A Story Of Beginnings



A history of the Tonto Apache -- Chapter 1

The bronzed index finger of the youthful student was holding over a topographic map of Arizona, seeking the exact geographical center. Then, with the guidance of his grandfather, the lad's finger slowly descended and came to rest.


The Butterfly Springs Roasting Pit, located just south of the present-day Payson Airport, was a traditional camp site for the Tonto Apaches before the reservation days. While the hearts of agave were roasting in a deep pit, Apache uncles would pass on the stories of the tribe to the younger generation.

"You are in the heart of your homeland," said the aging man. "Here the Din-eh lived and died, and live again."

"The Din-eh?" quizzed the youth.

"That is the name we call ourselves. You have only heard the name Tonto. The white eyes gave us that name. Some Indian tribes call us Apache, which in their language meant the enemy."

The youth and his grandfather sat together in the shade of a Utah juniper, the map propped on their knees as they leaned against the tree trunk. Around them on the hillside were the modern houses of the small Tonto Apache Reservation in Payson, Ariz., staring like occupants in an amphitheater. The Apache youth could hear the activity from the nearby Mazatzal Casino, beside State Route 87, where a representative headdress of a Spirit Dancer caps the casino entrance. This was a constant reminder of Usen's presence, the Apache name for God.

The boy's grandfather hoped to create in the young Apache an interest in their tribal past. Not many of the younger generation seemed to care, taken up with public school activities, sports, and pressured by the Euro-American culture. They had not learned to speak the language, and with the elimination of the language, the past was rapidly being lost.

Although the genocide of Apaches failed as the goal of 19th century Americans, the elimination of their culture was almost complete by the end of the 20th century. The grandfather knew how important it was to recover the honorable history of the Tonto Apaches, as well as that of the western Yavapai. Families from the two tribes had intermarried over many years.

"This is our land, my son," said the grandfather as his extended arm swept in a broad ellipse. "Our people have lived from the top of the Mazatzal Mountains on the southwest, to the Verde River on the west, across the uplands of the Mogollon Rim on the north, throughout the Sierra Ancha range on the east, and south to the Salt River."

The lad stared for a few moments at the map, considering the landmarks his grandfather had designated. "What does Mazatzal mean?"

His grandfather answered, "Your cousins, the Yavapai, who lived on the west side of the mountains, called them Mazatzark, and held up four fingers for the Four Peaks. Do you remember the Apache word I taught you for mountain?"

"Dzil," replied the boy after touching his forehead with the palm of his hand for memory.

"Some of the white people I have talked to say the name comes from the Aztec language, and Mazatzal means ‘the place of the deer.' But our people called that range ‘Rocks In a Line Of Greenness.' The name comes from a band of our people who lived on the east side of the mountains. They were called ‘Rocks In a Line of Greenness People.'"

The boy's lips moved as he attempted to pronounce the names in Apache. "Our people were here a very long time, weren't they grandfather? Tell me the story again of how we got here."

The grandfather began, "Long ago, after the Gaan made earth and sky, there were no people living on the earth. Underneath there were places where the Red Ants were living, and they were talking about this country up here. The Red Ant chief talked about coming up here, and all the ants decided, ‘All right, let's go up to this new place.'

"There was a big, tall agave stem growing there, up and up to the sky. The Red Ant People began to climb this stalk, and each time they came to a joint they made camp for the night. Up and up they went, until finally the chief told them to look around at this place where they were. There were a lot of good foods growing, and the chief told them to bring those foods into their camp. The people went all over the country for these wild foods, and there was lots to eat. They brought them back, and then they went out again to gather more of the good foods. The chief would sing a song, and every time he sang the song the people would come together again. Finally the chief said, ‘This is your land. Go any where you want, and when the place is good stop there and settle.'

"So this is the place they lived, and those first people were our ancestors, the Red Ants."

The young anthropologist Grenville Goodwin was the first to study the Western Apaches, and this story is based on what he heard from them. In the stories of the Tontos Apaches, The Place of Emergence was considered to be north of their historic territory. As we shall see, this is close to modern scientific understanding.

Next week: Apache Origins

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