Stresses Produce New Apache Religious Movements
Stress increased for Apaches during the early part of the 20th century. Rations dwindled and droughts and floods destroyed crops. A comet appeared, along with a major earthquake which leveled wickiups; rocks fell from the sky. Children were forcibly removed from their families and suffered harsh treatment in government schools. Continual epidemics contributed to bouts of drinking and fear of witchcraft. White Mountain Apaches believed the world was coming apart.
Government food, never adequate, was denied to families with able-bodied men, then taken away from everyone. Many men were forced to leave their homes and take menial jobs off the reservation where they were mistreated and paid only pennies per hour. White traders got away with overcharging because competitors were far away. Some Apaches, who had resisted selling their sacred objects, were now forced to part with them in order to feed their families. But the money gave them only temporary respite from hunger.
The string of natural disasters started in 1904 when a drought destroyed crops. The dry conditions fueled forest fires, which consumed more than 115 square miles of timber. The next year, heavy flooding washed out irrigation ditches. “In 1910 Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky,” according to a thesis by William Kessel. “It frightened the Indians, and medicine men were hard put to explain its existence or meaning.” A few years later, “meteorites were observed hitting the earth near Canyon Day, Amos Wash, and the North Fork River.” Stars were seen shooting across the sky. “Panic spread among the Apaches who were fearful that the earth might blow up like a bomb.” Though the spectacular meteorite fall on the reservation was not precisely dated, a similar incident near Holbrook was investigated by scientists in 1912. Three years later, early in the morning of April 17, a major earthquake with epicenter near the north boundary of the reservation flattened wickiups, giving greater credibility to those who warned
of the world’s imminent destruction. Flooding returned with a vengeance in 1916.
The Apaches, like all people after major disasters, wondered why they had to experience such hardships. Rev. Guenther said the Christian God had sent the floods for some unexplained reason. Traditional Apaches believed the tribe was being punished because stingy people were unwilling to share their food with the needy. “As a consequence [some thought], a giant snake came down the river bringing flood waters with him,” Kessel wrote. “Finally, other Apaches attributed the flood to witchcraft.”
Guenther, who had tried not to criticize Apache lifeways, became less tolerant of native religion as the dispute heated up. “In addition, medicine men encouraged the Apaches to wear traditional clothing which was also viewed as non-progressive,” Kessel wrote. “It had become obvious to agency personnel that the medicine man was a symbol for the Apaches of their traditional culture. Consequently, the agents began making plans to rid the reservations of medicine men.”
The government believed education could break children of their Apache ways and prepare them to be productive adults. “Forced education was regarded with fear and suspicion by the Apaches,” Kessel wrote. Tribal members, who were children at the time, remembered being “afraid to go to school because they felt they might be killed by the white people.”
“Both parents and medicine men were opposed to sending children to school because they were needed in subsistence pursuits and feared that while in school the youngsters might become too much like white men,” Kessel wrote. “The medicine men were also afraid that, removed from the influence of their Apache elders, the children would have no desire to learn to become medicine men.”
The missionary’s wife, Mrs. Guenther, watched what was happening to her friends and later recalled, “They were forced to change, to live like the white man.”
Disease ravaging the reservation undermined both traditional beliefs and Christian teaching.
Apache healers and medicine men treated sick children with herbal remedies and broths. But sacred pollen, rituals and prayers did not seem to work. Medicine men frequently explained their failures by saying “the epidemic originated among the Anglos, and consequently traditional Apache cures were not always efficacious,” wrote Kessel.
Apaches, like many people under great stress, looked for a religious solution. Some turned to a series of cults that combined elements of traditional belief with new promises.
Das Lan was a medicine man who came from the same village as Noche’Del’Klinne, the prophet who had died more than 20 years earlier in the Cibecue Uprising. Das Lan’s movement promised heaven on earth and agitated the San Carlos and Fort Apache reservations from 1903 to 1907. It was called ”daagodigha, the name meaning ‘rising upward’ or ‘they will be raised up,’ ” wrote Alan Ferg in Western Apache Material Culture. “After [the believers were taken into the sky] a great flood or earthquake would purge the earth of its evil, and the followers would then be set back on the rejuvenated earth where they would live in peace and plenty,” Ferg said.
But there was a difference between the two Cibecue prophets. Noche’Del’Klinne was a traditional Apache medicine man, while Das Lan was influenced by Christian doctrine. The new prophet “claimed to be able to travel to the realm of the dead, and to come back alive three days later,” said Carlo Severi in an article in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.
The prophet began to require believers to don special clothing. An article in the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology quoted Neil Buck, one of Das Lan’s followers, who said, “All the men had to dress alike. … They had to wear white drawers, white shirt, white gee-string, and black vest. We dressed just like old-timers. The women the same. From each shoulder hung down four strands of ribbon, about to the ground. These were the colors of the directions. Also on the front of a man’s shirt or a woman’s blouse they each wore a cross made of silver with a crescent moon over it and from the bottom of the cross hung four or five conchos, made of dimes hammered out and strung on a piece of buckskin by little wire hoops soldered to them, so that they reached the bottom of the shirt or blouse.”
“In 1906 Das Lan had his followers cut his head off as a means of proving he could return from the dead,” Ferg wrote. “His failure to return to life in three days as he promised, the deep-seated Apache fear of the dead, and the subsequent deaths of two other daagodigha medicine men in 1907 and 1908 brought the movement to a close.”
