Dzil Nachaa Si'an: Sacred Peak for the Western Apache

UA News Services
Jan. 3, 2005


At 10,720 feet, Dzil Nachaa Si'an, or Mount Graham, is the highest peak in the Pinaleno Mountain range. Stories and traditions of Western Apache tribes have long conveyed its importance as a source for natural resources, a place of prayer, and the home of the gaan, or mountain spirits.

Now, research by Patricia Spoerl, liaison to the Apache Tribe and Heritage Resources Program leader for the Coronado National Forest, will officially write that significance into history.

Spoerl's research, funded by the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Arizona, aims to document the cultural and spiritual significance of Mount Graham to the Western Apache - the San Carlos Apache, White Mountain Apache, and Yavapai tribes. It was a response, in part, to the concerns of Apache tribes about the impacts of forest management practices on the mountain.

Her findings, which establish the enduring importance of the mountain for Apache people, deem Mount Graham eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as a Western Apache traditional cultural property. That status is important, Spoerl says, because it requires that federal agencies consult with and involve Apache tribes through all phases of any project on the mountain.

Prior to the eligibility determination, Spoerl says, "the tribes didn't feel there was any acknowledgment by anyone, that the mountain is of cultural importance. Having that officially recognized means they can be better heard in their concerns." Spoerl found that sites on Mount Graham have been important sacred places in Apache culture for centuries despite shifts and changes in the tribes' territory and traditional ways of life.

The traditional homeland of the Apache, originally 12 tribes, once covered what are now New Mexico, and Arizona. In 1870 the U.S. government established the first of several Apache reservations to designate territory where tribes could raise crops and livestock. While it aimed to protect the Apache from white settlers, the reservation system separated tribes from traditional spaces, gathered together distinct bands, and dramatically reduced their range. In the shift, a lot of Apache cultural practices were lost or went "underground," Spoerl says. For that reason, many Apache she spoke with hadn't been to Mount Graham in a long time, if ever. "But their ties to the mountain have remained."

Mount Graham was and remains home to Apache mountain spirits, or gaan, who reside in caves and are called upon in certain ceremonies related to healing, rites of passage, and celebration. Traditionally after ceremonies were over, masks worn by the gaan were offered to sacred sites within the mountains. Today, masked dancers continue to represent gaan at ceremonies such as the Sunrise Ceremony, a traditional rite of passage event for Apache girls, Spoerl says.

Additionally, Mount Graham has long been a place of prayer for the Apache, Spoerl said. The mountain's height traditionally associated it with natural elements such as thunder, lightning, and rain. It has also been used in prayers for health and longevity.

The mountain was also a traditional source for natural resources used in healing and spiritual ceremonies. Springs found on Mount Graham have been an important source of power for the Apaches, some so powerful that their use was restricted to medicine men. As one of the "sky islands," the mountain offers an abundance of woodland and forest species, both plants and animals, not found in the surrounding grasslands and deserts.

To describe and document the importance of Mount Graham to Western Apache tribes, Spoerl interviewed San Carlos and White Mountain Apaches about their relationship with the mountain. She also used historical documents and archival records, many of which were compiled by Grenville Goodwin, an anthropologist who lived with and wrote about the San Carlos Apache in the 1930s.

Spoerl points out that there is no single Apache view about the mountain and its spiritual significance. In part, she explains, differing views and uses are the result of changes in Apache cultural practices over time.

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