Native Places

This fantastic debut book from UA lecturer Ian W. Record resurrects the spirit of the Western Apache

Who knew that Apacheria held so much abundance for those who knew where to look?

All over Southern and Central Arizona, where the Western Apache once wandered unchallenged according to a seasonal schedule held deep in their cultural memories, there is food: acorns, agave, wild spinach, wild onions, mesquite beans, cactus fruit and more--all integral to the once-diverse Apache larder.

There are sections of Ian W. Record's debut book, Big Sycamore Stands Alone: The Western Apaches, Aravaipa, and the Struggle for Place, out now from the University of Oklahoma Press, that read like the dream menu of an extreme locavore. Long sections of the book detail the seasonal gathering cycle of the pre-reservation Western Apache (the descendants of whom now live on the San Carlos Apache Reservation), as well as their farming techniques that took advantage of the lush, riparian plenty around their traditional homeland near the confluence of the San Carlos River and Aravaipa Creek northeast of Tucson.

In preparing this long, detailed study, the 37-year-old Record, a senior lecturer for the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Arizona, delved deep into the research notes of the late Grenville Goodwin--an amateur anthropologist who spent several years living among the San Carlos Apache in the 1930s, recording their memories. Record also spent time hiking with many of the descendants of the Apaches that once lived in their traditional homeland. What results is a unique and very readable account of the powerful, unbroken influence one small riverine ecosystem can have on an entire culture.

Once settlers--Spanish, then Mexican, then American--began claiming this land as their own, the Western Apache found it increasingly difficult to gain unfettered access to their traditional gathering grounds, and they drew the unending ire of the new arrivals when they stole livestock, which many Apache saw as little different from hunting.

Really, the Western Apache never had much of a chance. Their ways of life were about thin-line subsistence, living lightly so as to conserve the relative abundance of the desert for future generations. The capitalist settlers couldn't have been more different; they wanted wealth, surplus and power. Furthermore, Tucson residents and outland settlers alike never really understood the fact that not all Apaches were the same. The Western Apache, one of the few agricultural-minded bands in Apacheria, were often blamed for the depredations of the less-sedentary Chiricahua Apache.

One of Record's more illuminating arguments is that Tucsonans at the time, especially those in the business community, did not really want Apaches to turn peaceful. The reservation system as envisioned by the U.S. Army would decrease the need for soldiers, which would in turn devastate the local economy. As Record shows, the most virulent Apache haters in the territory were the men making the most off the Army's presence here.

Thus, we have the general circumstances, building over generations, that led to the Camp Grant Massacre in 1871, an infamous slaughter of more than 100 Western Apache, mostly women and children, who were peacefully camped close to a U.S. Army fort near Aravaipa Canyon. The outrage was planned and perpetrated by the leading lights of Tucson's business community, and justified by the half-mad screeds of Tucson Citizen editor John Wasson. I wonder if the retrospectives of the dying Citizen's long and storied history will include the fact that one of its editors regularly called for a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Record's is the best book I've ever read about the Apache, Western or otherwise. And though he treads over much of the same territory as Karl Jacoby does in his recent study of the Camp Grant Massacre, Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History (reviewed in the Dec. 18, 2008, Tucson Weekly), Record includes a diversity of Apache voices from the past as well as the present. And native voices, until quite recently, have always been the obvious element missing from most studies of Native Americans. With Big Sycamore, Record has created a near-perfect working model for a new generation of scholars of Native America.

More than any other study of a culture which still today is largely misunderstood and even vilified, Big Sycamore Stands Alone resurrects the knowledge and spirit of the Western Apache, and rescues legend-soaked history from a dominant culture that would just as soon forget. And for this, Ian W. Record should be celebrated.

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