Tonto Apache Tribe of Arizona

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The Tonto Apache tribe are a Western Apache tribe located in Arizona’s Rim Country. The elders of the Tonto Apache tribe are doing their very best to sustain both their language and culture by passing old customs and beliefs down to their tribe’s younger members.

Official Tribal Name: Tonto Apache Tribe of Arizona

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Recognition Status: Federally Recognized

Traditional Name / Traditional Meaning: Tinde, meaning grey ones.

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Tonto is a Spanish word meaning “crazy or foolish,” and was given to these Native American settlers by the other Apaches because of their willingness to live near the white man.

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Region: Southwest

State(s) Today: Arizona

Traditional Territory:

The earliest inhabitants of Arizona Rim Country were a people known as the Mogollons, members of a Native American tribe that moved into Arizona from New Mexico about 300 B.C.  Living in loosely connected villages, they made clothing from fur and feathers, hunted by bow and arrow, and grew corn, squash, and beans.

By 1500 A.D., the Mogollon culture had been absorbed by two tribes new to the area, the Hohokams from the south and the Pueblos from the east.

It wasn’t long after the Mogollons faded from the scene that the Apaches arrived. An athletic people more interested in hunting than gardening, they lived wherever their bows and arrows led them. The Apaches were here when the Spanish Conquistadors passed through, and they were here when Union soldiers arrived to secure the region from Confederate intrusion. In fact, the soldiers dubbed this area “Apacheria”.

Once the Civil War ended, these soldiers turned their attention to making the Rim area safe for miners and ranchers. A major campaign was launched including soldiers from many forts, camps and posts. Troops radiated out from Tonto Basin in a thorough search for “hostile” Indians. With superior firepower and overwhelming numbers of mounted cavalry, they easily defeated the Apaches who were forcibly herded to reservations in the south. 

With the capture of Geronimo in 1886, the guards were removed from the San Carlos reservation. Reduced from thousands, the 50 or so Tonto Apaches began the long walk back to their Arizona Rim Country home. More peaceful than other Apache tribes, they settled once again in the area and began farming. One of their chiefs recalled that in the early days in Payson many cattails grew in the rivers and streams. The returning Apaches used them for medicine, for food, and for religious ceremonies.

Confederacy: Apache Nations

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Reservation: Tonto Apache Reservation
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Registered Population Today: There are about 100 Tonto Apache today.

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The Tonto Apache Tribe is a federally recognized tribe. They have established tribal governments under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (25 U.S.C. 461-279), also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act, and they successfully withstood attempts by the U.S. government to implement its policy during the 1950s of terminating Indian tribes.

They were granted U.S. citizenship under the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. They did not legally acquire the right to practice their Native religion until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (42 U.S.C. 1996).

Other important rights, and some attributes of sovereignty, have been restored to them by such legislation as the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1966 (25 U.S.C. 1301), the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975 (25 U.S.C. 451a), and the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (25 U.S.C. 1901).

The Wheeler-Howard Act, however, while allowing some measure of self-determination in their affairs, has caused problems for virtually every Indian nation in the United States, and the Apaches are no exception. The act subverts traditional Native forms of government and imposes upon Native people an alien system, which is something of a mix of American corporate and governmental structures.

Invariably, the most traditional people in each tribe have had little to say about their own affairs, as the most heavily acculturated and educated mixed-blood factions have dominated tribal affairs in these foreign imposed systems.

Frequently these tribal governments have been little more than convenient shams to facilitate access to tribal mineral and timber resources in arrangements that benefit everyone but the Native people, whose resources are exploited. The situations and experiences differ markedly from tribe to tribe in this regard, but it is a problem that is, in some measure, shared by all.

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Apache Bands and Clans

Social Organization:

For the Apaches, the family is the primary unit of political and cultural life. Apaches have never been a unified nation politically, and individual Apache tribes, until very recently, have never had a centralized government, traditional or otherwise.

Extended family groups acted entirely independently of one another. At intervals during the year a number of these family groups, related by dialect, custom, inter-marriage, and geographical proximity, might come together, as conditions and circumstances might warrant.

In the aggregate, these groups might be identifiable as a tribal division, but they almost never acted together as a tribal division or as a nationnot even when faced with the overwhelming threat of the Comanche migration into their Southern Plains territory.

The existence of these many different, independent, extended family groups of Apaches made it impossible for the Spanish, the Mexicans, or the Americans to treat with the Apache Nation as a whole. Each individual group had to be treated with separately, an undertaking that proved difficult for each colonizer who attempted to establish authority within the Apache homeland.

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The Tonto Apache and Yavapai-Apache perform public dances each year at the Coconino Center for the Arts, Flagstaff, Arizona, on the Fourth of July.

Apache Museums:

Albuquerque Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico
American Research Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Art Center in Roswell, New Mexico
Bacone College Museum in Muskogee, Oklahoma
Black Water Draw Museum in Portales, New Mexico
Coronado Monument in Bernalillo, New Mexico
Ethnology Museum in Santa Fe, NM
Fine Arts Museum in Santa Fe, NM
Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Great Plains Museum in Lawton, Oklahoma
Hall of the Modern Indian in Santa Fe, NM
Heard Museum of Anthropology in Phoenix, Arizona
Indian Hall of Fame in Anadarko, Oklahoma
Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM
Maxwell Museum in Albuquerque, NM
Milicent Rogers Museum in Taos, New Mexico
Northern Arizona Museum in Flagstaff, AZ
Oklahoma Historical Society Museum in Oklahoma City, OK
Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, OK
Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko, OK
State Museum of Arizona in Tempe, AZ
Stovall Museum at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, OK
San Carlos Apache Cultural Center in Peridot, Arizona.

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Religion & Spiritual Beliefs:

The Apache are devoutly religious and pray on many occasions and in various ways. Recreated in the human form, Apache spirits are supposed to dwell in a land of peace and plenty, where there is neither disease or death. They also regarded coyotes, insects, and birds as having been human beings.

Apache religion is based on a complex mythology and features numerous deities. The sun is the greatest source of power. Culture heroes, like White-Painted Woman and her son, Child of the Water, also figure highly, as do protective mountain spirits (ga’an). The latter are represented as masked dancers (probably evidence of Pueblo influence) in certain ceremonies, such as the four-day girls’ puberty rite. (The boys’ puberty rite centered on raiding and warfare.)

Supernatural power is both the goal and the medium of most Apache ceremonialism. Shamans facilitate the acquisition of power, which can be used in the service of war, luck, rainmaking, or life-cycle events. Power could be evil as well as good, however, and witchcraft, as well as incest, was an unpardonable offense. Finally, Apaches believe that since other living things were once people, we are merely following in the footsteps of those who have gone before.

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Wedding Customs:

Apache women were chaste before marriage. Apache culture is matrilineal. Once married, the man went with the wife’s extended family, where she is surrounded by her relatives.

Spouse abuse is practically unknown in such a system. Divorce was unusual though relatively easy to obtain. Should the marriage not endure, child custody quarrels were also unknown: the children remained with the wife’s extended family.

Marital harmony is encouraged by a custom forbidding the wife’s mother to speak to, or even be in the presence of, her son-in-law. No such stricture applies to the wife’s grandmother, who frequently is a powerful presence in family life. The mother’s brother also played an important role in the raising of his nephews and nieces. 

Although actual marriage ceremonies were brief or nonexistent, the people practiced a number of formal preliminary rituals, designed to strengthen the idea that a man owed deep allegiance to his future wife’s family.

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Tonto Apache Chiefs and Famous People

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