The Religion Of The Tonto Apache

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The Story of the Tonto Apache, Chapter 8

Tonto Apaches all belong to a clan, and each clan claims a distinct geographical area as its ancestral home. Over the generations clan members spread out from those areas, but somewhere in the soul of each there is a claim upon that place as "home." The collective name for the area around Payson is Tehgotsudn, called "the place of the yellow land," referring to the crumbling yellow granite. These families call themselves the T'e'go'tsuk' clan, "People of the yellow speckled water."

Other Tonto clan locations in the Rim Country include the Sierra Ancha near Young and Roosevelt called "the place where cedars come out to a point," or the Gatcheateen clan. West of Payson, along the East Verde River, is the origin of the Nogozukn, "line scratched in the earth" or "people of the crooked waters." The clan from lower Tonto Creek near Gisela are from the Si'edegi'een', or "A very sandy place."

Lands, bands and clans were basic to the Tonto Apache's way of life, but so was religion. One of the soldiers posted at the 1871 Rio Verde Reservation, a Sergeant Walker whose scrapbook is in the Sharlot Hall Museum, Prescott, made a comment about the Tontos that is frequently reflected in the writings of 19th and early 20th century historians. "These people have absolutely no religion. They believe neither in God nor in the Devil. They say that these ideas come from white men and are not true." However, he went on to describe their symbolic accoutrements, such as the prayer sticks and painted crosses used by medicine men. The symbol of the cross was confusing to white men who did not realize it represents the four sacred directions, and that each quadrant represents a heaven or hereafter place. A cross with a red circle around it represents the Giver of Life and the sunlight that is God's radiance and gift. These symbols and names for holy spirits were just too much for the white man to comprehend, enmeshed as he was in his own symbolism. "I regard these," said Walker, "rather as toys than as symbols of faith. I do not think that they (the Apache-Yavapai) believe anything."

The fact is Apache religion gave rise to lofty virtues such as chastity, speaking the truth, courage and loyalty. It was with almost complete ignorance of Apache culture that European-Americans questioned the faith of the N'de, "The People." Yet the Apaches believed their ancestors had climbed up from the underworld on an agave stalk with as much certainty as Christians believed in the historical Jesus or the Genesis story of Creation. "God" in Apache is Ussen (variously spelled in English Yusn or Usen), The Life Giver. He created the universe and Changing Woman (the mother of the race), as well as her sons (Child Born of Water and Killer of Enemies). These two brothers prepared the Earth for N'de by killing many monsters.

It is true that the English word "religion" has no Apache equivalent. What white men did not understand is that faith in the supernatural is inseparable from the Apache's daily life. Every animate and inanimate object in nature is endowed with a living spirit, and that spirit is treated with respect just as one treats another human being with respect. The Source of all life, including the spirits, is the one God, Ussen, to whom one owes thanksgiving for everything, and to whom one directs daily prayers. Of course, Apache worship forms differ from those of European culture, so whites did not always recognize devotion when they saw it. Apache prayers are in the form of songs and chants, dances and symbolic acts, rising smoke and lived virtues. All of life is a prayer to Ussen, thus religion is not something set apart from the common things of every day, as it tends to be in European culture.

This pervasive spiritual outlook is embodied in the language and ceremonies of the Apache, and is not something he would share with the White man. When invaders of his land questioned him on the significance of his acts of faith, or the sacred places he went to conduct rituals of prayer, the Apache was silent. Although a family band had no fixed place of residence in their wide-ranging territory, they did have fixed places known to be sacred. Devotion to these holy places and the spirits that inhabited them gave the Apache family its roots, and often became seasonal places of residence. These holy places were known to be the dwellings of various Mountain Spirits, or Men of the Mountain, called Gaan. They play for the Apache a similar role as angels, saints and the Holy Spirit in Christian belief. The Giver of Life knew how vulnerable human beings were in their struggle to live the good life, so he sent the Gaan as his representatives to teach them the right way. From them Apaches learned how to live the best way, how to hunt, heal their infirmities, how to plant and harvest, as well as how to discipline those who fall short of Ussen's design. Disgusted by human failure, the Gaan retreated to the other world and stationed themselves at the four cardinal points of the compass. However, in their benevolence, they still return through sacred caves in the mountains to teach, bless and chastise The People.

Next: Apache Power

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