Athapaskans Arrive in the Southwest

Athapaskan peoples concluded their migratory journey from Western Canada and spread out to occupy much of the American Southwest.

Summary of Event

In the American Southwest today there are seven recognized Southern Athapaskan (Apachean-speaking) groups: Navajo Navajo , Chiricahua Chiricahua , Jicarilla Jicarilla , Kiowa-Apache Kiowa-Apache , Lipan Lipan , Mescalaro Mescalaro , and Western Apache Apache, Western . The term Apachean includes Navajo and Apache peoples, as opposed to Apache, which excludes the Navajo. The Apacheans now live in parts of eastern Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, and Mexico. Their southwestern territories may have been more extensive in the past. Scholars agree that these peoples originated from the large group of Athapaskan speakers in the Mackenzie Basin of Canada. These Canadian Athapaskans along with those in Alaska are referred to as the Northern Athapaskans. Athapaskans
Native Americans;American Southwest

Most scholars believe that the Athapaskan migration from Canada concluded in the early 1500’, and that the various Apachean groups began to separate from one another soon thereafter. These groups quickly spread out across the American Southwest and settled in the distinct territories in which European explorers would later encounter them. The Kiowa-Apache branched off from the Lipan and Jicarilla and moved east onto the southern Plains, ending up in Oklahoma. The Western Apache and the Navajo, meanwhile, moved west and south into what is now the “Four Corners” region of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. By 1600, the Lipan and Jicarilla no longer had contact with the Western Apache or the Navajo. Within the next hundred years, the Lipan and Jicarilla themselves divided. The Lipan moved into central and southern Texas and the Jicarilla into northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. The Chiricahua and Mescalero were probably the last to split from each other. Eventually the Chiricahua moved into southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, and northern Mexico, while the Mescalero settled farther east, reaching into part of Texas. The Apacheans were in these areas when the Spaniards arrived.

While there is no conclusive proof that Apachean habitation in these territories began in the 1500’, a preponderance of evidence seems to support this belief. This evidence exists, for example, within the surviving oral traditions of the modern tribes, as well as the specific patterns of differentiation between the Apachean languages. The date also seems to accord with what little is known of the historical circumstances of precolonial North America. Moreover, no Apachean archaeological evidence found in the Southwest can be reliably dated to earlier than 1525.

Despite this evidence, however, the theory that the Athapaskans entered the American Southwest in the early sixteenth century is not without controversy. Some scholars argue that the Apacheans were present in the Southwest by 1400 or even earlier. Two scholars have even proposed that the Navajos arrived before 1100 and intermarried with the Anasazi (ancestral Pueblo peoples).

Arguably the best data to use in an attempt to resolve this controversy are linguistic. It is clear that all Athapaskan people, Northern and Southern, have a common ancestral language. All Athapaskan peoples refer to themselves as Diné, “the People.” The Navajo speak of their first home in northwestern New Mexico as Dinetah (among the People), compared with Denedah, which carries the same meaning in the languages of the North.

Southern Athapaskan languages diverge from one another much less than the languages of the Northern Athapaskans, and the Northern variations are about equal to those of the Athapaskan language family as a whole. This factor and other linguistic considerations, particularly semantic shift, support the view that the north is the center of dispersal, and that the Southern group spread out and developed different languages considerably later than the beginnings of Athapaskan language diversity.

There is cultural as well as linguistic evidence that the Southern Apacheans have Northern origins. Details of the circumstances of death and burial indicate that all Apacheans are similar in their funerary beliefs and practices, suggesting that they share a similar history. All fear the ghosts of the recently dead, for example, unlike their Pueblo neighbors. Furthermore, the Southern ceremonial emphasis on bodily health and curing has roots in Northern Athapaskan shamanism. The Apache share other practices and beliefs with those in the North, including a concept of power gained from nonhuman helpers, the girls’ puberty ceremony, and a belief that disease is caused by contact with certain animals such as the bear, or with lightning.

The cultural similarities among Apachean groups, their range of linguistic diversity, and the fact that the groups all migrated southward from an original northern homeland are about the only things universally agreed on for the Southern Athapaskans. Scholars have differing opinions about the amount of time involved in the move south, the route or routes followed, and whether more than one migration took place.

Most scholars believe that the Southern Apacheans began their southward move about 1000, and that the linguistic evidence indicates that until 1300 the Apacheans were a single group or a number of closely related groups; that is, they did not begin to differentiate themselves linguistically until three hundred years after the start of the move. This linguistic divergence indicates that other aspects of their life also began to change around 1300. The group probably divided and moved in varying directions, absorbing different cultural patterns from their neighbors or developing new ones based on their changing circumstances. Most scholars believe that once the Apacheans reached the Southwest, their linguistic and political differentiation proceeded rather rapidly, and that by the beginning of the eighteenth century they were distinct nations.

