Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


According to our legends, we, the Plains Apaches or Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, have been here since time began. Our earliest oral histories record our existence with the Sarcees (Sarsis) in Canada. These same histories mention that we split from the Sarcees and established ourselves in the Black Hills of South Dakota. At that time, we were known as Káłt'inde, "Cedar People." This name was given to us by some other tribe. At that time, the Lakotas granted us the territory south of the Black Hills, while they took the territory to the north. We began to make our way to the south, hunting the bison.

Because of the second name our people were given, our elders believe we must have been very proficient hunters. We again came to be known by our former name, Bek'áhe, or ‘‘Whetstone,'' given to us by another tribe. Our elders believe this came about because we were always honing our knives in order to butcher the many bison our hunters killed. The sign for our people, to this very day, is the sign of honing—moving the outside of the right hand back and forth over the thumb side of the left hand. Today we are known in our own language as Ná'ishą, "Stealers or Takers." We were given this name by the Kiowas, with whom we have long been closely associated. It seems that we got this name because of our ability to steal horses in the prereservation period.

We also have had multiple English names. We were first known as the Kiowa Apaches. Our elders believe this name was given to us in order to distinguish us from the Fort Sill Apaches. After the 1867 Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek, we shared the Kiowa Reservation with the Kiowa and Comanche people. In 1894 the U.S. Army brought a number of Chiricahua Apaches to Fort Sill. At that time, it became necessary to distinguish us from the Fort Sill Apaches. Because we had been closely associated with the Kiowas, we became known as the Kiowa Apaches. The name Plains Apache was given to us by anthropologists and government officials. This name stems from our location and our mobile lifestyle.

We came to this area of the country by wandering with the bison, moving south from the Dakotas. We traveled on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, into the Southern Plains. We traveled throughout the Plains, from the northern reaches of the Missouri River to Chihuahua, Mexico. We traded extensively, bartering buffalo hides, salt, and meat for produce and other goods. Through trade, we established peaceful relationships with a number of other tribes, including the Pawnees, Arapahos, and Kiowas. Our people preferred trading to raiding for goods, but we were not passive when hostilities occurred.

Warfare and raiding allowed men to gain power and prestige. To become leaders, men were expected to have outstanding character. The leaders were honest, understanding, level-headed men who had shown valor in war or had distinguished themselves as providers. Our tribe was governed by chiefs, a council of elders, warriors, and medicine people. When a man appeared to hold the qualities that made a good chief, the warriors would suggest that the council consider him for that position. If the council agreed with the warriors, the man was made a chief. Occasionally, sons or grandsons would inherit their father's or grandfather's positions, but only if the young man had the qualifications. If a chief abused his position or acted irresponsibly, he could be run off or killed.

Women also were important in Ná'ishą society. While women did not hold positions of power, they were in charge of maintaining many of the family possessions. Women were responsible for making and repairing the tipis and all items associated with them. Gathering of plant foods and, occasionally, small game, were women's activities as well. Special skill in tipi sewing, clothing decoration, and food location and preparation was recognized by induction into women's societies, which had their own dances and songs.

Today, we are recognized as the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma. This name was established in 1972 when the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache tribes officially separated. While each tribe had run its own tribal affairs previously, we all had been supervised by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Upon establishing our independence in 1972, we became an entity separate from the other two tribes, with our own tribal name and government. Government officers are elected in general elections. There are approximately 1,600 enrolled tribal members. The majority of tribal members live in Caddo and Comanche Counties in Oklahoma. Our tribal offices are located in Anadarko, Oklahoma.

Alfred Chalepah Sr.

Irene Poolaw

Houston Klinekole Sr.

Apache Tribe of Oklahoma

Pamela Innes

Deborah Bernsten

University of Oklahoma

Bittle, William. Fieldnotes. Apache Tribe of Oklahoma Culture Office, Anadarko, Oklahoma. Chalepah, Alfred Sr., Irene Poolaw, and Houston Klinekole Sr. Oral histories. Apache Tribe of Oklahoma Culture Office, Anadarko, Oklahoma.

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