Apache Bands And Clans



The Story of the Tonto Apache, Chapter 7

The central mountains of Arizona offered a wide variety of climates, and the Tontos migrated to warmer lowlands in winter and cooler uplands in summer. Gathering parties would go out from base camps, or rancherias, to follow the procession of the harvest. This often required entering the territory of a neighboring band, but as long as there was an abundance of food, such intrusions were acceptable.


The Bear Clan symbols have been stylized for modern art pieces and jewelry. Every Apache belongs to the clan of his or her mother. Clans originate in specific locations, which are their homes.

In the spring there were the hearts of agave to be roasted in fire-pits. In early summer there were cactus fruits and mesquite beans; in late summer the corn and squash was ready along the streams; in the fall piƱon nuts and acorns were harvested. All this kept the people on the move.

Socializing at common gathering places was a welcome time of exchange. A period of drought would send the Tontos toward the Salt and Black Rivers to mingle with other Western Apache groups, or west to the Verde River for more mixing with the Yavapai.

Times of drought thus became a signal for greater migrations and genetic exchanges. Each band was subdivided into local family groups and each local group had a chief, or headman, chosen by mutual agreement. He directed the cooperative activities of raiding, food gathering and dealing with other bands. Each local group was composed of two to six family clusters and together, as an extended family, they formed an effective cooperative with a division of labor.

The men would hunt, raid, fight wars and do the heaviest work. The women would care for the livestock, prepare the food, care for the children, and make the household implements. They also gathered the wild foods and did most of the agricultural work, as well as build the family house, called a gowa. The word is adopted from a Yavapai word gwa-bun-yav, that literally means "family."

The dwelling was 10 to 12 feet in diameter and looked like an inverted cone. The framework was made of slender poles stuck into the ground in a circle, bent together and tied at the top. Branches, bear grass or hides were spread over this frame. There was a vent at the top for the fire smoke. The floor was dug down several inches and the dirt piled around the perimeter inside and out. A common word for these dwellings is wickiup, but that term was brought west by the Anglos who heard it from Sac and Fox Indians.

The children of the local group all related as brothers and sisters, though most of them were cousins. Each Apache belonged to his or her mother's clan, tracing his or her relationship through a maternal line of ancestors. That line would go back to someone who had established a farm at the clan's legendary place of origin. In the matrilineal social structure of the Tontos, the husband would go to live with his wife's family. A matrilineal social organization designates the line of descent and kinship through the mother instead of the father. Because one's clan was officially that of his or her mother, a Tonto Apache could have clan-kin among other Apache tribes.

Clan members had mutual responsibility for each other and were obligated to come on summons to help defend or avenge one another. This meant that when necessary assistance could be drawn from beyond one's own band. Everyone also knew they were liable to suffer revenge from another clan for the misdeeds by one of their own members. Thus an individual was always conscious that his or her safety and survival rested on being a loyal part of the clan, and he or she would carefully weigh actions which might bring revenge from other groups.

The primary deterrent from attack by others was to have a record of strong defense. If a clan was known for defending its rights and never tolerating the slightest infraction, then the chances were good that others would leave it alone. To be violent in response to infringements on the rights of a clan member was a key to survival. The only possible reason a person or clan would not defend their rights would be looked upon as weakness. Apaches neither considered or understood the concept of love for enemies and forgiveness. Weakness or the appearance of weakness was a stigma, to be avoided at all costs. Since survival was always marginal for hunter-gatherers, life was lived by nature's law of survival of the fittest. It followed that the temptation was strong to violate any group that appeared to be weak. They were easy prey, not worthy of living in this wilderness setting, and one could feel justified in eliminating them.

Not only did clan membership lend strength to the family group, but also it enabled one to travel in the territories of other bands, accepting safe passage, food and lodging because of kinship in a given clan.

Common facial features, mannerisms and dress were subtle proofs of clan membership. A special width or tilt to a head band could be the identifying mark. More obvious clan signs came in drawings of the clan's sacred animal or other symbols painted on the body, clothing or utilitarian vessels.

The clan also served to regulate marriage and prevent inbreeding. No one could marry a member of their mother's clan or one of several related clans, though it was permissible to marry someone of their father's clan.

Next: Tonto Apache Religion

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