Big Sycamore Stands Alone: A Book Review
Ian Record is Senior Lecturer for American Indian Studies Department at the University of Arizona. I inadvertently discovered his 2008 book while shopping at Petroglyphs in the Lost Barrio.
The full title is Big Sycamore Stands Alone: The Western Apaches, Aravaipa, and the Struggle For Place. I was instantly drawn to it because, according to the book’s jacket, it promised to reveal a new and in depth understanding of a proud people who once inhabited all of a large, rugged landscape the Western (aka San Carlos) Apaches call Arapa, a place that has great meaning for them still.
Moreover, the book’s jacket promised to enlighten me as to the history and culture of a people who once flourished in a place within Arapa that Ms. Karen & I consider one of Southern Arizona’s premier treasures: Aravaipa Canyon.
Western Apaches and Their Sense of Place
Arapa includes the Santa Teresa and Galiuro Mountains and two primary rivers, the Gila and San Pedro. Within Arapa is Big Sycamore Stands Alone, a once-pristine place near the western entrance to Aravaipa Canyon about 70 miles north of Tucson. The “Big Sycamore” in the place-name refers to one of our giant Arizona Sycamores that once dominated the landscape there.
Big Sycamore Stands Alone is an English translation of the Apache name for a place in Aravaipa Canyon that was once the center of the Aravaipa & Pinal (Western) Apaches world in pre-reservation days. Even today, almost 150 years after they were forced from this land, Big Sycamore is still central to who they are as a distinct people. It informs them about the ways & wisdom of their ancestors; their relationship to this place; how they once gathered wild edible plants here, such as mescal, berries, nuts, & saguaro fruit; and successfully farmed corn and other crops, and grew bountiful orchards.
The Camp Grant Massacre
The loss of Big Sycamore also reminds them of the worst tragedy that can befall a people; the wholesale slaughter of their women & children and the subsequent loss of their ancestral lands; all the result of a massacre planned, supplied, & led by Tucson’s most prominent citizens in 1871.
Record’s book is particularly revealing as to the motivation of the leaders of the Camp Grant Massacre; a detail I did not clearly understand. They had over 100 defenseless women and children slaughtered for money … lots of money. When it was over, Tucson named streets and parks in their honor … in honor of bigots, cowards, slavers, & mass murderers.
I had researched and written a brief history of this event for Southern Arizona Guide over a year ago, but was anxious to learn more. Having now read Big Sycamore, I have updated my history of the Camp Grant Massacre to incorporate insights learned from Record’s meticulous research.
Ethnography & Beliefs
Big Sycamore is an ethnographic study that weaves personal Western Apache narratives, past and present, with academic research about their economic & social order, as well as their worldview, including their religious & moral perspective; a way of life and points of view almost inconceivable to modern Tucsonans.
Here are just two examples. First, through personal narratives, Big Sycamore explains how Western Apaches justified raiding, meaning stealing and killing, as part of their natural subsistence practices. Ethically, they could only conduct raids on other people who had earned the status of “enemy”.
Secondly, Western Apaches, unlike the Chiracahua Apaches, believed that when one of their warriors killed an enemy in battle, the death released powerful evil forces that rendered the killing warrior immediately contaminated and dangerous to his own people. Thus, having just killed an enemy, the Western Apache warrior would withdraw from the battle and spend a month being purified before he could be fully re-integrated with his band. Clearly such a belief did not render the Western Apaches a particularly formidable fighting force like the Chiricahua Apaches under Cochise and later Geronimo.
Big Sycamore does not proceed entirely in chronological order. Rather it weaves present-day Western Apache narrative with historical records, back and forth. This causes the author to repeat himself too many times, but that repetition may be necessary for some readers to keep abreast of the somewhat convoluted storyline. However, when Record is on a particular topic, such as Western Apache’s attachment to Arapa and the Massacre’s legacy to the present day, he is quite clear and enlightening.
Record is at his best putting context to the Western Apache’s narrative. He’s a professor, so it comes as no surprise that Big Sycamore is sometimes academic, particularly at the beginning.
But the Western Apache’s narratives shine through the pages in amazing detail, clarity, and especially credibility. Not only does Big Sycamore include 65 pages of footnotes, the author worked with the San Carlos (Western) Apaches Council of Elders to produce a highly credible account of their culture and history.
Anyone interested in Southern Arizona history will find Big Sycamore Stands Alone full of valuable insights that add much to our sense of place.
Big Sycamore Stands Alone: highly recommended. Head down to Petroglyphs at the Lost Barrio, and tell them we sent ya, or for you “out-of-towners” find it at Amazon.com below.
Buy the Book
Big Sycamore Stands Alone: The Western Apaches, Aravaipa, and the Struggle for Place (New Directions in Native American Studies series)