Web Extra: Article on the Role of the Wolf in Apache Culture

Ba’cho: The Mexican Gray Wolf and the Apache People

By Sarah E. Rinkevich and Daniel Parker

The wolf and Native American tribes shared a similar fate as European settlers expanded westward (Ohlson 2005). Gray wolves (Canis lupus) and many Native American tribes were systematically chased and exterminated with extreme prejudice (Glick 2006). A successful government eradication campaign extirpated Mexican gray wolves (C. l. baileyi) from the southwest United States by the mid-1900s. Federal and state conservation officials captured a few remaining wolves in Mexico and began a captive breeding program. Mexican wolves received protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1972 and were reintroduced back into the southwest U.S. in 1998. The wolf reintroduction occurred on federal lands adjacent to the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, homeland of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and San Carlos Apache Reservation. Tribal officials from both Apache tribes expressed the opinion that they were “left out of the loop” during the early planning stages of the reintroduction program (Pavlik 1999). Many tribes, the White Mountain Apache Tribe included, have viewed the Endangered Species Act and its implementation on tribal lands a direct affront to tribal sovereignty (Albert 2002). Both tribes were in a relatively weak economic position to absorb incremental costs from the Mexican wolf reintroduction program because of their rural nature, high unemployment, and dependence on natural resources on reservation lands (Unsworth et al. 2005). While the White Mountain Apache Tribe opposed the reintroduction initially, they subsequently became a participating partner in the wolf reintroduction program. But the San Carlos Apache Tribe has not participated in the wolf reintroduction (Interagency Field Team 2005).

Biologists attempting to recover the wolf have been frustrated by the opposition of some Apaches to the reintroduction of ba’cho or ma’cho (the word for wolf in the White Mountain Apache and San Carlos Apache language, respectively) into their tribal lands. The idea of Native Americans opposing the reintroduction of a displaced wildlife species may seem inconsistent to some people, given widely held beliefs about the relationship between Indians and their environment. The position of the Apache tribes indeed stands in sharp contrast to the support that the Nez Perce tribe in Idaho gave to the reintroduction of the Yellowstone wolf (Pavlik 1999). The cultural distinctiveness of Native American tribes is often a source of confusion to state and federal biologists. The question remains: What is the significance of the wolf within the Apache culture?

Apache Wolf Stories
Stories from a culture’s oral tradition that include animals can give scientists valuable information. In the book Myths and Tales of the White Mountain Apache by Grenville Goodwin, one story involves a wolf and a mountain lion engaging in a competition to see who is a better deer hunter—an indication that the two species occurred in similar habitats. In the western scientific literature, Bednarz (1988) hypothesized that wolves and mountain lions interacted historically, given their overlapping habitats and shared prey source of mule deer. The potential for competition between wolves and lions certainly exists where the species overlap—their prey selection patterns are similar (see Kunkel et al. 1999). Researchers have also observed differences in hunting behavior between wolves and mountain lions (see Husseman et al. 2003). These differences are portrayed in the Apache story, in which the wolf and mountain lion criticize each other’s hunting behavior. The lion accuses the wolf of running down prey resulting in bad meat and the wolf charges the lion with crawling on its belly and wearing down its claws.

Many animals in Apache culture have “power,” playing a part in ceremony, religion, and everyday life (Opler 1941). Basso (1970) provides an informative narrative of the complex role of “power” and its uses in the culture of the Western Apache, specifically referencing mba biyi, or “wolf power,” among a list of categories that possess power. According to Basso, Apaches believe that a power is a valuable and useful thing that can make life easier, but, if disrespected, is capable of causing extreme hardship. Opler (1941) noted several instances of the wolf playing a role in Apache culture. For example, a woman was said to have contracted “wolf sickness” as a result of pulling a wolf by its foot. For Apaches, it is common to describe a person as having a sickness related to a particular wildlife species—often as a result of immoral or erroneous behavior. Opler also refers the Apaches describing the wolf offering special aid to someone. He also describes how Apaches used a “wolf howl” to alert others when Mexican enemies were present.

Ethnobiological Investigation of Ba’cho
Despite published ethnographies (i.e., a descriptive accounts of what people know about a specific topic), we still lack detailed knowledge about the wolf in Apache culture, especially concerning the Apaches’ traditional ecological knowledge about the relationship between wolves and their larger ecosystem. To properly investigate the traditional role of wolves in Apache culture and collect traditional ecological knowledge about the wolf, starting in February of 2010, we began using an ethnographic approach, conducting semi-structured personal interviews held on site with Apache individuals who were determined to hold ecological and cultural information about wolves. According to Beebe (1995), the semi-structured interview approach is most effective when conducted under conditions most relevant to and revealing about the system being investigated. We have asked questions that have a clear answer as well as open-ended questions that concern the wolf’s habitat, its relationship to other animals, its cultural role, and its importance on the reservation today. 

Due to an early spring this year, we had to stop interviews temporarily. According to Apache culture, it is inappropriate to discuss or tell stories about nonhuman entities during times when they are most active (i.e., spring and summer). We will resume interviews in the winter of 2010 and early 2011.

Information we obtain will also be extremely useful to the interagency Mexican Wolf Recovery Program. Our study aims to provide a bridge between two culturally divergent perspectives. We hope the outcome will be more harmonious and effective wolf management on the two reservations, and improved dialogue to overcome cultural barriers that have precluded trust and cooperation with the wolf reintroduction program. We’ve also considered—and hoped—that our work may encourage a revival of the tribes’ cultural ties to the wolf.

A Unified Way Forward
According to Basso (1996), the Western Apaches’ perception of the land works in specific ways to influence Apaches’ awareness of themselves. The process of “place naming” documents where and how Apaches learned about the environment and how they incorporated these names into social and environmental ethics (Basso 1996). By mentioning a certain “place” in a story, the locality prompts an entire history of events or occurrences of a specific species at that particular location. This concept is further is exemplified by the Apache word ni, an expression that translates to mean both “mind” and “land” and thus, the two words cannot be separated (Chairman Ronnie Lupe, pers. comm., 2008).

The traditional dichotomous approach to management, which considers natural and cultural resources independent of each other, prevents federal and state biologists from effectively addressing diverse cultural concerns (Toupal 2003). Cultural constructions of the environment, whether those of American Indians or of peoples elsewhere in the world, will remain largely inaccessible unless we are prepared to sit down and listen to our native consultants talk (Basso 1996). Resource managers should consciously avoid a paternalistic approach to tribal conservation affairs and take a serious look at traditional values and cultures (Czech 1995). 
Sarah E. Rinkevich is a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment and a Wildlife Biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Daniel Parker is member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fisheries Biologist.

Literature Cited

  • Albert, S.K. 2002. American Indian perspectives on the Endangered Species Act. Buffalo Environmental Law Journal. Vol 9:175-188.
    Basso, K.H. 1970. The Cibecue Apache. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, New York, New York.
  • Basso, K.H. 1996. Wisdom Sits in Places. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
  • Bednarz, J.C. 1988. The Mexican wolf: biology, history, and prospects for reestablishment in New Mexico. Endangered Species Report Number 18. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 2, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.
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