May 2, 2010

What are the White Mountain Apache naming traditions?


I am currently writing a science fiction book with a strong apache male as the main character in my book. i chose the white mountain apache because i grew up near the white mountains here in New Hampshire. I need to know the following information:

(1) What is the current langauge used by the peoples of the White Mountain Apache Tribe?

(2) Where may i find a dictionary with english translations of this langauge?

(3) Where may i find a list of male and female Apache names?

(4) If a young male child were to be raised by a traditional Apache grandfather, what kinds of things would the grandfather teach his grandson?

(5)What tradition is used in the naming of Apache children?

~Submitted by Walter

First, you should know the White Mountain Apache do not and have not ever lived in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Abenaki and Pennacook Indians were living in the area that is now New Hampshire when Europeans arrived.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe is located in east-central Arizona, 194 miles northeast of Phoenix, on 1.6 million acres. The White Mountain Apache Reservation is the fourth largest indian reservation in Arizona, with 12,500 tribal members, and is the third largest Arizona Indian tribe in population. Nationwide, the White Mountain Apache Tribe is in the top ten for land area and population of federally-recognized indigenous nations in the United States.

The traditional range of the Apache people from the 1500s to the end of the 1800s covered what is now northeastern Arizona, all of New Mexico and parts of Texas and Colorado in the US, with hunting forays onto the Great Plains; and southward all the way down into what is now northwestern (Old) Mexico.

Anthropologists say the Apache people migrated to this region from the far north around 1500, because their language is closely related to some of the Alaskan tribes. The Apache oral history says they have always been in the southwest, and most of their tribe migrated TO the far north in that period, but a small group stayed behind in the southwest on their traditional lands.

Apache language

Apache is an Athabaskan (Na-Dene) language of the American Southwest, particularly Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Athabaskan language subgroups are Northern, Pacific Coast, and Southern Athabaskan. Western Apache and Eastern Apache are Southern Athabaskan languages.

There are at least two distinct Apache languages: Western Apache and Eastern Apache. The two are closely related, like French and Spanish, but speakers of one language cannot understand the other well. Western Apache is closer to Navajo than to Eastern Apache.

Chiricahua-Mescalero is considered by some people to be a dialect of Eastern Apache, by others a separate language; the three forms of Eastern Apache (Jicarilla, Lipan, and Plains Apache) are considered by some to be distinct languages and by others to be dialects of a single Eastern Apache language.

Eastern Apache sub-groups are Chiricahua, Mescalero, Jicarilla, Lipan, Kiowa-Apache, and Navajo. Western Apache includes the White Mountain Apache, Cibecue, San Carlos, Northern and Southern Tonto, and Yavapai-Apache language groups.  

Many Apache today are bilingual or speak English as a first language outside of their community. Some 20,000 Western Apache still speak their native Apachean language. About 5,000 of those are White Mountain Apache.

Most White Mountain Apaches 40 years of age and over speak Apache (95%), compared to 41% who are age 39 and under. 88% of those 30 years and over speak Apache compared to 28% of those under 30. There is a large difference in ability to speak Apache fluently between the 20- and 30-year olds (31%).

43% of Apache speakers respond to parents/guardians in Apache only, while fewer (28%) speak to their children/grandchildren in Apache only. Between one-quarter to one-third (28-30%) speak bilingually to both parents/ guardians and children/grandchildren. About one-tenth of White Mountain Apache speak English, only.

In order to read and write Apache in HTML on the internet, you must use advanced Unicode characters available only in certain fonts. My favorite one is Titus Cyberbit Basic. It is downloadable for free at:

Apache Numbers

Many tribes do not have a numbering system beyond ten, but the Apaches have a number system in excess of 10,0000, and it is expressed similar to numbers in English.

One is called tash-ay-ay; two, nah-kee; three, kah-yay; four, tin-yay; five, asht-lay; six, host-kon-ay; seven, host-ee-day; eight, hah-pee; nine, en-gost-ay; and ten, go-nay-nan-ay. But on arriving at eleven they use an entirely different word, and say klats-ah-tah-hay, which never occurs again, either in part or in whole, until they reach eleven hundred, which is klats-at-too-ooh.

When twelve is to be expressed, we ad to the nah-kee, or two, which is then enlarged into nah-kee-sah-tah. In like manner thirteen is derived from kay-yay, three, and becomes kah-yay-sah-tah. After ten until twenty their numbers are named as follows: Eleven, klats-ah-tah-hay; twelve, nah-kee-sah-tah; thirteen, kah-yay-sah-tah; fourteen, tin-sah-tah-hay; fifteen, asht-lay-sah-tah-hay; sixteen, host-kon-sah-tah-hay; seventeen, host-ee-sah-tah-hay; eighteen, sam-pee-sah-tah-hay; nineteen, en-gost-ee-sah-tah-hay; and twenty, nah-tin-yay.

