The Apaches:
America's Greatest Guerilla Fighters
by Blaise Loong

Nana was an old Apache man. He was a fierce and crafty warrior, as were all Apache men. For centuries, his people had roamed freely throughout Arizona, New Mexico and old Mexico, raiding and making war. To the Apache, life was combat. Apache Blaise

But things had changed. "White Eyes" had come to Apacheland. These strange, new visitors were welcomed by the Apache in peace, as brothers. In return, the Apache's home was stolen from him. He found himself imprisoned upon desolate wastelands (innocuously called reservations), where his people died in droves due to starvation and disease. He watched in helpless despair as his sacred mountains were desecrated and raped by those lusting after the yellow rocks. His beloved weapons were confiscated and he was forbidden to hunt. They even tried to stop him from worshipping Ussen, his One-God, the Creator and Life Giver. Yet, the Apache endured all this. He kept his love of battle, a forgiving heart and a sense of humor.

Nana squinted wryly from atop his mountain lair down to the burning desert plains far below. The cavalry patrols were still many miles away. Nana suffered from arthritis and limped rather noticably. His chief, Victorio, and the majority of his band, the Chihenne Apaches, were dead -- slaughtered mercilessly by a large Mexican army at Tres Castillos. Nana had known nothing but war ever since his birth. He now had vengence on his mind.

After praying to Ussen for justice, strength and wisdom, Nana and his handful of 15 surviving warriors set out on the warpath. In less than six weeks, the rheumatic old man led his warriors over more than 1,000 miles of enemy territory, often traveling over 80 miles a day. Nana realized that mobility and obscurity are essential to the guerrilla fighter's success. During their campaign, the Apaches foraged off the land and fought a dozen firefights with U.S. troops -- winning all of them. They killed over 50 American troops and wounded many more. They captured more than 200 horses and mules, eluded pursuit by 1,000 soldiers and several hundred civilians, and finally returned to their mountain strongholds without losing a single man. Nana continued to fight alongside other Apache renegades until he was over 80. He died a prisoner of war in his late 90s, incorrigible and unreconstructed.

Of the many groups of American Indians whose subsistence formerly included raiding and warfare, few are as familiar to the general public as the Apaches of Arizona and New Mexico. Renowned for their tenacious resistance to U.S. military forces in the late 19th century, the Apaches have been glorified by historians, glamorized by novelists, and distorted beyond recognition by filmmakers. Apache war leaders such as Cochise, Geronimo and Victorio have become the victims of exageration and caricature, a fate which has left them enshrined in contemporary folklore as the epitome of belicosity and brutality. Indeed, one is led to conclude that the Apache has been transformed from a native American into an American myth, the haunting symbol of a vanished era in the history of the Southwest.

However, one truth remains irrefutable, standing undaunted amidst all the misconceptions and falsehoods sallied at the Apache people: The fighting and survival skills of an Apache warrior were so complete, so honed, and so expert, that many military historians today believe him to be the finest example of a guerrilla fighter in the history of North America, and possibly even the world.

Traditional Apache weaponry is quite simple and even rather crude when compared to those arms carried by the warriors of other pre-modern cultures. The Apache bow is primitive next to a Hunnic or Mongol horsebow. The English longbow and the samurai war bows far outclass any bow ever made by an Apache. Even though it is a definite advantage on the battlefield to possess superior weapons, success in a fight ultimately boils down to the hand that wields the weapon and the brain that wields the hand. It is a well-documented fact that the average Apache could keep 7 arrows in flight (shot upwards) at any one time. And Apaches rarely, if ever, missed their targets. Being able to always hit what one was aiming at was the result of a lifetime of training, numerous contests (the 'wild Apaches' loved to gamble), daily hunts and, of course, continuous warfare.

Archer The wood of the wild mulberry is used in making the ideal Apache bow. Oak can be substituted if mulberry isn't available. The bowmaker prays and then begins searching through the many tree branches until he finds a solid piece that is straight and has no knots. After cutting off the length he requires, the Apache works the bow into shape with his knife and by bending the still-green wood. Once the desired shape is reached, the bow is hung up to dry for 5 days to a week. Apaches make their bows in two shapes: single arc and double arc. The single arc is preferred; there is more room to draw an arrow, and there is no hump in the middle.

