In early February of 2014, I was contacted by a distant cousin in Oklahoma, who invited my two sons, Mahko and Ben, to participate in the war dances during March’s ceremonials commemorating the centennial of the release of the Chiricahua Warm Springs Apaches. Because my own tribe has experienced the same diaspora that many others endured in the last century, I knew the opportunity to have my children learn the dances of our ancestors was a rare one. These dances don’t exist anywhere but in the minds of the few families who still perform them, and learning them requires spending time in their presence. Although I knew it would be a challenge, my kids were young (nine and six) and cute, so I just decided to bank on the adorable factor and let the dancing work itself out. Then I did what I always do in these situations: I told my dad, Bob Haozous, that I would need his help.
Dad and my uncle, Phillip Haozous, began scheming together, and developed a plan: Dad would make Mahko, my older son, his shield and spear, and Uncle Phillip would teach them the dance. (Unbeknownst to me, my uncle had been taught the dance by his and my dad’s father, Allan Houser.) Uncle Phillip called and said he’d come to our house in Santa Fe that weekend to start the warrior training.
Our family had understood the experience of being displaced for three generations, and it was now our responsibility to build the seeds of American Indian identity in my own sons. My father and uncle were taking the roles of teaching my boys what I had learned from my own grandfather and father when I was a child: what it feels like to be Apache.
Just as there aren’t DVDs at Walmart teaching the dance, neither are there shops selling suitable off-the-rack moccasins. Mahko had a pair that my husband had found on eBay, and although they weren’t Chiricahua style, they would do. But we didn’t have anything close to appropriate for Ben, so I knew I had to get busy.
Making moccasins is a harrowing task. Deer hides are expensive, and sewing leather requires some skill. I am an assistant professor of nursing at the University of New Mexico, and I spend most of my time teaching research methods and studying cancer disparities in American Indian and Alaska Native communities.A proficiency in leatherwork is not something I would put on my curriculum vitae.
When it came time to make Ben’s moccasins, I decided to employ the old adage “measure 10 times, cut once.” I only had time to work after my kids were in bed. Each night, I traced what I had measured that day and made prototypes out of craft paper and muslin. Then I’d come to a stopping point, where I had to decide whether I would sneak into Ben’s room to attempt slipping one on his foot—or just call it a night. I had other projects, too. I had to make both boys a vest, modify their dress shirts to fit the style for the dance, search their disastrous bureau drawers for some khaki pants that would actually fit, measure them for breechcloths, make them neckerchiefs, and try to catch a few hours of sleep.
My sons, meanwhile, were learning the dance. They went from stumbling around in our living room to stumbling around in the backyard. Then came the day when Dad brought Mahko his shield, carefully crafted from rawhide and painted with the special designs made just for him. We gave Ben his toy cap gun that had been surprisingly hard to procure in 21st-century Santa Fe, and we practiced in the tenuously warm air of a bright February morning. We were outside, with Uncle Phillip, Grampy, and Hyda, a family friend, drumming while my boys and their father danced and my sister Lozen and I performed the women’s dance. That morning, it all came together. As the drums rang throughout our little suburban neighborhood, my boys made the leap from learning the dance to knowing the dance.
I know, from my own childhood, that we urban American Indians experience an identity struggle that can be particularly acute for people from mixed-race backgrounds. Not growing up in a certain culture, yet having a parent who reminds you that this is who you are, means there need to be moments in your life that act as touchstones to build your cultural identity. Learning to participate in Apache ceremonial dances is more than learning to move your feet. Being part of ceremony as a child forms who you become as an adult, teaching you the values of the culture and community in a way that can’t be accomplished in a classroom.
I had the benefit of being the granddaughter of Allan Houser, a founding instructor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and a renowned sculptor. He had established our family name in Santa Fe long before I was born, and I never felt anything but American Indian, even though my mom was a white woman from California. My grandfather had come to Santa Fe in 1934 to study art under Dorothy Dunn at the Santa Fe Indian School. There, he married my grandmother, a New Mexican from the Abiquiú area, and then returned in 1962 to teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
We had our last warrior training on the Tuesday before we were due to leave for Oklahoma. It was my goal to finish Ben’s boots prior to that evening so he could dance in them for the first time that night with his uncle. The night before, I sewed and sewed, hunched over the table with my awl and sinew and leather, ignor- ing the pain in my fingertips as I pulled the glover’s needle through, saying the prayers that go along with this work, breathing love into his boots, and marveling as I took the two-dimensional strips of leather and turned them into a three-dimensional object. I worked late into the winter darkness, long after everyone was asleep, thinking about how this was my job as Ben and Mahko’s mother, to prepare them for their touchstone moments in life.
