Like our Athapaskan tribes, the Apache and the Navajo call themselves the “Dene” (a form of the same word “Dine” which means “the people”). This is a subtle way of declaring that they consider themselves an aristocracy among Indian peoples. “They are a proud people”’ has been noted in many accounts by the explorers who first met them. The same remark about the Beavers today, by the first school teacher to instruct an integrated class of Beavers from the Doig reserve with the regular school at Upper Pine, was made in 1974. (Mrs. Mary Doonan)
The list of names of the Navajo bands or clans presents a striking coincidence. Like our Northern Athapaskans, they take their names from an outstanding physical feature of the land, not from animals. We might note that our so-called “Beavers”, in their native name are called Tsa-huh “The People of the River of the Beavers” (i.e. The Peace). Our Seccani or Sekani Indians were called by the historian-priest, Father Morice, “Tse kehne” of which the above pronunciations are Anglicized forms. It meant in their language “people of the rocks”, who Alexander Mackenzie calls “Rocky Mountain Indians” in his journals. Now look at a Navajo clan name, — “Tsethkhani”. Superficially it looks quite different. But pronounce it. The sound is practically identical. And what does it mean? – – “Among the rocks!” Their own name for themselves is tso-tli’na meaning “earth people”.
The Apache and Navajo seem to have wandered in from somewhere else, probably “in small groups or single families”. The Navajos know only that it was “a long time ago”. They say that they were created by the “Gods” in Arizona or Utah, about five hundred years ago. They have no knowledge of any previous history. The origin of the Apache is not even speculated about in the accepted reference book mentioned above. They were first identified as Apache by the Spaniards in 1598.
When first encountered, the two divisions of Athapaskans were as different as the Sarcee and the Beavers. In another place we have noted that the Sarcee were warlike, bold people, superb riders, dreaded fighters and excellent Buffalo hunters when they encountered the Blackfoot who were themselves outstanding in these skills. The Sarcee were above all skilled horse raiders and rated their wealth in horses. They were originally named Saxsixwak meaning “hard or strong people.” “They would dare to face ten times their own number,” wrote the trader Henry. No wonder that rather than have them as enemies, the Blackfoot admitted the Athapaskans to their alliance. The Sarcee, however, remained aloof, preserving their own ways and language while adopting the good things of their Allies.
In this respect the Sarcee and the Apache were startlingly alike for the Apache were among the most noted fighters and raiders among the Indians of the United States. The Apache tribe produced the two most famous chiefs of all time, Geronimo and Cochise.
The Navajo, on the other hand, were strikingly like the Beavers. They fought, but did not make war their whole life. Like the Beavers, they were considered weak, because they did not bear pain as well as the Apache, for instance. Also they did not inflict it upon themselves, as did the Sarcee who adopted the self-torture of the Plains Indians’ Sundance.
Descent was reckoned from the mother’s side.
Just as very few had anything bad to say about the Beavers, so the white reporter says of the Navajo, “They are celebrated for intelligence and good order . . . the noblest of American aborigines . . . they are very industrious and the proudest among them scorn no remunerative labour.” We are reminded of the Northern Athapaskans like the Slaveys and others who did not scorn to help their women with the hard work.
In one respect the Navajo were different — they were “merry and jovial, much given to jest and banter.” In the Peace Country the Cree are reputed to be more given to fun, but the Dogribs do not seem to be too sedate when gambling or tea-dancing is going on.
Like our Northern Athapaskans, the American tribes were very tenacious of their own religious beliefs, to the despair of the missionaries.
In the early 1900’s the American Navajo still baked food “in the ground” for ceremonial use, indicating, perhaps, a tribal memory of the buffalo-hide lined pits and hot stones of our Northerners. Like the Beavers they did not like fish, and to some bear was taboo.
They practiced few manual arts, except the Navajo baskets. Their legends said that when they first arrived they did not know how to make blankets — weaving being learned from some Pueblo women who were captured and taken into the tribe. They soon became famous for their Navajo blankets.
They were noted singers — having over a hundred songs and prayers which must be learned word for word. Their shamans had to study for several years to learn how to conduct the tribal dances properly. The Apaches are known today as the “best dancers in America.”
Both tribes settled down to agriculture only when they were subjected to great pressure by the forces of the American States. The Navajo took to planted crops more readily than the Apache. The latter, like our Beavers and the Sarcee, took to stock raising, especially the breeding of horses, raising only enough field crops to keep their livestock.
It is curious that, in spite of surrounding civilizations, from which all Athapaskans “borrow” readily what will better their condition, so much similarity has been maintained, hundreds of miles apart. It suggests that the two branches have not been separated for a very long time. Mr.Frank One Spot of the Sarcee told our researcher, Mr. Rick Belcourt, that their folklore explains the separation this way: the Sarcee were accustomed to travel every summer to the spot in the Black Hills in Dakota where pipestone was obtained by all Plains tribes. This spot was holy to all tribes. Wars did not occur there. However, each year a few did not return to the Northern Plains, but drifted away south to become the Apache — especially the Kiowa-Apache, and the Navajo. This story would bear out the history of the late and straggling appearance of the Athapaskans on the American scene. This is speculation. As studies in anthropology continue, the answer to the questions of the origins, and pre-historical migrations may be answered.