Reclaiming Land and Spirit in the Western Apache Homeland
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The American Indian Quarterly 25.1 (2001) 5-12

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Native Voices
An Informal Collection of Papers
Presented at the AAA Meeting, November 2000
Compiled By June-El Piper

Reclaiming Land and Spirit in the Western Apache Homeland

John R. Welch and Ramon Riley

Many American Indian tribes are today expanding the use of their homelands beyond natural resource extraction and tourism, by turning back to their land as a source of pride, orientation, and strength. Our topic is the Ndee, also known as the Western Apache of what is today called Arizona. We discuss the indivisibility of Ndee land and culture, the historical forces that operated unsuccessfully to alienate the Ndee from their land, and how the Ndee are returning elements of their geographical, cultural, and linguistic heritage to a central place of honor while addressing contemporary challenges.

If there is a single nugget of insight to harvest from our discussion, it is from the first lesson that Welch learned from then-White Mountain Apache Tribal Council Chairman Ronnie Lupe: the deceptively simple Apache word ni'. A small word, to be sure, but a potent one. Its potency derives from multiple meanings and the somewhat elusive link between two meanings.

In the Apache language ni' means both land and mind, that is, country and way of thinking. This is no accident or random convergence. For the Apache people, as for many other Native Americans - to borrow a bit recklessly from the great anthropologist, Levi-Strauss - land is good to walk and good to think. The inseparability of land and thought, of geography and memory, and of place and wisdom has long been recognized by non-Indians. For a much longer period - since time immemorial, in fact - this unity has been put to work by Ndee, Dineh, and other people who possess spirits embedded in their place of living. What is relatively new and worth emphasizing is how this concept is at last receiving the attention it deserves from resource managers, from linguistic preservationists and cultural perpetuationists, and from historians, archaeologists, astronomers, tribal advocates, and teachers, to name just a few.

How the Land Was Lost

To honor this vital link between place and people fully, one must know something of the Ndee homeland, centered on the spectacular reservation lands occupied [End Page 5] by the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache tribes. This rugged area north of the Gila River was the exclusive province of the indomitable Apache until 1870. It is a magnificent place in which to travel and to dwell. The 1.7 million-acre Fort Apache Reservation, the place that White Mountain Ndee have called home since time immemorial, ranges from Hudsonian life zones and high-altitude cienegas at almost 11,500 feet, through more than 600,000 acres of commercial forest, descending via about eight hundred miles of perennial streams into the piñon-juniper woodland belt where most of the rapidly expanding population of about fourteen thousand White Mountain Apache tribal members live.

Below these woodlands the country breaks up even more into buttes and canyons, before yielding to true desert at the reservation's southwestern border at about 2,500 feet. To put the place into a contemporary eco-challenge perspective, an adventurous soul could, in mid spring, make a morning's worth of turns at the tribe's Sunrise Park Ski Resort before spending the afternoon plummeting through the Salt River Canyon on a raft or kayak. A brief visit may not allow an outsider to grasp the place, but few leave without an appreciation of the enduring pride Apaches rightfully take in their land, their enduring birthright, and their source of distinctive identity.

But Ndee connections to their land remain vital only in spite of an astoundingly insensitive century of mistreatment of the Western Apache by the U.S. government. 1870 marked the beginning of a sad pause in Apache dominion over their homeland, for this was the date of the establishment of Fort Apache. Seeking a place for a military post that could be used to keep...