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Breaking stereotypes of the Apaches

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Apaches fared poorly in both Hollywood and historic records.

Stereotyped as violent, vicious raiders who killed both settlers and tribal people, they have been largely ignored, even in New Mexico.

“Lifeways of the Southern Athabaskans,” opening at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture on Dec. 10, aims to change that perception.

The exhibition emphasizes the daily lives of the five Apache groups from New Mexico and southern Arizona through hunting gear, clothing, baskets and beaded objects. All of the groups are connected by the Athabaskan language family. They include the Jicarilla Apaches, Mescalero Apaches, Chiricahua Apaches (also known as Fort Sill Apaches), San Carlos Apaches and White Mountain Apaches.

Curator and museum education director Joyce Begay-Foss (Navajo) organized the items around the ways they were used. Horse culture, botanical knowledge and hunting skills become the warp woven throughout the show.

The Southern Athabaskans have lived in what is now the southwestern U.S., including New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Texas, as well as parts of northern Mexico after migrating from Alaska and Canada. In the early 1800s, these groups lived a migratory lifestyle, foraging for food and hunting game across both harsh desert and mountain terrain.

“You’re going to see strands throughout the exhibition of all these different groups,” Begay-Foss said. “They were hunter-gatherers. They were on the move; they were nomadic. They were always having to survive.”

A beaded Chiricahua Apache quiver connects to a group led by the famous medicine man and tribal leader Geronimo, Begay-Foss said. Made of brain-tanned leather, flannel cloth and beads, it dates to 1886 and was likely used to hunt deer and elk. Brain tanning made animal skins supple and soft even when wet.

Symbols of nature and the cosmos – the sun, moon, stars and birds – appeared regularly. The people used materials from trade and their own environment.

A twined willow Mescalero Apache burden basket jingles with tin “tinklers” dangling from the lip, their cones likely rolled from baking powder cans. The Western Apaches used piñon pitch to seal a cotton and willow water jar.

An expansive deerskin cape ushered a Jicarilla Apache girl into puberty during a four-day ceremony. Dyed with ochre, it boasts both glass and bone beads and brass bells. Family members created this ceremonial attire.

The Apaches created footwear both for themselves and their horses.

A rare pair of Chiricahuan cowhide horseshoes came from the trader and self-taught anthropologist Grenville Goodwin, who lived among the Apaches for about a decade in the 1930s.

The bound feet also helped quiet clopping hooves during horse raids, Begay-Foss added.

The Apaches based their beliefs on their relationship with nature: rocks, mountains, rivers, trees and plants. They called out to their deities for help with sickness and adversity and for the blessing of rain through song and dance.

“Some of the historic literature of the Apaches is very biased – that they were violent, that they were savages,” Begay-Foss said. “Even in the schools today, they are the last that are studied.”

The Apaches raided both the Navajos and the pueblos, behavior that worked both ways, she added.

“We did the same thing,” she said. “They were Army scouts, too. They had to. It was just the way of life then.”