The day of our last practice, Ben awoke to find a new pair of completed boots waiting for him at his place at the kitchen table. He gleefully slipped them on and posed for a picture—a rare moment for a child who normally hates to have his photo taken. Later that morning, we dressed both boys in their regalia, unbraided their waist-long hair, and had them stand strong in their full clothes. For the first time at our practices, Great-grandma Ann Houser joined us, beaming as they danced. And then she surprised us all. With a wicked smile, she pulled a knife from a delicately beaded sheath she had hidden at her waist, stood up, and danced with the boys. At 101 years old, she danced the war dance with my sons, a warrior of one generation joined with the warriors of another.
In 1886, our ancestors, the Chiricahua Warm Springs Apaches of southwestern New Mexico territory, led by Geronimo, Naiche, and other tribal leaders, surrendered to General Miles, ending the Apache Wars in the Southwest. The terms were that they would be kept as prisoners of war for two years, then allowed to return to their homelands. They were shipped, along with more than 500 other tribal members, across the country in cattle cars—first to St. Augustine, Florida, then to Alabama, and then to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. During this time, they saw their families split apart as children were sent to boarding schools; witnessed new illnesses decimating their numbers; and experienced the loss of so many children, brothers, sisters, parents, and grandparents to the stresses of imprisonment. Almost 30 years later, two-thirds of the survivors left the tribe to join the Apaches in Mescalero, New Mexico, splitting families apart even more. In 1914, there were only 82 remaining Chiricahua Warm Springs Apaches at Fort Sill when the terms of release were negotiated and the tribe was finally able to walk away from imprisonment.
My great-grandfather Sam Haozous was a teenager in 1886. When the tribe was finally released from POW status in 1914, he had a family, and his wife was expecting another child—my grandfather, Allan Houser. Their release from Fort Sill was bittersweet, as they had no means for returning to their original home and were provided with allotments of property scattered across
Oklahoma that they would share with the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apaches who had been previously relocated to the region.
That we were able to remain a tribe at all is nothing less than a miracle of perseverance and determination, and it was in this spirit that my great-grandparents settled in to their new allotment with their young family and set about making a new life in a foreign land. This wasn’t home, but they were determined to make the best of what they had—a few head of cattle and a few wagons with the meager provisions they were able to keep from their camps on the military fort. In 1976, we became federally recognized, but not as the Chiricahua Warms Springs Apaches. Instead, we were branded with the name of our prison, and are still known as the Fort Sill Apaches. In 2011, we were finally designated a reservation in southern New Mexico by the federal government. On April 14, 2014, the New Mexico Supreme Court officially recognized our tribe’s reservation status and our right to claim New Mexico as our official homeland. Throughout our struggles, we never gave up. It took approximately 85 years to repopulate the tribe back to 500 members.
On March 6, 2014, our family piled into the minivan to drive from Santa Fe to Apache, Oklahoma, to observe the centennial of Apache Freedom. As we turned south toward Clines Corners and I looked out over the morning sun on the Ortiz Mountains across the Galisteo Basin, I thought about how incredible it was that we were making this journey. I thought about my grandfather, who would have been 100 years old on June 30 of this year, and about how he had his art studio overlooking those same mountains, and about how he loved this land. I thought of my aunts Ruey Darrow and Mildred Cleghorn, both former tribal chairpersons, and how hard they had fought to keep our tribe together, and how the perseverance that kept us together as a tribe 100 years ago had paid off so well.
On that day in March, I looked back from my seat in our minivan at Mahko and Ben, reading their books as the war shield and sword perched over them on the pile of luggage, camp chairs, blankets, and the precious suitcase containing those new moccasins we were hauling to Oklahoma, and I said my prayers for my sons, preparing them for their touchstone moment.