Western Apache - Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Apaches believe that a number of supernatural powers associated with natural phenomena exist. These powers are neutral with respect to good and evil, but they can be used for various individual purposes. Control of these powers can be either sought after and developed or thrust upon one. Belief is supported by a mythology that explains the creation of the world and includes several deities. Most important are Life Giver, sometimes identified with the sun; Changing Woman, a source of eternal youth and life; and her twins, Slayer of Monsters and Child of Water. These are sometimes syncretically identified with God, Mary, and Jesus. Also important are anthropomorphic mountain spirits called gaan who in form and symbolism were no doubt borrowed from the Pueblos. Other important figures in myth are Coyote and Old Man Big Owl.
For many Apaches traditional religion has been supplemented or replaced by a variety of Christian sects. Lutherans and Catholics were the first groups to proselytize, and they have been joined by Mormons, Baptists, Assemblies of God, and the pentecostal Miracle church. Wycliffe Bible Translators has provided an Apache translation of the Bible and has an ongoing literacy program to promote it. Various nativistic movements have characterized Apache life, the most recent of which is the Holy Ground cult centering on regular gatherings at specified "holy grounds" and led by individuals who learned specific prayers and songs recorded in an original style of picture writing developed by a leader, Silas John.
Religious Practitioners. Agents of powers are called diyin (shaman). Those who have their knowledge secretly and use it for their own ends are witches, 'ilkashn.
Ceremonies. In the past there were a large number of curing ceremonies each related to a specific power. These were performed as individual treatment seemed warranted. The only major ceremony still performed is the girl's puberty ceremony, both a rite of passage and a community ritual. It harnesses the power of Changing Woman to ensure individual health and long life and community health. In the last twenty years this ceremony has been elaborated, with expensive gift exchanges continuing between relatives of the girl and relatives of her godparents for several years after the initial ceremony.
Medicine. Traditional curing consisted of shamans' singing ceremonies to restore the balance upset by accidental contact with or disrespect shown toward a power to reverse witchcraft attacks. Herbal medicines were also used. In the recent past both Western medicine and traditional ceremonies were used in various combinations. Today contemporary Western medicine is the primary form of medical treatment, although Changing Woman's power is sought after at puberty rites, and some individual Apaches know songs and prayers to powers, which they use primarily within their immediate families.
Death and Afterlife. Everyone is given an allotted life span, which, unless violence or withcraft intervenes, will end because of old age. Concepts of an afterlife are vague. Special actions are taken to make sure the dead do not return and try to lure the living to come with them.