Apache & Navajo

From around the 10th century A.D. the Southern Athapascans societies (ancestors of historic and modern Apache and Navajos) started their migration from the north, from southwestern and central Canada. They came to the fringes of the Southwest in the mid of the 13th century AD, and in a sense they begin to dominate many areas of the Southwest at least from the 15th century AD, pushing farmers into microregions already whittled down by environmental and climate changes. In the historical period, Spanish and later American sources often record hostile relations between the nomadic Apache and Navajo, and the agricultural Ancestral Pueblo societies, but these varied through time.

The once lively discussion about when the first Athapaskans appeared in the Southwest was revived a few years ago by new discoveries and the verification of older studies on two sites in the northern fringes of the Southwest—the Promontory caves in Utah near the Great Salt Lake and Salt Lake City, and the Franktown Cave on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains near Denver in central Colorado. These studies may shed new light on when the Athapaskans first appeared farther south, practically in the heart of the Southwest.

The discovery of the Franktown and Promontory sites sheds new light on the arrival of the Athapaskans in the Southwest and tells us a great deal about the potential routes of migration from the north. The main route probably led through present-day Idaho and Wyoming where it may have split into two, with one route running through what is now Utah—a branch associated with the Promontory site (Navajo are known to have lived there later) and the other through the eastern part of the Rocky Mountains through which the proto-Apache may have migrated. Routes along mountain ridges including the Ute Trail led through the alpine tundra zone of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and through Rocky Mountain National Park, often at altitudes approaching or exceeding 3,500 meters above sea level. The route has been known since the Paleoindian period and was used until relatively late by the Ute, Apache, and Arapaho during the historic period.

From the turn of the fifteenth century, the Apache were undisputedly present in the area of today’s Rocky Mountains National Park. For several centuries, the Apache and Utes seem to have taken advantage of the environmental resources of the valleys and mountains during the summer months. The Apache however are thought to have lived in the eastern fringes of the mountains during the winter while the Ute inhabited the western area. This coexistence of these two groups of hunter-gatherers continued uninterrupted until 1725 when the Shoshone and Comanche (other Numic speaking groups linguistically related to the Ute) arrived and disrupted the Ute-Apache relationships. The presence of the first Apache on the fringes of the Southwest is associated also with the so-called Dismal River culture that includes sites from eastern Colorado, western Kansas, southeastern Wyoming, and southwestern Nebraska.

More information about the Athapaskans, in particular the Navajo appears in written sources from the seventeenth century which refer to their conflicts with the Pueblo, Ute, and Spaniards. Recognizing that the Navajos had learned how to breed sheep, goats, horses, and cattle, piqued Spanish curiosity and the Navajo would come to rely more on a pastoral economy, which has to some extent continued until today. Today Navajo nation (more than 330 thousand people) has the largest reservation in US, covering ca. 78 000 square kilometers in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Apache have few reservations in Arizona (White Mountain, San Carlos and few smaller ones) and two in New Mexico (Jicarilla in northern part of the state and Mescalero in southern NM). They maintain many traditions and beliefs, among others Sunrise Dance ceremony still conducted by Apache and Nightwish ceremony by the Navajos.

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