The next step is making the bowstring. Bowstrings are made out of sinew from the back of a deer, or from the muscle on the back of his hind legs. Several long strips of sinew are peeled off and allowed to dry. Then, after wetting the ends of these strips, they are spliced together to form one long string. The length of the bowstring is determined by the size of the bow. The string should be a bit longer than the bow to allow for "twisting." The long, single string is doubled over and a stick is placed through the subsequent loop. Turning the stick twists the sinew together tightly. If any bumps occur on the string as it's being twisted, they must be chewed down. When the bowstring is finished, it is tied loosely on the bow and allowed to dry. Three more times after the string is dry it is progressively tied tighter on the bow. Following the fourth and final tightening, the bowmaker pulls the bowstring to test the weapon. With that, the bow is finished.

Arrows are made out of cattail reeds or various hard woods. Points vary from sharpened wood and chipped stone to steel, if available. The arrows are fletched with 3 feathers, usaully from a red-tailed hawk, turkey, dove, or quail. Various poisons were also put on arrow tips for hunting and for war. Most warriors wrapped a tanned hide or a leather guard around their wrists to protect themselves from being cut by the bowstring.

Arrow quivers are made from the hides of horses, steers, deer, wolves, wildcats, javelinas and mountain lions. Mountain lion quivers are the most prized. The average quiver held 30-40 arrows, which are drawn from above the right shoulder (for a right- handed person.)

When shooting, the bow is held horizontally for a long shot, vertically for a close shot. The effective range for an Apache bow is about 60 meters. At fairly close range, a strong shooter can send an arrow through a man or deer. Unlike other warriors whose bows were crafted solely by a few specialists, every Apache warrior and male child could make a bow, arrows and quiver. Thusly equipped, the Apache could both feed and defend his family at a pretty fair distance.

Apaches were also very adept with the war lance. Warriors would pick out a dry, dead sotol stalk for a handle, usually 8 or 9 feet long. If the stalk was curved, it was straightned and smoothed in a small fire. The early lance points were made of sharpened mountain mahogany. Later, bayonet and saber blades replaced mahogany. The lance points were stuck into the end of the handles, and an 8-inch piece of cow's tail was slipped over the point and haft, and was left to dry. The shaft of the lance was usually painted: the upper half was generally painted blue or black, the lower half either red or left plain. Two eagle feathers would then be tied at the point end of the handle, finishing the lance.

Apache signal Only warriors who were good fighters and who could run fast used lances. Lancers fought either on foot or on horseback. In combat, the Apache was required to hold the lance in his hands at all times and to fence with it. A portion of the shaft rested below the warrior's rear elbow, sticking out a foot or two behind him. The point was waved in a circular motion and then thrust at the very last moment, giving the enemy little chance to dodge or deflect the attack. Thrusts were typically single-handed with the lead hand guiding, or with both hands near the butt and overhead, stabbing downwards. In times of peace, lances brought down horses, steers, and even buffalo.

Apaches have two basic types of war clubs, used for close-quarters combat. The main war club, a uniquely Apache weapon, was made by sewing a solid round stone inside a round piece of rawhide. The handle was made of a cow's tail, peeled back and uncut. A straight hardwood stick was shoved down inside the tail and the hide-covered rock was then sewn onto the handle. Sometimes a warrior simply sewed the tail around the handle and the rock, making the club one single unit. The maces and morningstars of medieval Europe closely resemble these war clubs.

If there wasn't adequate time or supplies to make the traditional war club, a simplified version served almost as well. This club consisted of a rock fastened to the end of a stick with rawhide. The handle would be split and scraped out, allowing the rock to settle into the end more securely. Apaches targeted their attacks for the head, the area on the side of the skull a few inches beyond the temple was considered the ideal impact zone.

In close-range fighting, Apaches preferred the knife over any other weapon. Warriors and women alike always carried a knife, whether they used it around the camp, or for combat.

In using the lance, warclub, knife or empty-hands, the Apache warrior was extremely aggressive, but never to the point of recklessness. The Apache strategy in battle centered on overrunning and completely overwhelming the enemy. This tactic worked well (before firearms), as the Apaches were generally outnumbered. One warrior would most likely face several opponents. If the odds were too great, or if a chance for the entire war party to escape unharmed presented itself, the warriors would gladly retire. For life was, and still is, quite dear to the Apaches.

