The Story of the Tonto Apache, Chapter 9
Our human need to see God manifested in some form is expressed when Apaches impersonate the Mountain Spirits, or Gaan, in special ceremonies. Masked dancers, secretly chosen, each create their own crown headdress, copying images left by the Gaan in petroglyphs.
The dancer's personal identity is kept a mystery. The dancers do not literally become the Gaan during the dance ceremony, but they come close to it in the minds of the onlookers who make this identification. By the use of the dance and its mysterious participants, the power of the Mountain Spirits are present.
These Crown Dancers play an especially important role in healing ceremonies, along with the Medicine Man or Shaman. Highly painted and decorated in the colors of the four directions, the dancers call out the evil spirits. One of the dancers is the Clown, and his task is to frighten away these evil spirits. After the dance, the heavy and awkward crowns are hidden away in a sacred cave, not to be disturbed.
One might recall the Christian belief that the risen Christ is present in the elements of Holy Communion, or the Mass.
Some groups hold that the bread and wine become in their essence the real presence of Christ's body and blood. Other groups believe the bread and wine are simply symbols of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. In that case, the mystery is that the resurrected Christ is among the worshippers as a living spiritual presence. This approaches the Apache's traditional belief regarding the Crown Dancers, whose presence calls upon the spiritual presence of the Gaan.
The Apache's understanding of his relationship to God is gathered up best in the concept of power. Power comes to a person in as many forms as there are human talents. It may be the power of being a swift runner, a leader among the people, an invincible warrior, a skillful hunter, or a healer. The list would have no end, but it is important to know that one does not go seeking after power and find it.
Power is something that finds you, and when you know you have it you are expected to use it for the good of the entire community.
For example, during the puberty ceremony power is imparted to the young woman, and when she becomes aware of her special gifts she will use them. Tribal members who exhibit one power or another will be looked to when circumstances call for that particular gift.
To understand his power, an Apache boy went off on what white men have called a "vision quest." After several days or a week of fasting in some high and hidden place, he communes with the Gaan and may be given his power.
He does not return boasting about it, but keeps this as a very sacred part of his life. Whatever his power is, it will be manifest among his fellow Apaches.
In time the tribe will look to him for the gifts he has demonstrated. That person may develop a special ritual or ceremony designed to impart this gift to others, especially if it is the gift of healing. There are different medicines for different purposes, and the person in need may have to try a series of Shamans, or "Medicine Men" before one of the ceremonies works for him or her.
I once encountered Apache "religion" in an unexpected event. It was June of 1990. My family and I had been evacuated from our home on the upper waters of the East Verde River during the Dude forest fire. Our home was spared by the effective work of the fire fighters, and we were permitted to return as the fire lines were still being monitored. Each day a fire crew of Apaches would walk the line from the top of the Mogollon Rim down the East Verde River where they had stopped the fire. National Guard trucks would come to pick them up just a few hundred feet above our house, and I talked with them as they concluded their day to head for the base camp on Houston Mesa.
One afternoon the supervisor of the crew donated his orders of the day to me. They included a poem written by one of the firefighters. It was signed simply Goseyun, and entitled it "A San Carlos Apache Wise One Clan Song."
I immediately discovered that, to the Apache, this great, angry forest fire had become the symbol of prayer.
Climb a mountain,
Gather Nature's wastes,
Build a fire,
A huge angry fire;
Stretch Nature's skin
And cover a hollow stump.
Beat the stretched skin
To your heart's rhythm.
Chant a prayer
And fill the valleys with echoes of your prayer.
Feel your spirit revive; yell out an angry scream
to chase evil spirits away.
Be one in spirit with the Great Almighty One above.
The fire is there to show your spirit's revival.
A huge angry fire is a good sign.
Next: Revenge and War