Sacred Apache Crown Dance Celebrates Ancient Culture

White Mountain Apache Crown Dancer

White Mountain Apache Crown Dancer Photo by Andy Towle. |

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The Tonto Apache Tribe celebrated the triumph of its long struggle to come home to a portion of their ancestral lands last week with days of celebrations, many private to tribal members — some open to the public. The dance of the masked Apache Crown Dancers were among the most vivid events, a public version of a deeply sacred ceremony with deep roots in Apache culture.

The dancers impersonate the G’an Mountain Spirits, the guardians and guides for the people in traditional Apache culture. Anthropologist Morris Edward Opler wrote a vivid, foundational account of these ceremonies in their full cultural context. Originally published in 1941, “An Apache Life-Way” remains an invaluable introduction to many elements of Apache culture and spiritual belief.

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White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers at Tonto Apache recognition Days

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White Mountain Apache Crown Dancer

Many dances involved the masked G’an, skillful dancers who impersonated these sacred spirits and so became so imbued with power that it was dangerous to touch them as they danced, according to Opler’s account. So the dances also employed clowns, who cavorted and carried messages from the enthusiastically participating audience to the dancers and back again. The clowns expressed the irrepressible, delighted Apache sense of humor. And the dances — and dancers — drew their meaning and energy from the culture’s pervasive spirituality, mindful of the energy and spiritual power that imbued rocks, trees, animals and the whole world with meaning and consciousness. The spiritual practice of traditional Apache culture pervaded everything and so also found expression in the details of everyday life.

The traditional Apache culture honored a personal freedom and individualism, while also stressing the sacred obligation to the group. The G’an dancers perfectly captured that mixture, with each dancer developing their own style and steps and sequence — within an ancient framework. The drummers and callers and singers also expressed their individual artistry, with the dancers reacting quickly, creatively and individually to the almost improvisational shifts of the singers. Some sets of songs and rhythms left the dancers free to improvise — the so-called “free step” songs. Some recurred them to stop and dance in place.

Opler offers a wonderful account of the preparations, complete with songs to accompany the preparations — and the performances.

Apache Song

Man from a distant land,

Why do you talk to me?

Why do you talk to me?

Why do you talk to me?

What have you done for me

But just talk to me?

Apache Life-Way — Morris Opler

In-Place Song

I come to White Painted Woman,

By means of long life I come to her.

I come to her by means of her blessing,

I come to her by means of her good fortune,

I come to her by means of all her different fruits;

By means of the long life she bestows, I come to her;

By means of this holy truth she goes about.

I am about to sing this song of yours,

The song of long life.

Sun, I stand here on the earth with your song;

Moon, I have come in with your song.

Apache Life-Way — Morris Opler

Free-step song

At the place called

“Home in the Center of the Sky”

Inside is the home’s holiness.

The door to the home is of white clouds.

There all the Gray Mountain Spirits

Rejoicing over me

Kneel in the four directions with me.

When first my power was created,

Pollen’s body, speaking my words,

Brought my power into being,

So I have come here.

Apache Life-Way — Morris Opler

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