by Brian W. Simpson
IT IS A LAND OF WONDERS AND ECHOES. From the center of the White Mountain Apache Reservation, the tribe’s four sacred directions stretch across high desert, silent canyons and sere grasslands to touch their four sacred mountains blanketed with piñon pine, Ponderosa pine and spruce. Mountain snowmelt feeds creeks that tumble into the White and Salt rivers. Elk, deer, wolves and black bear wander remote forests, while eagles glide above rust-colored cliffs. In lower elevations, dark canyons suddenly carve into rolling forests.
“There is a strong magnetism to this land,” says Ronnie Lupe, the charismatic, longtime tribal chairman. “We are part of the land. We are with the land, the rivers, the trees and all.”
Married with the landscape are stories. Places—this bend in the river, this arroyo, that mountaintop—have stories attached to them that contain ancient wisdom, collective history and ethical guidance. Some tales reach so far back in time that the landscape has changed—a spring gone dry, a tree disappeared. “The world is constantly changing,” says Lupe. “That’s the way we live. That’s how we live.”
Over the last 150 years, life for the White Mountain Apaches has changed much faster than the land. During the relentless American push westward in the latter 1800s, invaders killed many Apaches and sundered their traditional ways. Children were wrenched from families and sent to boarding schools under U.S. government assimilation policies. “Since that happened, we started to lose our identity as far as who we were,” says Ramon Riley, the tribe’s cultural resource director. “To sum up the story, it’s historic trauma. Our people have gone through many things like genocide … just like the Holocaust. Our ancestors suffered. Our grandparents suffered. We suffered and now our kids don’t know who they are. They don’t speak our language. They are not connected to the natural world like we once were.”
“I told him there are always people who will be there for you. I told him suicide is not the answer,” recalls Warren Goklish, his fingers interlocked as if in prayer.
The tragic legacy still echoes today. The unemployment rate is more than 70 percent. High rates of suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse and other ills follow in poverty’s wake. The social and economic hardships have rent the Apache’s social fabric, leaving young people with few options. Some live and work on the reservation or in nearby towns like Pinetop. Some leave for college or jobs in Phoenix or Tucson. Others, particularly those from dysfunctional families, survey their dismal prospects and can’t imagine any way out.
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