The Apache people are generally thought to be consistent of a single tribe of Native American's, but in actuality, the Apaches are an assimilation of various Apachean tribes that are thought to be a subgroup of Athabaskans, migrating south from Canada and Alaskan regions. While most of these bands of Apache tribes were influenced more by the "Plains people" than by the "Puebloan people" like the Navajo were, the Apaches eventually separated, developing their own territory and adapting to the conditions of the local climate and terrain by living off whatever available food sources that they found as they settled throughout the southwest region of the United States. Throughout this time, as they began to establish their own unique tribal belief system, the Apaches accumulated some of the Puebloan and Plains cultural traits into their own.
The present-day Apache people include the Jicarilla, Mescalero, Chiricahua, Western Apache, Lipan-Apache, and Plains-Apache. According to various historical accounts, it seems very likely that other Apache groups existed in North America that are not as historically well-known or documented, so I will provide information from some of the commonalities that manage to reach across different these cultures. For example, the amount of complexity in the cultural division of these tribes can be can be shown by breaking down just one of these subgroups of Apaches, the Western-Apache.
The Western Apaches are the only group, out of those previously mentioned, that remain within the state of Arizona.
(Navajo reservation is shown because they are considered to be a part of that original group of Apachean people.) Apachean Present-Wikipedia
In a comprehensive historical account of the Native American tribes of the southwestern United States, Native Peoples of the Southwest, by Trudy Griffin-Pierce, includes a historical account of the various Apaches people with detailed descriptions of their culture, spiritual beliefs, and even some of their ceremonial practices. As well as being an accomplished writer, Dr. Griffin-Pierce earned her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology in 1987, taught as Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona, and authored multiple books about Native Americans. Often used as a college textbook for anthropology courses, "Native Peoples of the Southwest", provides us with deeper insight and understanding into the Apache way of life, the Mountain Spirit Dance, and briefly mentioning the subtle differences between the tribes.
"The first peoples to arrive on earth were White Painted Woman and her brother, Killer of Enemies. His role was to hunt for food, but every time he killed an animal the Owl Man Giant would swoop down and steal the bounty. He and his sister grew hungrier and hungrier until one day, Life Giver, a spirit, arrived in the form of a thunderstorm. Nine months later White Painted Woman had a baby who was named Child Born of Water. This child grew to be a strong warrior and slew Owl Man Giant in a ferocious fight. These three together helped create the present world." -Alternate Apache Creation Story
"The fusion of Clown and Coyote is not unusual among the Indians of North and Central America, but as yet, this fusion has not been recorded for the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apaches. in fact, the connection was unknown to us until we had worked with them for more than fifteen years. At tat time we learned that both Coyote and Clown are likewise associated by the, with ashes. a connection which, to our knowledge, has been vary rarely reported elsewhere.
Among these Apaches, Clown appears only as a member of the dance team which performs ceremonially; the team is known in Chiricahua as ganheh, in Mescalero as jajadeh, and in English by a variety of names: Crown Dancers, Horn Dancers, Mountain Spirit, Mountain God Dancers, Masked Dancers, and Devil Dancers."
"The role of the Clown in carrying out the educational process for children and the rest of the community was explained - particularly the Clowns' ability to create disorder and order or balance it again, leaving behind a message for the audience on what constitutes personal responsibility in respect to a community's survival." - Chapter 13 from The Sacred - Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life
To the child, the clown can seem to teach by example, or simply, through acting in ways we are not supposed to act. Not only are these concepts fundamental, but these are considered to be part of an individuals' personal responsibility to understand. Ethics and morals would undoubtedly spring from these ideals as well. The value and importance of sharing, working together, modesty, thoughtfulness, and spreading happiness are expressed by the clowns' seemingly wild and chaotic behavior, creating the ever present notion of unbalance amongst the balanced order of tribal rituals. But, at the same time, when you begin to convey the clowns' underlying message that you don't always initially see, balance is restored. Part of the Apaches belief incorporates the notion that certain excesses can make a person sick. This can include those using sacred practices, prayers, or any "special knowledge" to manipulate others for personal gain. So, in a way, the clown serves as a protector to the people against certain kinds of charlatans. They make us think and question our own sense of reasoning. Acting with such erratic behavior can be paralleled to how art or comedy reaches another depth of meaning that can stimulate the emotional responses behind laughter and fear. Most people do not take the time to think why a joke is funny, but quite often comedy can tell us a lot about ourselves and current states of society. The role of the clown is to teach you that very lesson through blatantly not teaching it, and they make us laugh by scaring us a little bit. That is at the heart of comedy, you take a thought or concept that should not be funny or serious, and you find a way to turn it on its' head to make it funny. Thereby, forcing the audience to think in a way that they might not have ever thought before.
Clowns are considered to have the ability to heal and protect from disease, while they have access to the same knowledge as the medicine society, the clowns of the Western Apache prefer to prescribe "medicine" or methods displaying more preventative measures. For instance, the clowns contradictory behavior embodies the idea that "evil cannot coexist in a place where happiness already resides". So, this coincides with the notion that part of Clowns' duty is to protect the people from enemies, including those foes posing threats to our very thoughts. We are being protected from any ill causing thoughts by lining our minds with the universal power of laughter and comedy.
The message in comedy might be simple, but it is still capable of deep rooted complexity because the language of humor is universal and can be comprehended by a range of age groups and across cultures. In many different types of cultures throughout history, the comedian reflects everyday life and the common pitfalls associated with living in the world. The Apache Clown shows us some of these realities of being a person in the world, in his own "crazy" ways, by dramatizing them for us. They show us what is dark so that we may contrast it with what is light. They teach how life can be hard, but at the same time, they are conveying how we can make life easier or more manageable through simply being aware of these common issues.
Clowns must "prepare us for the worst", for catastrophe may lie around the next bend. They reflect this to express the idea that chaotic things may happen to any of us, at any time or place along the "road of life". So, this is where collaboration becomes so evidently important to the ultimate survival of the tribe. Personal responsibility comes into play at the center of social order.
The notions of this kind of Power can be shown in the article by John G Neihardt titled, Black Elk Speaks, in the chapter on the Heyoka Ceremony,
"When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the west, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm" -Chapter 16:Heyoka (Lakota concept of the Sacred Clown) Ceremony.
Some of these early Apache tribal beliefs can be seen today in the Great Seal of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Further explanation behind the symbolism can be found here. While the following is part of that description which pertains to the Crown Dancers,
"The mountain spirits have taught the Apaches to perform the Apache Crown Dance as a means of curing. The crown headdress is be-decked with eagle feathers; the teacher that flew the highest in the Heavens.The signs of lightning are sacred symbols of the Apaches which are placed on the bodies of the Apache Crown Dancers who are instructed by the mysterious mountain spirits to perform healing rituals for the Apaches. The crown dance is authentically performed today." -Tribal Chairman Ronnie Lupe Fort Apache Scout newspaper 10/05/79
"Keeping the rituals of their ancestors alive, male members of the Indian Club at Alchesay High School in Whiteriver, Arizona, rehearse the White Mountain Apache crown dance, in which mountain spirits banish evil and bring good fortune. Some of these kids come from Christian homes, go to church, and learn those traditions, but not the Apache traditions...This is our heritage, and we have to keep it going." -Rosalind Armstrong-Garcia, the group's sponsor, believes the club fills a gap
Photograph by Maggie Steber from the Indian Renaissance feature in National Geographic Magazine
- Powell, Ninth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, p. 477: "Fig. 430.—Rhombus of the Apache."