It will be observed that after fourteen the aspirated syllable hay is added, and this is for the sake of euphony, as well as the change from hah-pee, eight, to sam-pee in eighteen. It will also be observed that nah-tin-yay, twenty, receives its derivation, like nah-kee-sah-tah, twelve, from nah-kee, two; and this is regularly observed in the following numbers:

For instance, thirty is called kah-tin-yay; forty, tish-tin-yay; fifty, asht-tin-yay; sixty, host-kon-tin-yay; seventy, host-ee-tin-yay; eighty, sam-pee-tin-yay; ninety, en-gost-ee-tin-yay; one hundred, too-ooh; after which comes nah-kee-too-ooh, two hundred; kah-yay-too-ooh, three hundred, etc., until one thousand, which is expressed by go-nay-nan-too-ooh, or ten hundred; two thousand is termed nah-kee-go-nay-nan-too-ooh, etc.

Apache Names

In the old days, Apache warriors took their names from some marked trait of character, personal conformation, or noteworthy act. Until one of these features was developed to such an extent as to be prominent, the youth was called ish-kay-nay, a boy. The women were named in like manner, but as they were deemed inferior to men, many of them were without particular designation, but were addressed or spoken of only as ish-tia-nay, or “woman.”

When women were named, they were more likely to have poetic names that reflected their physical beauty, like Morning Star or some kind of flower, or that reflected their temperament, such as a firey temper or a mild manner, or after a physical tribute like small hands or feet, but they could also be named after some noteworthy deed or a skill they were particularly good at.

The word “Apache” comes from the Yuma word for “Fighting Men” and from the Zuni word meaning “Enemy.” The White Mountain Apache did not call themselves “Apaches,” but Shis-Inday, or “Men of the Woods,” probably because their winter quarters were always located in the forests which grow upon the Sierra Madre, far above the plains.

Apache names were so indicative of a man’s character, that it was not unusual for them to refuse to give their Apache names when captured and interrogated. Instead, they would give some Mexican appellative in its place.

The best way to find some Apache names is to purchase an English to Apache dictionary (see below) and find some words you like the meaning of, that fit the characteristics or skills of your characters.

Apache ceremonies and beliefs

The nomadic Apache lifestyle left little room for religious ritual. This nonagricultural society moved to a new area after about a week and had few reasons to celebrate seasonal periods or the fertility of crops, and rarely celebrated any type of annual gathering.

The Apache lacked formal ceremonies for both marriage and death, and did not have an organized belief in an afterlife. However, they did have some uniquely Apache religious beliefs and ceremonies. Apache marriages were preceded by a communal feast that lasted several days, but the bride-to-be did not participate, and there was no formal exchanging of vows.

Apache bands were usually made up of an extended family group and their spouses. In Apache society, a girl stayed all her life in the camp of her mother and sisters, aunts, and cousins. When a man married, he left his parents’ camp and became part of his wife’s family group. A husband was expected to provide for his new family and obey his in-laws.

Most big ceremonies revolved around the stages of life or healing ceremonies. There was a ceremony called the Cradleboard Ceremony that was performed four days after birth, when the new baby was placed in his cradleboard. After his spine and neck strengthened he would stay in the tosch (cradle) day and night; but, for the first month it was not constant. The tosch was built with great ceremony for each child. The ceremony and cradleboard decorations were different for boys than girls. Traditionally, Apaches pierced a newborn’s earlobes so that he or she could hear important things and obey them.

First Moccasins Ceremony occurred when a baby took its first steps on the path of life, and the most important Apache ceremony was the girl’s pueberty ceremony, which is called the Sunrise Ceremony.

Beginning in the spring of the year following birth, Apaches ceremonially cut the child’s hair each year in another ceremony to encourage health and vitality. Apache children learned about tribal traditions and expectations through storytelling and by witnessing many ceremonies.

There were different healing ceremonies for different ailments. Most medicine people were women, because they gathered the plants and knew how to use them.

Daily life was filled with small ceremonies for just about every aspect of life, from giving thanks to plants for their contributions, to protection and luck in the hunt, giving thanks to the animals killed for their sustinence, ceremonies to gain protection before going on a war party, to celebratory ceremonies after the hunt or a successful raid. The Apache Sunrise Ceremony or na’ii’ees, is an arduous communal four-day ceremony that Apache girls of the past and present experience soon after their first menstruation. Through numerous sacred ceremonies, dances, songs, and enactments, the girls become imbued with the physical and spiritual power of White Painted Woman, and embrace their role as women of the Apache nation.

The Apache believed that there were once supernatural beings that lived with people. Today, the Apache still belive that spirits live with humans in certain mountains and realms underground that they own.

There were three kinds of spirits, one principal god and spirit helpers called mountain spirits. The spirits were the moon, earth and sky. The god was Usen, the Life Giver (Sun). Usen would call the Gaans (the mountain sprits). They taught the Apache how to live in their region. They get help from the White Painted Woman (also known as Esdzanadehe, and Changing Woman or First Woman) and Child of Water.

The Apache people believe that owls and bears bring bad luck. They believe looking at a bear will bring you harm. Other animals are afraid of them, too. An owl feather is said to cause sickness and even death. They do not eat bear meat because the bear is an ancestor of the Apache; or snakes, frogs, or fish, which are considered unclean.

Deaths of warriors were met with great shows of mourning, but the death of a woman was ignored, except by her close relatives and closest female friends.

