Native American Culture

by Sean N. Bennett

Apache Culture

Creation Story

As told by Geronimo (Chief of the Apaches) in his own words

In the beginning the world was covered with darkness. There was no sun, no day. The perpetual night had no moon or stars.

There were, however, all manner of beasts and birds. Among the beasts were many hideous, nameless monsters, as well as dragons, lions, tigers, wolves, foxes, beavers, rabbits, squirrels, rats, mice, and all manner of creeping things such as lizards and serpents. Mankind could not prosper under such conditions, for the beasts and serpents destroyed all human offspring.

All creatures had the power of speech and were gifted with reason.

There were two tribes of creatures: the birds or the feathered tribe and the beasts. The former were organized wider their chief, the eagle.

These tribes often held councils, and the birds wanted light admitted. This the beasts repeatedly refused to do. Finally the birds made war against the beasts.

The beasts were armed with clubs, but the eagle had taught his tribe to use bows and arrows. The serpents were so wise that they could not all be killed. One took refuge in a perpendicular cliff of a mountain in Arizona, and his eyes (changed into a brilliant stone) may be see in that rock to this day. The bears, when killed, would each be changed into several other bears, so that the more bears the feathered tribe killed, the more there were. The dragon could not be killed, either, for he was covered with four coats of horny scales, and the arrows would not penetrate these. One of the most hideous, vile monsters (nameless) was proof against arrows, so the eagle flew high up in the air with a round, white stone, and let it fall on this monster's head, killing him instantly. This was such a good service that the stone was called sacred. They fought for many days, but at last the birds won the victory.

After this war was over, although some evil beasts remained, the birds were able to control the councils, and light was admitted, Then mankind could live and prosper. The eagle was chief in this good fight: therefore, his feathers were worn by man as emblems of wisdom, justice, and power.

Among the few human beings that were yet alive was a woman who had been blessed with many children, but these had always been destroyed by the beasts. If by any means she succeeded in eluding the others, the dragon, who was very wise and very evil, would come himself and eat her babes.

After many years a son of the rainstorm was born to her and she dug for him a deep cave. The entrance to this cave she closed and over the spot built a camp fire. This concealed the babe's hiding place and kept him warm. Every day she would remove the fire and descend into the cave, where the child's bed was, to nurse him; then she would return and rebuild the camp fire.

Frequently the dragon would come and question her, but she would say, I have no more children; you have eaten all of them.

When the child was larger he would not always stay in the cave, for he sometimes wanted to run and play. Once the dragon saw his tracks. Now this perplexed and enraged the old dragon, for he could not find the hiding place of the boy; but he said that he would destroy the mother if she did not reveal the child's hiding place. The poor mother was very much troubled; she could not give up her child, but she knew the power and cunning of the dragon, therefore she lived in constant fear.

Soon after this the boy said that he wished to go hunting. The mother would not give her consent. She told him of the dragon, the wolves, and serpents; but he said, To-morrow I go.

At the boy's request his uncle (who was the only man then living) made a little bow and some arrows for him, and the two went hunting the next day. They trailed the deer far up the mountain and finally the boy killed a buck. His uncle showed him how to dress the deer and broil the meat. They broiled two hind quarters, one the child and one for his uncle. When the meat was done they placed it on some bushes to cool. Just then the huge form of the dragon appeared. The child was not afraid, but his uncle was so dumb with fright that he did not speak or move.

The dragon took the boy's parcel of meat and went aside with it. He placed the meat on another bush and seated himself beside it. Then he said, This is the child I have been seeking. Boy, you are nice and fat, so when I have eaten this venison I shall eat you. The boy said, No, you shall not eat me, and you shall not eat that meat. So he walked over to where the dragon sat and to where the meat back to his own seat. The dragon said, I like your courage, but you are foolish; what do you think you could do? Well, said the boy, I can do enough to protect myself, as you may bind out. Then the dragon took the meat again, and then the boy retook it. Four times in all the dragon took the meat, and after the fourth time the boy replaced the meat he said, Dragon, will you fight me? The dragon said, Yes, in whatever way you like. The boy said, I will stand one hundred paces distant from you and you may have four shots at me with your bow and arrows, provided that you will then exchange places with me and give me four shots. Good, said the dragon. Stand up.