The Apaches were not the brainless savages portrayed in most Hollywood films. To the contrary, when firearms became prevalent on the battlefield, Apaches easily adapted. They obtained rifles and ammunition and became even more skilled in their use than they were with their traditional arms.

Much of the Apache strategy was based on their knowledge of their mountains. They knew every water hole, every canyon and ravine, and every trail that ran through them. If they were pursued by enemies, they would disappear into one range or another, where no one dared follow. For it was almost impossible to find them, and the opportunities for an ambush were numerous. The Apaches also utilized the mountains as safe north-south travel routes. Only when they crossed the divides or valleys were they exposed to attack, and they usually made this part of the journey at night. Thus, they could travel freely and unobserved over thousands of miles of terrain.

Apache sentinel If an Apache was traveling in unfamiliar territory and became thirsty, he climbed to a high point of land and looked for green foliage. If he saw some, he knew water was nearby, but he would never venture into the area during the day. That was the time when other men went to the water holes, including enemies, so the Apache always waited until dark. If he was hot during the day, he didn't seek out shade, for shady places were where Mexicans, White Eyes and other Indians went to rest. Instead, the Apache searched for some small bush that others would overlook, using it for shelter from the sun. Young, would-be warriors learned that cunning and trickery were more highly prized than bravery. A warrior who could fool the Mexicans and steal a few horses without a shot being fired was more respected than one who stole a hundred horses but lost a man in an ensuing battle.

Apaches weren't great horsemen, unlike the Commanches of nearby Texas. In fact, an Apache would just as soon eat his horse as he would ride it. As soon as an Apache child could walk, he or she was taught to run...and run, and run. Young boys would run several miles up and down steep mountains every morning, their mouths filled with water. As they finished, they would spit the water out at the feet of the warriors, showing that they had breathed properly (through the nose) and had further developed their inner spirits. Countless U.S. Army after-action reports tell of Apache warriors on foot outdistancing entire cavalry troops. Apaches could run 70 miles in a day, several days in a row. Warriors would often go up to four days without sleep in order to wear down or evade pursuers.

Apaches were also masters of the ambush, often felt but never seen. Raiding parties averaged between 2 and 8 men , sometimes more, depending on the situation. Enemies often accused Apaches of being cowards because they never stayed around long enough to fight any sort of major engagement. When cornered, however, they fought ferociously. No man was more dangerous than a wounded Apache who knew he was going to die. At such a time, there were no limits to his bravery or the length he would go to kill his enemies.

Apache warfare tactics were brilliant. They used lightning fast hit-and-run attacks, which conserved their limited strength whilst slowly grinding down U.S. and Mexican forces in a long and bloody 40 year war of attrition. As General William T. Sherman once said of the frustrating and difficult fight against the Apaches, "We had one war with Mexico to take Arizona, and we should have another to make her take it back."

The final chapter of the Apache Wars was written in 1886, when Geronimo, after almost a year of constant fighting, made peace with General Nelson Miles. The last Geronimo campaign saw the U.S. government field over 5,000 troops -- one third of America's entire standing army (at that time) -- just to deal with one Apache war chief and 23 warriors. It took half as many U.S. troops to subdue the united Sioux and Cheyenne nations, whose warriors numbered well over 3,000 at any one time. The ironic thing is that Geronimo went to the soldiers -- he was never captured. But his people were weary, so he brokered a deal to cease hostilities if, in return, he and his people could return to Turkey Creek near Fort Apache and live there forever, unmolested by soldiers or civilians. General Miles and the U.S. government eagerly agreed.

Geronimo and his warriors accepted the large U.S. Cavalry escort out of Mexico and back to their beloved Arizona. However, treachery on the part of the United States caused Geronimo to always regret his decision. The entire Apache Nation was shipped via railroad boxcars to malaria-infested swamps in Florida as prisoners of war. There, many Apaches died as a direct result of disease, starvation, exposure, and of broken hearts. Apaches are a dignified people and honor means much to them. The warriors were stripped of their manhood and were subjected to constant humiliation. The United States kept the Apaches as POWs for 27 very long and cruel years.

The Apache warriors will be remembered for their great skills in battle and for their undaunting courage. They fought, not for profit or empire, but only for the two causes Americans respect most -- their homeland and their freedom.