Some Apachean languages are more closely related than others. The most closely related are Navajo, Western Apache, Chiricahua, and Mescalero. A few linguists believe that these groups left Western Canada well before the other groups. Other scholars believe that the groups all split from each other sometime within the past thousand years, and that they migrated south by different routes, developing different languages and cultures along the way. Still others, in opposition to the linguistic data noted above, think that the Apacheans arrived in the Southwest as a more or less homogeneous group and then divided once they got there.

There are two differing hypotheses concerning the route that the migrating Athapaskans took south. One group of scholars argues that the Athapaskans came through the mountains by way of today’s states of Utah or Colorado and the Great Basin. The second theory states that they moved south through the northwestern and central plains close to the eastern edge of the mountains. It is conceivable that both of these suggestions are correct; if the Apacheans migrated at varying times, it is possible that different groups used different routes. It would be easier to determine the route if the reasons for the migration or migrations were clear, but they are not. One possible explanation for the move is that when bison herds increased, following the severe droughts of the 1400’, the Apacheans followed the animals down through the Great Plains. If this were true, it would speak in favor of a migration route east of the Rocky Mountains.

A resolution to the route question might also be available if there were clear archaeological sites that could be identified as Athapaskan, but because the Apacheans were almost exclusively mobile hunters and gatherers before the coming of Europeans, archaeological evidence is meager. (Some people have argued that the Apacheans were already agriculturalists when they entered the Southwest, but the evidence for this assertion is weak.) Archaeologists have gleaned little information in this regard from sites that are hundreds of years old, even if they can find tipi rings, roasting pits, and buffalo kill sites.

In northwestern New Mexico, there are some sites where remains of dwellings can be reliably ascribed to the Navajo. Archaeologists have located forked-stick hogans with tripod bases (an early house form that the Navajo continued to use after contact). Dendrochronology indicates that these hogans date to the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Even the remains of hogans, however, do not give clear information after three hundred years. The hogans may not have been the earliest form of Navajo housing, and other Apachean groups may have entered the Southwest before the Navajos. Therefore, the remains of these hogans in no way indicate that their inhabitants were the earliest settlers in the area.

The shared heritage of the Athapaskans did not prevent them from developing new and significantly different beliefs and practices. Major departures from Apachean cultural patterns can generally be explained by interaction with non-Apachean peoples, primarily the Pueblo groups in Arizona and New Mexico. Apacheans almost certainly learned weaving and pottery from their neighbors (possibly on the journey south). Early cloaks, for example, suggest that Navajo women learned weaving from their Pueblo neighbors. It is also likely that the masked dancers of the Navajo and some Apache groups, including “clowns,” originated with Pueblo groups. However, it is important to note that none of the Apacheans ever simply imitated Pueblo behaviors. Rather, they adapted these features to conform to their own beliefs and interests.


The Southern Athapaskans have played a central role in the history, and changed the character, of the American Southwest. Their relations with older Native American tribes in the area and with Europeans were influenced by their ancestry in the North. The Apache are known for their fierce fighting qualities and, along with the Navajo, they preyed on the Pueblo peoples and later the Spanish. When the United States acquired land from Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century, Apachean lands were in the path of western expansion. Their complex religions, ceremonies, and artworks have added cultural and religious dimensions to Southwestern life. During the 1600’, both Navajo and Apache traded, fought, and intermarried with Pueblo people, and intermarriage between Apacheans and other Indians and Euro-Americans has continued. Athapaskans
Native Americans;American Southwest

Further Reading

  • Forbes, Jack D. Apache, Navajo, and Spaniard. 2d ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994. This history of the Southern Athapascans is based on written documents, and therefore primarily covers the period beginning with their encounters with the Spanish. Goes through 1698. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Foster, Michael K. “Language and the Culture History of North America.” In Languages, edited by Ives Goddard. Vol. 17 in Handbook of North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1996. Discusses the interrelationship of language and culture.
  • Haskell, J. Loring. Southern Athapaskan Migration, A.D. 200-1750. Tsaile, Ariz.: Navajo Community College Press, 1987. An account of the forebears of the Southern Athapaskans through 1750.
  • Opler, Morris E. “The Apachean Culture Pattern and Its Origins.” In Southwest, edited by Alfonso Ortiz. Vol. 10 in Handbook of North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1983. Discusses the origins of the Apacheans and provides highlights of their cultures.
  • Young, Robert W. “Apachean Languages.” In Southwest, edited by Alfonso Ortiz. Vol. 10 in Handbook of North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1983. Apachean language origins and development are detailed.

16th cent.: Decline of Moundville

16th cent.: Iroquois Confederacy Is Established

1502-1520: Reign of Montezuma II

Beginning 1519: Smallpox Kills Thousands of Indigenous Americans

1525-1532: Huáscar and Atahualpa Share Inca Rule

1528-1536: Narváez’s and Cabeza de Vaca’s Expeditions

1537: Pope Paul III Declares Rights of New World Peoples

Feb. 23, 1540-Oct., 1542: Coronado’s Southwest Expedition

Mid-1570’s: Powhatan Confederacy Is Founded

Jan., 1598-Feb., 1599: Oñate’s New Mexico Expedition