Then the dragon took his bow, which was made of a large pine tree. He took four arrows from his quiver; they were made of young pine tree saplings, and each arrow was twenty feet in length. He took deliberate aim, but just as the arrow left the bow the boy made a peculiar sound and leaped into the air. Immediately the arrow was shivered into a thousand splinters, and the boy was seen standing on the top of a bright rainbow over the spot where the dragon's aim had been directed. Soon the rainbow was gone and the boy was standing on the ground again. Four times this was repeated, then the boy said, Dragon, stand here: it is my time to shoot. The dragon said, All right, your little arrows cannot pierce my first coat of horn, and I have three other coats --shoot away. The boy shot an arrow, striking the dragon just over the heart, and one coat of the great horny scales fell to the ground. The next shot another coat, and then another, and the dragon's heart was exposed. Then the dragon trembled, but could not move. Before the fourth arrow was shot the boy said, Uncle, you are dumb with fear; you have not moved; come here or the dragon will fall on you.His uncle ran toward him. Then he sped the fourth arrow with true aim, and it pierced the dragon's heart. With a tremendous roar the dragon rolled down the mountain side---down four precipices into a canon below.

Immediately storm clouds swept the mountains, lightning flashed, thunder rolled, and the rain poured. When the rainstorm had passed, far down in the canon below, they could see fragments of the huge body of the dragon lying among the rocks, and the bones of this dragon may still be found there.

This boy's name was Apache. Usen taught him how to prepare herbs for medicine, how to hunt, and how to fight. He was the first chief of the Indians and wore the eagle's feathers the sign of justice, wisdom, and power. To him and to his people, as they were created, Usen gave homes in the land of the West.


Apaches originally came from the Athapankan people that historically inhabited present day Alaska and northwestern Canada. Around 1000 A.D to 1500 there was a mass southward migration of Athapaskans people who had broken off from the main group. The Apaches were a part of this off-shoot and would later colonize much of the American Southwest. Within the American Southwest the Apaches lived a nomadic life style easily moving from place to place following water and game.

At the turn of the twentieth century the Apache nation found itself on reservations as with the vast majority of Native Americans living in North America. According to the United States Census Bureau there are currently 63,000 Apaches living in the United states. Most of these Apaches live on reservation in Arizona and in New Mexico. There are however smaller groups in Texas, Oklahoma, and living completely off any reservation. No matter where they live Apaches strive to retain their identity.

Values and Norms

Apache children are taught the value of humility from an early age. This is quite different than the general American culture where there is a competitive nature to be the best instilled in today's youth. It is quite the opposite in Apache culture. For instance: if a teacher spot lights a child for achievements or good behavior, it make them very uncomfortable. They feel it makes look better than others which contradicts their value system. It is much better to quietly and individually complement an Apache away from the group.

Another foundation value in Apache culture is decision making and cooperation. They are taught to work in groups and to make individual decisions that benefit the community as a whole. This value system came into play when the United State Government wanted to store nuclear waste on the Apache reservation. In response to this Joseph Geronimo said:

"Very few of us will be around forty years from now. Our children will be stuck with it. And what would they get for it? Nothing? Our people have made the choice that their traditions and culture is the most important thing in the world, and Grandmother earth is not for sale at any price".(Melody,p. 91)

This type of value system and feelings still reside in many of the Apaches today. It is clearly seen in their land management and conservation efforts.


The Apache are a devoutly religious and spiritual people. According to them the universe is full of power. This power transcends everything we come in contact with such as: people, animals, elements, ideas, etc. This power can be used for good, breathing life into the world around us, or bad, bring disease and death. The Apaches believed that there are special individuals that were gifted with the use of this power. If these special individuals used this power for good they were call Shamans, and reversely, if they used it for evil they were called Witches. This spirituality was interwoven into their every day life. In describing his own religion Geronimo an Apache Shaman said this:

"We had no churches, no religious organizations, no Sabbath day, no holidays, and yet we worshipped. Sometimes the whole tribe would assemble to sing and pray; sometimes in a smaller number, perhaps only two or three.... Sometimes we prayed in silence; sometimes each one prayed aloud; sometimes an aged person prayed for all of us". (Melody, p. 19-20)

Many present day many Apaches have adopted christian beliefs. Along with this the deep spiritual connection and rituals are still a major part of Apache life today.

Sense of Self and Space

Apaches have a deep sense of freedom and connection to the earth. This is rooted in their nomadic history of living off the land. This conviction to freedom and connection to the land kept them resisting the policies of the United States Government. In fact is the Apaches were some of the last Native Americans to conform to the United States policies. Even after being place on the reservation, Apaches continued to fight for their own self government. Today Apaches on the reservation have won the right to have their own tribal government.

