The Apache and Navajo tribal groups of the North American Southwest speak related languages of the Athabaskan language family. Other Athabaskan-speaking people in North America reside in a northern range from Alaska through west-central Canada, and some groups are found along the Northwest Pacific Coast. Linguistic similarities indicate the Navajo and Apache were once a single ethnic group.
Archaeological and historical evidence seems to suggest the Southern Athabaskan entry into the American Southwest was sometime after AD 1000. Their nomadic way of life complicates accurate dating, primarily because they constructed less-substantial dwellings than other Southwestern groups. Since the early 21st century, substantial progress has been made in dating and distinguishing their dwellings and other forms of material culture. They left behind a more austere set of tools and material goods than other Southwestern cultures.
The Athabaskan-speaking group probably moved into areas that were concurrently occupied or recently abandoned by other cultures. Other Athabaskan speakers, perhaps including the Southern Athabaskan, adapted many of their neighbors' technology and practices in their own cultures. Thus sites where early Southern Athabaskans may have lived are difficult to locate and even more difficult to firmly identify as culturally Southern Athabaskan. Recent advances have been made in the regard in the far southern portion of the American Southwest.
There are several hypotheses concerning Apachean migrations. One posits that they moved into the Southwest from the Great Plains. In the early 16th century, these mobile groups lived in tents, hunted bison and other game, and used dogs to pull travois loaded with their possessions. Substantial numbers of the people and a wide range were recorded by the Spanish in the 16th century.
In April 1541, while traveling on the plains east of the Pueblo region, Francisco Coronado referred to the people “dog nomads.” He wrote:
- "After seventeen days of travel, I came upon a 'rancheria' of the Indians who follow these cattle (bison). These natives are called Querechos. They do not cultivate the land, but eat raw meat and drink the blood of the cattle they kill. They dress in the skins of the cattle, with which all the people in this land clothe themselves, and they have very well-constructed tents, made with tanned and greased cowhides, in which they live and which they take along as they follow the cattle. They have dogs which they load to carry their tents, poles, and belongings."
The Spanish described Plains dogs as very white, with black spots, and “not much larger than water spaniels.” Plains dogs were slightly smaller than those used for hauling loads by modern Inuit and northern First Nations people in Canada. Recent experiments show these dogs may have pulled loads up to 50 lb (20 kg) on long trips, at rates as high as two or three miles per hour (3 to 5 km/h). The Plains migration theory associates the Apachean peoples with the Dismal River culture, an archaeological culture known primarily from ceramics and house remains, dated 1675–1725, which has been excavated in Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and western Kansas.
Although the first documentary sources mention the Apache, and historians have suggested some passages indicate a 16th century entry from the north, archaeological data indicate they were present on the plains long before this first reported contact.
A competing theory posits their migration south, through the Rocky Mountains, ultimately reaching the American Southwest by the 14th century or perhaps earlier. An archaeological material culture assemblage identified in this mountainous zone as ancestral Apachean has been referred to as the "Cerro Rojo complex". This theory does not preclude arrival via a plains route as well, perhaps concurrently, but to date the earliest evidence has been found in the mountainous Southwest.
Only the Plains Apache have any significant Plains cultural influence, while all tribes have distinct Athabaskan characteristics. The descriptions of peoples such as the Mountain Querecho and the Apache Vaquero are vague and could apply to many other Plains tribes. The specific traits of these groups do not seem particularly Apachean. Additionally, Harry Hoijer's classification of Plains Apache as an Apachean language has been disputed.
When the Spanish arrived in the area, trade between the long established Pueblo peoples and the Southern Athabaskan was well established. They reported the Pueblo exchanged maize and woven cotton goods for bison meat, and hides and materials for stone tools. Coronado observed the Plains people wintering near the Pueblo in established camps. Later Spanish sovereignty over the area disrupted trade between the Pueblo and the diverging Apache and Navajo groups. The Apache quickly acquired horses, improving their mobility for quick raids on settlements. In addition, the Pueblo were forced to work Spanish mission lands and care for mission flocks; they had fewer surplus goods to trade with their neighbors.
In 1540 Coronado reported that the modern Western Apache area was uninhabited, although some scholars have argued that he simply did not see the American Indians. Other Spanish explorers first mention "Querechos" living west of the Rio Grande in the 1580s. To some historians, this implies the Apaches moved into their current Southwestern homelands in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Other historians note that Coronado reported that Pueblo women and children had often been evacuated by the time his party attacked their dwellings, and that he saw some dwellings had been recently abandoned as he moved up the Rio Grande. This might indicate the semi-nomadic Southern Athabaskan had advance warning about his hostile approach and evaded encounter with the Spanish. Archaeologists are finding ample evidence of an early proto-Apache presence in the Southwestern mountain zone in the 15th century and perhaps earlier. The Apache presence on both the Plains and in the mountainous Southwest indicate that the people took multiple early migration routes.
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“The Apache have a legend that the coyote brought them fire and that the bear in his hibernations communes with the spirits of the overworld and later imparts the wisdom gained thereby to the medicine men.”
—Administration in the State of Arizona, U.S. public relief program (1935-1943)