Was it something in the collective memory of Athabascan people that recognized the shape, feel and smell of a horse . . . some ghost of a recollection of an all but forgotten time when wild horses swept across the steppes of Asia? Whatever the mystic connection might be, Navajo and Apache people saw the horses of the Conquistadors as a gift of the Creator and adapted them readily to their own uses.
In "They Sang for Horses" LaVerne Harrell Clark wrote: " In Navajo and Apache societies, continual movements within defined territories were essential for their mode of subsistence. With horses, they could make their seasonal rounds, carrying all their goods on pack horses while the entire family rode to the new camp."
Before the introduction of horses, American Indians traveled on foot with dogs dragging their possessions on travois. Once they learned to fight on horseback, they were all but unconquerable.
Apaches, who call themselves N'Dee, "The People," say they have lived in the American Southwest since "time immemorial." It's true. If they came from another place, it was beyond human memory, hidden in the realm of myths and legends. In Navajo mythology the Dine', also meaning "The People," lived in three different worlds before emerging into the present Fourth World.
Although the origins of Navajo and Apache people remain a mystery, evidence suggests that Athabascan-speaking people migrated across the Bering Straits from Asia in small hunter/gatherer groups between BC 1200-800. Their language may be related to ancient Sino-Tibetan languages. Other evidence suggests a linguistic connection with a Siberian people.
According to a Navajo history time line provided by Harrison Lapahie Jr., a Navajo software systems engineer/programmer, the early Dine' arrived in Alaska in four groups: Eyak, Haida, Tlingit and Athabascan. At some point, the Tlingit and Athabascan people separated. From AD 825-1000 cataclysmic volcanic eruptions in Alaska forced many people to move south into Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Lapahie believes the last wave of Athabascans left Alaska AD 1300-1500, following an inland migration route on the east side of the Rocky Mountains into what is now the American Southwest and northern Mexico.
In the Southwest they probably lived for a time with or near Pueblo people, learning how to cultivate corn, beans, squash and other native plants as well as weave cloth and make crude pottery. The newcomers to the Southwest probably traded stories with the Pueblo people, assimilating them into their own myths and legends. Certainly there was intermarriage.
The sacred traditions that seem to be most deeply ingrained in Athabascan culture are the puberty ceremony for girls, songs and prayers for healing, and reverence for the Holy People. In Navajo culture, the girl's ceremony is the kinalda, for Apaches it is the Sunrise Ceremony. The Yei are Navajo spirits who came out of the mountains to help the people; the Apache believe the Ga'an, Mountain Spirits, gave them knowledge of medicine and prayers.
Tree-ring dating places Athabascans in the Southwest by 1350. (Lapahie) They divided into groups that became known as Jicarilla, Mescalero, Chiricahua, Lipan, Aravaipa, Kiowa-Apache and Navajo. Other groups, known collectively as the Western Apache moved into what is now Arizona. The N'Dee ranged freely from the Rio Grande to the Colorado River and from the San Juan River to the Gila. Once they acquired the horse they traveled deep into Mexico, hunted buffalo on the southern Plains, and probably ventured as far as the Pacific Ocean.
Pueblo, Ute, Paiute, Comanche and Hohokam people, known to the Spaniards as Pima and Papago, already inhabited the Southwest. The Apaches and Navajos had to fight for their territory. They were aggressive raiders and warriors. It is believed that Navajo and Apache raiders destroyed Casa Grande Pueblo.
By the time Spain had conquered its North American territory, the Apache people were so dominant Spain called their lands "Apacheria." The Navajo had established their central homeland along the San Juan, Little Colorado and Puerco River drainages. This land, between their four sacred mountains, they called Dinetah.
The word "Apache" probably came from a Zuni word meaning "enemy." Euro-Americans did not differentiate between the Apache and Navajo for a long time. The Dine' were known to Spaniards by a Tewa word, "Nabahu," meaning "people of large cultivated fields." They were usually called "Apaches de Navaju."
Pueblo Indians, having heard rumors of white people on man-eating beasts, were terrified of horses when they first saw them. Not so, the Apache. Pedro de Castaneda, Coronado's chronicler, wrote: "Although they saw our army, they did not move away or disturb themselves in the least. On the contrary, they came out of their tents to scrutinize us." Undoubtedly, the Conquistadors did not take the Apaches by surprise.
When the Conquistadors and friars returned to Mexico after exploring the Southwest in the 1540s, they are believed to have left behind herds of sheep, goats and horses that became feral and were caught by Apaches. Mounted Indians were seen in northern Chihuahua in the late 1500s.
Spanish law forbade Indian slaves to ride horses. When New Mexico was colonized, ranchers had need of Indian labor, so the Spanish government allowed New Mexico ranchers to let Pueblo men ride horses. Many escaped, and their horses were subsequently stolen by Apaches. By 1600 Apaches and Navajos had become skilled horsemen and the terrors of the Southwest.
Lapahie wrote: "The Apaches and Navajos are the first Indian tribes in North America to acquire horses by stealing them from the Pueblos and learn to fight horseback."
In the 1600s Spain brutally subdued the Pueblo people of New Mexico. Those who resisted Spanish authority paid for their rebellion with horrible punishments. Their Spanish masters forced Pueblo men to help the Spanish fight Apaches and Navajos, but in 1680, during the Pueblo Revolt, the Navajos and Apaches came to their aid and drove the Spanish colonists, officials and missionaries out of New Mexico.
Their victory was short-lived, as Don Diego de Vargas succeeded in recolonizing the Rio Grande Valley in 1692 backed by an army. The Navajos, who had become dependent on raiding Spanish ranches for sheep and horses, did little to resist. The Spanish, and later, Mexicans, fought Apaches and Navajos with brief periods of peace throughout the 1700s and first half of the 1800s. The Spaniards could not subdue them militarily, but were experts at turning tribes against each other.
When the United States won Spanish territory in the Mexican War 1846-1848, Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny took over Santa Fe and New Mexico in a "bloodless conquest." His greatest problem was protecting New Mexican colonists from Navajo raids. He made treaties with Navajo leaders, but they were broken by small groups of raiders. Raids increased in the 1850s in spite of all efforts at negotiating peace.
Gen. James H. Carleton took command of Union forces in New Mexico in 1862 during the Civil War, and put an end to the raids by sending Col. Kit Carson to Dinetah to starve the Navajos into submission. And that is a story for another time.