Native Skeptic

Native Skeptic
Apache Crown Dancers 1887: http://www.firstpeople.us/photographs2/Apache-Spirit-Dancers-1887.html

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Apache Mountain Spirit Dancers

When I was first deciding on an image for this site, I set out to find one that distinctively stood out from any other. The old looking, worn down, black and white picture that you see at the top of the page, not only reflected just that, but also included a unique personal hint of my own tribal affiliation and relationship to the Apache Crown Dancers. Until now, I have yet to explain some of the meaning behind these eerie and magnificent looking characters.

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 Apache people residing in east central Arizona are known as Western Apache. Most of these Native Americans live within a conglomerate of reservations called the White Mountain, Fort Apache, San Carlos, Yavapai, Tonto, and Fort McDowell Mohave reservations.

The Western Apaches are the only group, out of those previously mentioned, that remain within the state of Arizona.

Western Apache: Northern Tonto, Southern Tonto, San Carlos, White Mountain and Cibecue, which also included Ceder Creek and Carrizo, located north of the Salt River Canyon in between the Tonto and White Mountain tribes.

(Navajo reservation is shown because they are considered to be a part of that original group of Apachean people.) Apachean Present-Wikipedia


The Apache believe that there was once a time when their ancestors lived alongside with supernatural beings. The common belief, even today, is that there are spirits that live within certain mountains and underground realms. Part of the Apache creation story incorporates the belief that they are the blood relatives of the mountains, trees, rocks, and the wind. One of the most important and integral pieces to the beliefs of the Apache is a holy being sometimes referred to as White-Painted Woman, but she also is known as Changing Woman or White Shell Woman. In the beginning, she originally gave birth to two sons, Killer-of-Enemies and Child Born-of-Water and they were said to have ridden the world of evil by killing the evil incarnate monsters, thus making the world safe for the Apache people to live. So, these Mountain Spirit Dancers reflect that story by ensuring the well-being of the people to protect them from not just their enemies, but epidemic diseases as well. The Devil Dancers or Crown Dancers are not considered to be supernatural beings themselves, but simply posses the "special ability" of summoning these mountain spirits. They are a link between the supernatural and natural worlds and they often reflect this in a contradictory fashion. Part of their power is expressed as a "paradox of life". In many Native American cultures, this notion of chaos and disorder is personified as the "trickster", a destructive and simultaneously creative force. In Apache tribes, he is a boy amongst men, in some circles called Libaye, the ritual of "clowning" embodies the Apache beliefs underlying power.

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.

"One of the most important holy being for Apaches is White-Painted Woman, also known as Changing Woman or White Shell Woman. Her sons, Killer of Enemies and Child Born of Water, triumphed over the evils of the world personified as monsters, making the world safe for humans. The Mountain Spirits ensure the well-being of the people by protecting them from epidemic diseases and enemies. The Mountain Spirit Dancers or Crown Dancers "become" these sacred beings in the same way that the Hopi who dance specific katsinam become those katsina spirits. The Western Apache call them the gaan while the Eastern Apache know them as gaa'he. Embodying the Mountain Spirits, they dance at night, bringing the spiritual world into physical manifestation. Their heads crowned with wooden slat headdresses, four Mountain Spirit Dancers and a clown wield their wooden swords as they dance around the fire. The bull-roarer, which is whirled on a length of string to produce a distinctive, resonating sound, drums, and singing accompany their dancing among the Western Apache. The bull-roarer is not used among the Eastern Apache."
In the picture: Apache Bull-roarer (1.)

*The katsinam, which date all the way back to the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, are more commonly known in the form of katshina dolls.*

According to the texts found on the Stav Academy Library, the act of ridding the world of these evil entities of disease and evil incarnated monsters by the "twin sons", or twin spirits, is described by an alternate Apache creation story. This also helps explain some of the meaning behind the other name associated with Child Born-of-Water, Monster Slayer, as known in the Navajo creation story.

(In many Apache ceremonies the following legend is re-enacted. In the coming-of-age rite sometimes the young girls will wear the costume of the White Painted Woman. Before battles some braves would dance the role of Killer of Enemies.)

