A great deal has been written about Chiricahua Apaches, probably because they so completely terrorized settlers for a quarter century (1861-1886) and were the last Native American tribe to surrender to the United States government.
However, most of these books were written by Anglos. No matter how diligent the authors’ research, often the voices of the Chiricahua do not come through to the reader; or if they do, they are often filtered through military records, bureaucratic correspondence, and White ignorance and prejudice. There are two obvious exceptions. One is Geronimo: My Life (Native American), a self-serving autobiography. The other is Eve Ball’s Indeh: An Apache Odyssey, with New Maps, the transcribed recollections of Asa Daklugie, son of Chief Juh and nephew of Geronimo.
White Mountain Apaches
The Western Apaches, aka Tonto or White Mountain Apaches, who settled on the Fort Apache and San Carlos Reservations after they surrendered are not as well known as the Chiricahua. For a variety of reasons, they were easier for General Crook and his army to subdue. In fact, General Crook used White Mountain Apaches as scouts to hunt down renegade Chiricahua Apaches.
But once the Apache Wars were over in the late nineteenth century, the White Mountain Apaches on the Reservations lived in poverty under the authority of White Indian agents. Their children were forced into White run Indian Schools where their culture, history and Indian identity were taken from them. For very good reasons, they had an abiding distrust of White-Eyes.
In 1997, Eva Tulane Watt, a White Mountain Apache born in 1913, came to a long-time acquaintance, anthropologist Keith Basso and told him “You might like to record on tape a few family stories from long years ago.” For the next 5 years, Mrs. Watt, in the kitchen of her home on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, recorded dozens of stories about life and death, and the struggle to endure. She spoke of her childhood memories of hunting, gathering, and preparing meals. She recounted the many times her mother was asked to prepare herbal medicines for sick friends and relatives whom White doctors couldn’t cure.
Once, when asked what “history” means to her, she answered without hesitation:
“It's what was going on long years ago that’s finished with now. For us, it’s mostly stories about our relatives and where they went and all they used to do, and there’s other people in there too. See, long years ago, [my] people were always doing something, always going someplace, so that’s what they talked about and put in their stories. There’s lots of Apaches in there and all they were doing, so you can see what happened to them and know what they were thinking. It’s [history] like their tracks, lots of tracks. Those stories are like people’s tracks.
“Don’t Let The Sun Step Over You” is a window into a world few Americans even knew existed. It is an Apache world with its own values, beliefs, attitudes, vitality and even humor. This book includes about 50 photographs. If you are interested in Arizona Native American history and culture, you will find Mrs. Watt's stories sometimes unsettling, sometimes uplifting, but always direct and engaging.
Keith Basso, who recorded Mrs. Watt’s narratives, is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico and an expert on Apache culture, language, and history.