The Apache were never cremated and burials took place at night, with great secrecy. Burials were usually above ground in a crevice or cave, that was then sealed with rocks. But, if a suitable place could not be found and the ground was soft, they sometimes buried the deceased in a shallow grave covered with rocks so wild animals wouldn’t dig up the body. The burial site was known only to the trusted few who delivered the body to it’s final resting place.

Bodies were disposed of quickly, because the Apache were afraid their relative’s ghost would return and try to lure them to come with them. The mourning family purified itself ritually after the burial and moved to a new place to escape their dead family member’s ghost.

The word tats-an means dead in Apache; but they never employ it when speaking of a dead friend or relative, but say of him that he is yah-ik-tee, which means that he is not present–that he is wanting. If one inquires for him, the visitor is answered that he is yah-ik-tee, or gone somewhere. This usage, while speaking of their deceased friends, is not so much due to delicacy and regret for their loss as to their superstitious fears of the dead. To say a dead person’s name might call his spirit.

When a person died, all of his or her posessions, except a few favorite items which were buried with them, were burned, along with anything they had recently touched, even if it didn’t belong to them. This custom was begun only after the Apache were ravaged by smallpox epidemics. Prior to that time, this was not the custom.

Raising of the Apache child

When children of either sex were very young, they were the responsibility of the mother. They were taught to respect their elders at a very early age. When a child got on the nerves of his elders, he was never, or almost never, cuffed or beaten. The usual punishment for a mother was to splash the child’s face with cold water, or simply ignore him. Children, for the most part, were allowed to play and do as they wished until the age of seven or eight for girls or until five or six for boys.

Girls learned to look after the younger children, gather food and firewood, and build wickiups, carry water, sew, and aid with the cooking and butchering.

From the time an Apache boy could walk, he trained for war. Instead of the water punishment employed by mothers, a male relative may have directed, “Run to the top of that mountain! Do not stop to breathe on the way up. Run to the top without stopping!” and the boy did so, because he must.

Boys were taught to run, and some fathers, to train the child to breathe through his nose, made a son fill his mouth with water before a race up the mountain, and spit it out afterward to prove he had not swallowed it to take in air more easily through his mouth. Mouth breathing made one thirsty, and in the desert that could be deadly.

Rarely was it a ‘mountain’ at first; just a hillock. Later a higher one would be chosen, and then one greater still, until as a full-fledged warrior he would be capable of running up a true mountain without pausing for breath, for that was one way his life might be saved when a less-hardened enemy was in pursuit.

The mother’s time of teaching the boys ended between the fifth and sixth year when the fathers took over the training of the boys.

The boys learned to care for horses, developed their skills with the bow and arrow, and learned to make weapons and tools.

The fathers required rigorous physical training. These little boys got up before sunrise and bathed in the creek, even when ice had formed on the surface. After their bath, they ran to the top of their mountain and back again, all before breakfast.

The boys assisted their fathers in watching or catching horses, bringing them any items they needed, holding the end of a bow, or steadying an arrow as their fathers tied on the feathers.

In addition to learning how to perform daily tasks, the children also learned about their culture from their families. The mothers taught them the legends of their people, the tales of the universe, and how to pray for strength, wisdom, and protection.

A boy would learn the hunting rules and techniques from his grandfather, who would also teach him how to make bows and arrows, and the religion and ceremonies of the tribe. The boys shot small game as soon as they could handle their weapons. By the time the boys were fourteen or fifteen, they hunted with the men.

The fathers constantly trained the boys for war. Boys became accomplished in shooting, dodging, hiding, and tracking. They learned to walk silently, cover their tracks, excell at horsemanship, map the terrain, and find their way back to camp.

Even their recreation incorparated the skills needed for battle and cunning with their enemies. There were contests for arrow shooting, racing, wrestling and games of chance.

As an Apache boy neared his sixteenth birthday, he had to prepare for a test of his manhood. He was instructed by particular relatives, and rituals were performed. The boy would then have to go on four raids with the men of his group, and if he did well on these raids, then he was called a warrior and officially became a man. Apache males were forbidden to marry until they had been accepted in the council of warriors. The boys weren’t the only ones who learned how to use bows and arrows; girls were also taught how to use them. While most women did not join war parties, they fought alongside the men when their own community was under attack.


New Hampshire Tribes

Apache Index

Apache-English Dictionary

Western Apache-English Dictionary: A Community-Generated Bilingual Dictionary – Not only does this book contain the cross-reference between English and Apache words, it has the grammar, verb construction, changes in writing conventions, the Apache alphabet, and how to pronounce the words using the unique Apache marks. The first half of the book is arranged with Apache words translated to English, and the second half is arranged with English words translated to Apache, making it easy to find the words you want.


Apache pronunciation key

Simplified Apache language key

Official White Mountain Apache Tribal website

Apache Names – List of names used by 19th-century Apache men and women.


Apache Sunrise Ceremony

Apache Girl’s Pueberty Ceremony (Sunrise Ceremony)

An 8 part series on the Apache Indian Wars as told by Apaches who lived through them

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