The Beliefs of the Apache Native Americans

by Molly Thompson
Some present-day Apache Indians share their ancestors' beliefs, while others practice modern religions.

Some present-day Apache Indians share their ancestors' beliefs, while others practice modern religions.

While there is no single "Apache religion," most Apache Indian groups do share some key spiritual precepts, including belief in a creator, key deities associated with the elements and supernatural forces which can be harnessed by man for either good or evil. Most tribes have a shaman, an elder regarded as particularly wise in spiritual ways. Most Apaches also attribute powers to certain animals --- for example, the coyote and the snake are traditionally viewed as sources of illness, mischief and bad luck for humans.

Emergence Traditions

Apache tribes have an emergence, or creation, story. The main figure in these traditions is the Giver-of-Life, sometimes identified with the sun. Another key figure is Changing Woman, an Earth mother type figure connected to life and youth. Her twin offspring are minor deities; while their names vary among the tribes, they are conceptually similar in all Apache beliefs. One is connected to the sun and fire and called the "Killer of Enemies" or "Monster Slayer"; the other is tied to water and the moon and known as "Child of the Water." Both protect humankind by destroying evil creatures.

Singers and Shamans

The tribes looked to designated elders for spiritual leadership, healing and guidance. In some tribes these spiritual leaders were the singers, those who actually sang the traditional ceremonial rites; in others, the shaman --- medicine man --- provided the spiritual guidance. All tribes enjoyed some version of healing and curing rituals and long-life ceremonies; most still observe a coming-of-age ceremony for young women. The Jicarilla and Western Apaches conducted sand-painting ceremonies in which the shaman used colored sand and seeds to make specific patterns and religious symbols on the ground. These often occurred before major events such as hunts or battles with enemies.

Powerful Animal Figures

Animals, birds and even some plants were believed to have special powers. Most Apache storytelling includes references to Coyote, a trouble-maker who brought bad luck to humans and encouraged them to engage in negative or harmful behaviors. Snakes and vultures were also imbued with negative traits; for example, if a vulture flew overhead, most Apache Indians believed someone would soon fall seriously ill. Those who exhibited negative behaviors and illness caused by these malevolent spirits were the focus of elaborate Apache curing ceremonies designed to drive out the evil.

The Afterlife

The Apache paid little attention to the afterlife or its significance. Instead the focus was on those left behind. Burials took place as soon after death as possible --- the main focus was on taking protective measures to ensure the spirits or ghosts of the deceased could not find their way back to the living or try to lure others to go with them. Most Apaches did not hold concepts of heaven or life after death like those prominent in many other cultures and religions; one exception was the Mescalero Apache, who believed spirits left a deceased's body to reside in the "Land of Ever Summer."

About the Author

As a national security analyst for the U.S. government, Molly Thompson wrote extensively for classified USG publications. Thompson established and runs a strategic analysis company, is a professional genealogist and participates in numerous community organizations.Thompson holds degrees from Wellesley and Georgetown in psychology, political science and international relations.

Photo Credits

  • Phillippe Diederich/Getty Images News/Getty Images