Communication Style and Language

There are two main dialects of the Apache language which are Eastern and Western Apache. The Western Apache dialect closely resembles the Navajo language. With this in mind Apaches that speak the Western dialect have a hard time understanding the Eastern dialect and vis versa.

-When asked a question many Apaches may take longer to responded. This wait time allows them to carefully reflect produce an answer.

-Apaches are comfortable with silence. This may make them seem rude or incompetent when they do not respond to a question. This, however, is usually never the case. They may intentionally not respond because they have assessed the situation and feel it more appropriate to remain silent.

-As a sign of respect many Apaches may not look an authority figure in the eye when they are talking to them. This is often misinterpreted as being disrespectful.

Food and Feeding Habits

Historically Apaches were hunters and gatherers. This entailed the men taking on the responsibility of hunting large and small game. They hunted a wide variety of animals from lizards and hares to deer and buffalo. The women also contributed to feeding the community by gathering fruits, nuts, and roots. According to Melody the women's contribution to the food stores was as high a 40 percent. (Melody,p.12) Raiding was also used as a method to obtaining food and supplies. This practice was the main cause of conflict with other Native Americans and non Native American settlers.

Recently there has been a shift from the historically simple low fat diet of the Apaches to a refined highly processed food. Processed food is high in calories and fats. This has cause a nationwide increase in obesity and type two diabetes. This is especially present in the Native American population. According to the American Diabetes Association an estimated 30 percent of all Native Americans and Alaskan Natives have type two diabetes. They have also seen a 68 percent increase in diabetes from 1994 to 2004 in American Indian and Alaska Native youth aged 15-19 years. These finding are attributed to the current American life style and diet. There are numerous theories why Native Americans have such an affinity to developing diabetes, though findings are inconclusive.

Time Consciousness

Relationships and Social Organization

Most of Western society lives in what is called a paternal society, meaning that they trace their ancestry through their father's side of the family. Apaches on the other hand live in a Matrilineal society where they trace there ancestry back through their mothers side of the family. Families that were connected by common ancestor were considered a clan. Along with being a Matrilineal society also meant that husband would join the wife's family and clan. The husband was expected to contribute in providing for his in-laws and their clan. Members from the same clan are not allowed to marry each other. Divorce is allowed if a couple is incompatible or infidelity is involved.


Education and Learning

At the turn of the twentieth century when the majority of Apaches were living on reservations, came the mandatory education of Apache youth in boarding schools. Many Apache families found it difficult to except the new American school system because it was completely foreign to their way of life. Traditionally Apache children are taught through modeling and through trial and error. They are uncomfortable in demonstrating a skill until it is mastered. This style of thinking is opposite of traditional American way of teaching, where demonstration is used as a tool to master certain subjects. Boarding schools with traditional American way of teaching were not effective. This however, started to change in 1968 when President Lyndon B, Johnson proposed that to the United States should not try to assimilate Native American into mainstream society, but allow them to govern themselves. Since then and in recent years education has been geared more toward Apaches culture and way of thinking though large improvements are still needed. This fact is apparent by a recent article done in the U.S News stating that only 51 percent of all Native American seniors graduated in 2010.

However, many who have graduated for high school, have gone on to attend college at Arizona State University. Many of them return to the reservation to build businesses and support their communities.

Work Habits and Practices


As a Registered Nurse (RN), it would be important to recognize:

1.That your Apache Indian patients may not look at you when you are talking to them. This does not mean that they are not listening. It is a sign of respect and that they are listening.

2. Apache culture is comfortable with silence. They may not respond immediately to questions a Healthcare professional asks them. Be patient for a response.

3. Be considerate of the whole family when giving care to an Apache patient. They have very tight knit family structure.

See Also



Native American Complications

The Match Between Apache Indians’ Culture And Educational Practices Used In Our Schools: From Problems To Solutions

Apache Indian Language

Graduation Rates Dropping Among Native American Students

Melody,M,E.(2006). The Apache, Indians or North America. New York: Chelsea House Publishers


Melody,M,E.(2006). The Apache, Indians or North America. New York: Chelsea House Publishers

External Links


Sean N. Bennett, RN, MSN - Assistant Professor - Utah Valley University - Orem, Utah

D. Griffin Briem, Rn

Salt Lake Temple