Apache Lifestyle



The story of the Tonto Apache, Chapter Five

The lifestyles of the Tonto Apache and Yavapai people were so similar, anthropologists and archaeologists have found it almost impossible to distinguish between the campsites and villages they left behind. They were both hunter-gatherers, and they mingled, even intermarried, from the early decades of their mutual arrival in the Rim Country. They often used the same campsites alternately or simultaneously.


When Tonto Apaches gathered or hunted outside the territory of their own band, they needed permission of the band that claimed that territory as their own. Here White Mountain Apaches gather acorns in Payson, Tonto Apache territory.

The most definitive indication that the Tonto Apache and Yavapai are two distinct people is in their respective languages. John Bourke, crisscrossing the area as General George Crook's aide in the campaigns of 1871-74, recognized immediately that they were dealing with separate tribes.

The Western Apache of the Tonto Basin and Mogollon Rim, Bourke reported, were not pure Apache like those of the White Mountains, but had intermixed with the Yuman speaking group. Most of them spoke both languages, he said, and the head men had two names, one each from both traditions.

Other reported observations made it clear these were two different people. The Yavapai had long hair in the back, but cut at the ears, and it was coal black. The Tontos wore their hair cut short at the shoulders and squared off in front just above the eyes. Its color was not black so much as a yellowish-brown or auburn tint.

A significant study was made in 1965 by David M. Brugge, tracing names used in the two languages as they are spoken today among various Indian communities of Central Arizona. Tracing the frequency of Yuman and Athapaskan rooted names used by persons born in different locations, he determined on a community-by-community basis the amount of mixing that had taken place. The study confirmed that there were two different tribes who had mixed and subsequently created a unique grouping of people. Individuals and families often claimed to be pure Apache or pure Yavapai, but for the most part, they admitted to carrying the genes from both sides.

Over generations of close contact in central Arizona, the Yavapai adopted Apache clan systems, and their material culture became identical to the Tonto Apache. Even Apache myths of Creation strongly influenced those of the Yavapai. It is also true that the Yavapai influenced the Tontos.

Dr. Brugge notes the Tonto Apaches have a dialect different from other Western Apaches. There is a slight "Yavapai accent" in the speech of the Tontos. It is this rather "sing-song" dialect among Tontos that caused the White Mountain, Pinal, Cibecue and other Apache groups to call them "foolish," or in Spanish, "Tonto."


Gathering acorns is an Apache tradition that can still be witnessed around the Payson area. Members of the White Mountain Apache tribe make annual visits to the Rim Country to gather acorns which have fallen from the oaks throughout town.

In recent years it has become "politically incorrect" for Tontos or Yavapai people to admit to all of this mingling. Each group is jealous of their separate heritage. As I interviewed tribal elder Vince Randall, living in the Middle Verde Valley, he traced his lineage on both mother's and father's sides to pureblooded Tonto Apache. He stated that his mother belonged to the Over-the-Rim band, which ranged all the way from Heber and Snowflake to Ashfork. I asked him, "Does that mean your mother was what the anthropologists call ‘Northern Tonto'?"

He answered smiling, "That is a misnomer. I always say (those anthropologists) put in the Mason-Dixon line. There really is no Northern-Southern (difference). It's all N'de, all the way down to the Salt and Verde Rivers -- Of course, they were roaming all of the country. We are all inter-related."

Each of the family units, or bands, would oversee a specific hunting and farming territory. A Tonto Apache knew his well-defined hunting ground like the back of his hand. Every place had a name, and every name contained a story. Within his own area he felt the power of each place, and there he was master of the hunt. These place-name stories were vital to him because they told how to live the good life and how to subsist in this location. The older members of the family had given them to him from the time he was a child. He would pass them on to his children's children. If he transgressed into the hunting ground of another band, he lost his power and felt helpless. This was not his land; these were not his stories. If he did not know the stories or the place names in another band's territory, how could he know where the elk ran or where the berries grew? He could lose his way.

However, not all the seasonal produce could be counted on unless a family did venture outside their traditional boundaries This required permission of the neighboring band. These frequent migrations added to the genetic mix among Yavapai and Apache. Friendly trade and intermarriage between the bands led to alliances, and they would come together when necessary to vigorously defend the entire territory against intrusion from other cultures, white or Indian.

Next: The Stories of Places

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