"The first peoples to arrive on earth were White Painted Woman and her brother, Killer of Enemies. His role was to hunt for f
ood, 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



In the picture, displaying some of the best visual representations of the Apache Crown Dancers that I have come across, is from the gallery of "Native Dancers" titled, Apache Crown by M.J. Alexander, a writer and photographer who documents people and places of the American West, with an emphasis on the very young, the very old, and also including a specific interest in American Indian culture.

While the night sets an excellent background for creating a feeling of mystique, the illusory effects were not the only factor for this setting. For the Apache do not view light or day as being synonymous with what is considered to be "good". For example, the following is from The Clown’s Way by Barbara Tedlock, from Teachings from the American Earth.

"The Jicarilla Apache, however, did not see this sunlight world purely good, but as containing disease; the clown that led them out of the dark earth (thought of as perfectly spiritual and holy) was equipped with a horrible non-human laugh which scared way the sickness on the earth’s surface."


This depicts the underlying power of the clown and part of the fear surrounding it. Another picture from The AZ Daily Sun by Judith Evans/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, gives a little life to that mental image with this extraordinary representation of the Apache clown whirling the bull-roarer with this bronze Apache spirit dancer by Craig Dan Goseyun atop of the Museum Hill campus in the art museum of the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States of America.

While the clown were said to provoke laughter in people to open them up to accept the process of healing, the same concept applied to fear and literally scaring the evil spirits of disease right out of a person. Some of my personal experiences growing up attending these ceremonial dances includes the memory being told to be wary of the clown, because they like to "steal kids away from their parents and place them in their baskets, so they can carry them off to eat them." So, like most Apache children, I was scared of them growing up, to say the least.


Psychoanalyst L. Bryce Boyer and anthropologist Ruth M. Boyer, started documenting field work with Apaches on the Mescalero Indian Reservation in 1957. Their work titled, The Sacred Clown of the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apaches: Additional Data, was published in January of 1983 in Western Folklore. In that article, they provide a little insight into the origins of the Apache Clown and some of the other connotations commonly associated with Apache Crown Dancers,

"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."






To the Apache, the Clown is a sacred being with great Power given to him by Thunder, or the "Thunder-Beings" themselves. He represents just what the power of thunder exacerbates, fear from a tremendous power in the sky, greater than anything that we see on the Earth. In this way, the manner of the Clown "fooling around" is anything but trite, instead, this is a serious spiritual element to the ceremony reflecting the randomness of catastrophe in his seemingly mad behavior, just as nature reminds us of our own mortality from time to time. So, the latter part of his message is to always take the time to enjoy life and its' rewards by constantly reminding us about the ever present potential of experiencing sorrow through separation or even death. The meaning and importance behind love, friendship, family, and community are highlighted when they are placed into this context.

Peggy V. Beck and Anna L. Walters state the following in the summary of their work titled, Sacred Clowns and Fools,

"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

The actions of the Clown help provide different sets of examples for seemingly complex and abstract ways of thinking, not commonly associated with Native American beliefs. Even notions like greed, hoarding, gluttony or selfishness are difficult to convey if that communication process is limited to just words. So, the Clowns , "clown around", by acting out against the social and cultural norms. This "fooling around" is anything but uninspired. When in actuality, these are pivotal teaching tools. Education is far more than about teaching by example, than by teaching with words. By watching adults, children form experiences that shape their neural networks which determine their later 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

In the early 1900's, the Unites States government banned the ritualistic practice of these Native American ceremonial dances, and those that did manage to still go on, were done so against the law in secrecy. For it wasn't until the year of 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed, that these ceremonies were openly re-established amongst the Native American people of the United States.

So, in most cases, Native American ceremonies and healing rituals have lost their meaning amongst the younger generations. But, in the places that do manage to have sacred clowns in tribal societies, they have been able to integrate modern day elements into their culture through these tribal rituals. However, some say that ever since these ceremonial practices were outlawed, they have never been quite the same.



"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







Additional Sources:
  1. Powell, Ninth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, p. 477: "Fig. 430.—Rhombus of the Apache."