The third religious movement of the Apaches was an apocalyptic cult called “It is Going to Happen” started by a man known by his government tag number of P-1. He was assisted by his son P-6. In 1916, they instructed their followers to carry pouches of cattail pollen, which they sold to them. P-1 held dances and told his believers to wear white. He said “followers of the movement would be lifted off the earth by one of several Apache deities or by Jesus Christ,” Kessel wrote. “Meanwhile, the earth would be destroyed. Those lifted up would be transported to a happy, heaven-like place.” When other medicine men adopted P-1’s dances, the cult spread. P-1 announced that the world would end on a certain day in the spring. It didn’t happen. Next, he said, “The long-deceased mother of an old scout would come back to earth dressed all in white mounted on a white horse, to carry back the worthy ones to the new world.” She didn’t arrive. After a third prophecy failed, the cult began to fall apart. Like others who have confidently looked forward to the world ending at a designated time, many Apaches had neglected planting and other practical matters, which left them further impoverished.
The fourth movement, founded by Silas John Edwards in 1920, spread beyond Arizona. It survives today despite the long imprisonment of its leader. He studied under an Apache medicine man and learned Christianity from Guenther, before having a powerful vision and starting his own religion. It is said that he climbed a rainbow to receive sacred instructions directly from Ussen, the Apache Giver of Life. After his vision, the prophet quit using his last name and told his followers to call him “Silas John.” He combined Christian and Apache symbols and beliefs with elements of the Hopi Snake Dance to create dramatic new ceremonies. Many distressed Apaches flocked to Holy Grounds set up by the new prophet because they believed in his healing Power. “Before the ceremony Silas John instructed twelve young men to collect snakes,” Kessel said. “He told them not to be afraid because, having blessed them by making crosses of [pollen] on their hands, they would be protected. Silas John also showed them how to use forked sticks to pin down the reptiles and how to pick them up behind their heads. Sprinkling [pollen] as he went, Silas John led the twelve young men following him to a location where they could find snakes. After two days the men had collected 18 snakes – the majority of which were rattlesnakes.”
Silas John trained nine girls and nine boys to dance with the snakes. The ceremony continued much like a traditional Apache dance until early in the morning when attention focused on a brush and canvas shelter. “Inside, Silas John blessed the [snake] dancers one by one with [pollen] and told them not to be afraid,” Kessel wrote. “He then handed each of them a snake telling them to hold it behind its head and near its tail. After gentling the snakes within the enclosure, during which time Silas John chanted, the dancers left the shelter. All persons who were ill lined up facing Silas John who walked before them sprinkling them with [pollen] and praying for them. He passed in front of each person and asked them what their trouble was. Then, applying [pollen] to the location of the ailment, he took one snake at a time from the dancers and placed these on the spot.”
He told his followers not to go to traditional Apache crown dance ceremonies. Like the Christian missionaries, he called them devil dances. While those words disturbed quite a few traditional Apaches, who believed crown dancers or Gans were true representatives of their revered mountain spirits, Silas John’s new religion still flourished. His followers believed he could raise the dead and make a drum beat without touching it.
The ceremonial use of snakes was a compelling ritual of a highly spiritual nature to his followers, but not to the missionaries and government officials. They considered the snake dances to be a grotesque display of idolatry. And Silas John’s growing influence was a dangerous threat to their authority. They were further alarmed when they learned that he was called the “Apache Jesus” because of his identification with Na’ye’ne’zy’ane’, one of the twin war gods and the central culture hero of Apache mythology. The preachers preached against him and secular officials found reasons to imprison him.
Even though he was forbidden to visit reservations other than his own, his religion continued to spread. He sent blessings and instructions to followers through the mail. Like Jesus, he selected disciples to carry his religion to distant people. They traveled throughout the Apache world, from Fort McDowell to New Mexico. He created an ingenious symbolic language to preserve his prayers and ritual movements on pieces of buckskin and cardboard so that his disciples could chant his words and perform his ceremonies correctly even when he wasn’t with them.
Silas John avoided giving specific predictions like those that failed and ended the second and third cults. But like Noche’Del’Klinne of the first cult, his growing influence generated ever stronger reaction from the white authorities. They prohibited his religious practices. When he hired an attorney to help him legalize his religion, reservation authorities convinced his lawyer to withdraw from the case. So his religion remained illegal.
Silas John’s wife was brutally murdered in 1933. She was found strangled with her head smashed in. Someone had used blood to write her husband’s initials on a rock near her body. The prophet’s trial, held in the Depression-racked mining town of Globe, drew the curious and idle. And even though it was conducted in Globe’s elegant courthouse, the trial seemed like a sick sideshow when the prosecution brought the severed head of the victim into the courtroom. The newspaper said the building had to be cleared because of the smell.
Silas John Edwards was found guilty of first-degree murder by the all-male, all-white jury and sent to a federal penitentiary in Washington state. He was in prison more than 20 years, until Earl Stanley Gardner, the Perry Mason author, helped him get a parole.
Believers continued to practice the prophet’s teachings during his long incarceration, and still do so many decades after his death. Silas John’s revelations have deep meaning for his followers. They conduct ceremonies on the sanctified areas called Holy Grounds, but no longer use live snakes.
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Copyright Carol Sletten and Eric Kramer 2010