivated fields.” Pueblo-Diné relations were normally peaceful, but differences in their ways of conceptualizing territorial claims created some tension. Navajos did not adhere to the idea of prior appropriation, or the concept that the people who arrived first in an area had the strongest claim to that area’s resources. Instead, they emphasized the beneficial use of land. They never accepted Pueblo claims on areas that they had simply visited once or twice in order to acquire items like salt or eagle feathers. Such differences in understanding created conflicts between the Diné and Pueblo groups from time to time.

Like the Pueblos, Navajos did not distinguish between the religious and the secular. Spiritual power was manifested in all aspects of daily life. They recognized the need to pray in order to maintain harmony with their environment. Prayers, ceremonies, and dances allowed them to call upon supernatural aid in their fields, while hunting, and when at war. Medicine men presided over Diné ceremonies for healing, fertility, rainfall, and warfare. Colorful sand paintings created from memory were a crucial part of healing ceremonies. Pigment for the paintings was obtained through grinding local plants and minerals, and the medicine man placed the dry pigments on the floor of the hogan of the sick person. Using the pigments and dirt, he created depictions of scenes from Diné traditions that ranged between two to twenty feet in width. The sand painting was tailored to the specific ceremony that the family had requested and it was erased before sunset of the day it was made.

Apache peoples spread out over a larger area than the Navajos, and they rigorously maintained fully nomadic lifeways. They organized themselves in a much more fluid manner than the Navajos or Pueblos. The Mescaleros were divided into five tribal bands, the Chiricahuas into three, and the Jicarillas into two. Each band was further subdivided into smaller groups of extended-family relations that ranged in size from between about forty to two-hundred people. A chief led each local group and directed their hunting, gathering, trading, and war activities. Their campsites, at times temporary, at others more permanent, were dubbed rancherías by the Spanish. They principally lived in highly mobile tipis or wikiups.

Although each group calls itself by a unique name, all Apaches refer to themselves in general as Indeh, meaning “the people.” They all have their own versions of a creation story that involves the creator, Ussen, providing them with a homeland, counsel for living, and provisions. According to Warm Springs Chiricahua legends, for example, Ussen led them from the north to the place that the Spaniards later called Ojo Caliente, or Warm Springs (in the present-day Gila wilderness). There, Ussen acted through White Painted Woman and Child of the Water (two other key Chiricahua deities) to hand down key lessons about creation and life. As they grew to adulthood, each Apache boy and girl learned the sacred rites, rituals, and stories that had been transmitted to their ancestors at Warm Springs; the values rooted in that place set them apart as a people and gave them their identity. As historian Kathleen P. Chamberlain has argued, it was “where they became Apaches.”6

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