Arizona residents will long remember the Rodeo-Chediski Fire of June 2002. It consumed 468,638 acres along with many homes and businesses. It was the most expensive, devastating fire to that date in the state’s recorded history. (1)
However, the name “Chediski” originally denoted a mountain on the White Mountain Indian Reservation. Nearby is the birthplace of the western-most family of Apaches, the Oak Creek Band. There, lost to most whites, except for adventurous hikers and historians, the Oak Creek Apache raised corn and squash along the banks of Oak Creek and Canyon Creek (2).
The Apache name, Chediski, means either white mountain that sits back alone or a solid object that juts out. The name is often applied to the band of Apaches who call the area their home.
Until the 1860s the several western bands of the White Mountain Apaches had continued to live as their grandparents had. They hunted, gathered natural fruits from the land and raised corn and squash along the banks of several streams. They also carried on trade with Navajo and Zuni people north of them. Anglo and Mexican cloth, weapons, and metal tools were obtained by those tribes that had already established contact with invading groups in Arizona and New Mexico. These things were desired by the Apaches in exchange for hides and basketry. White traders, like the infamous freighter Solomon Barth from New Mexico, were venturing to trade in the Apache territories.
The peaceful attitude of these Apache bands was due in part to their isolation, not fearing white encroachment and “to their band chiefs who counseled the people to avoid the kind of trouble that Apache bands to the south and east were having with Anglos.” (3)
One lovely October day in 1997 the archaeologist and sacred site protector for the White Mountain tribe, Dr. John Welch, took several of us history buffs in his trusty, old Blazer on an adventurous ride over the mountains to Chediski Farms. The trip took us through several small settlements, each of which was the home ground for an Apache family, or band, and each was centered along a stream. These streams provided the fertile soil for crops of corn and squash. Each area has a small mountain, butte or peak nearby, and the bands have stories to tell regarding the invasion of the armies of white soldiers. We passed Cedar Creek, then north to Carrizo, then west to Cibecue where the Apache rebellion and outbreak of 1881 began.
The Cibecue and Oak Creek people have held on to their heritage more tenaciously than some other Apache groups. The children speak Apache at home and on the playground, partially due to a culture renaissance that has been going on in the tribe.
Our guide informed us that their dialect is richer than the White Mountain dialect. They are closer to the original language and have incorporated fewer changes in their traditions during the last century. This may be partially due to their isolation. It took us nearly half a day to go the few miles over very rough terrain in the old Blazer. We drove up and down the hills of this gorgeous wilderness, where the southwest corner of Navajo County overlaps the reservation. Not much farther west or south of Chediski, the Oak Creek/Cibecue territory becomes Tonto Apache territory. We were told that they often made fun on the Tonto people behind their backs claiming, “they sound like babies, sort of gurgle their words.” (4)
Crossing Oak Creek (of course this is not the creek by that name near Sedona) we came soon to Canyon Creek and the Chediski Farms. Strung out along the several creeks the so-called farms are “a string of pearls” — that is the term local residents used for their productive gardens. The Apache camps in these isolated valleys were worked up until the 1960s, but the beguiling call of civilization has resulted in these farms being abandoned. The Chediski Fire further made this beautiful area uninhabitable and it will be many generations before the wonderful forest and ground cover returns to its former beauty.
When we had reached Canyon Creek and the Chediski Farms area we were almost in Gila County. At this point Canyon Creek takes on Ellison Creek, named for pioneer rancher Jesse W. Ellison.
At first, in 1885, this pioneer had settled under the Mogollon Rim, just west on Tonto Creek, and the spring fed flow in that canyon was named Ellison Creek. However in 1895 he sold his claim, called “The Apple Farm,” to the Haught family, and moved to stake a claim east of the town of Young in Pleasant Valley. One of the creeks on this large ranch became another Ellison Creek and here for generations the Tonto Apaches and Oak Creek-Cibecue people intermingled. Ellison’s “Q” brand became well known and his growing cattle herd called for more cowboys. Ellison found a ready reserve of employees among the Oak Creek Apaches, who often camped on his ranch anyway.
The Apache clan was headed by the Lupe family, and Ellison became something of an arbiter in their disputes. Some of the Apache families even named children after him. When the band’s medicine man John Dazen died, he was replaced by Bill Lupe, who named his first son Ellison.
The Indians traded their corn to Ellison for cattle, and the Oak Creek band developed a fine ability to be cattle ranchers. Jesse Ellison’s grandson, Glenn “Slim” Ellison, writes of the time about 50 Apaches of all ages were camped around the Q Ranch headquarters, with dozens of little camp fires burning. A steer was roped and shot for the campers to eat, and Slim wrote, “In fifteen minutes after the beef was killed and skinned, there was only a wet spot where it had laid. The Indians cut it in chunks and was running it to their camps. The guts was cut in pieces, then thrown on the fire. Some of the Indians were so hungry they’d get a gut off the fire the chew on one end. They were starving. They were supposed to get rations from Fort Apache, but sometimes there was only a little for those who lived a good distance from the fort ...” (5)
This comment by one who was there may give more insight into why the Chediski Farms of the Oak Creek people were abandoned. The extreme isolation, the increasing dependence on white government and the availability of employment like the Q Ranch made the old ways seem less desirable.
Next: Chevelon Canyon
Total acreage sand destruction surpassed the Rodeo-Chediski Fire by the Wallow Fire, in June 2011.
Oak Creek rises on the southern flanks of Chediski Mountain, and flows into Canyon Creek. Ellison Creek, named for the Ellison family of Pleasant Valley, flowed into Canyon Creek some miles before the junction with Oak Creek.
Fort Apache Scout Dispatches: Chapters In White Mountain and Cibecue Apache History by Lori Davisson, page 72, an unpublished manuscript assembled and edited by Dr. John Welch.)
Much of the information in this article is from John R. Welch, Associate Professor in the Department of Archaeology and the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C. He has worked with the White Mountain Apache Tribe for more than 25 years, serving as the Tribe’s Historic Preservation Officer from 1992 to 2005. Welch’s current collaborations center on cultural heritage issues at the interface of sovereignty and stewardship — the practical and political decisions and dynamics that determine what is to be carried forward into the future.
Cowboys Under The Rim, by Slim Ellison. His unique, cowboy dialect has been edited here for better understanding.