Sons-in-jah, an old Apache
Conversations with an aged Apache at Fort Sumner, NM, about 1864, as reported by John C. Cremony in his 1868 book, Life among the Apaches
Among those who had surrendered themselves was a very old man, probably nearly a hundred years of age, for other men of fifty-five and sixty told me that he was a noted warrior when they were little children. His name was Sons-in-jah, or the "Great Star." This man's frame was of enormous proportions. His height, even at that extreme age, was six feet three inches, without mocassins. His shoulders were extremely broad, his arms of uncommon length, and his shriveled limbs exhibited a volume of bone almost equal to that of a large horse. The old man's eyesight had begun to fail, but his hearing was keen as ever. His head was as white as snow, and he was the only gray-headed Apache I ever saw. Several of his front teeth were gone, probably lost from a blow, but his molars were almost equal to those of a horse. Heavy folds of thick skin feel over each other down his abdomen; but the muscles and cords in his legs and arms seemed to be made of steel. This old man came regularly to see me every day that I was in camp, and it delighted me to treat him with kindness, although I felt convinced that for three-quarters of a century his hands had been steeped in blood.
His memory was fresh and vivid, full of recollections, and teeming with experiences of the past. He outlived his usefulness, and was neglected by the tribe. He said, that when he was a boy the hills and the valleys of his country were filled with his people. They were very numerous and dreaded by all the surrounding peoples. But dissention crept in among themselves. Family feuds let to family vendettas, and innumerable duels; that the defeated besought the aid of the Spaniards, who afterward turned their weapons against their allies. In those days, said he, we had none but stone-headed arrows, and sharpened stakes for lances. The Mexicans were just like ourselves. The other day I was in Santa Fe and saw the Mexican women dressed in great finery, with gowns of many colors; but I remember when they wore little more than breech-cloths, and were but to happy to own the very coarsest kind of vesture. By and by the Spaniards went away and left the Mexicans to themselves. At first we lived quite on good terms with each other; but then some American traders arrived, who were dreadful people, always getting drunk, and killing each other or somebody else. These men made raids upon us, and carried off our women and children whom they sold to the Mexicans. This excited our vengeance against the invaders and those who bought their plunder, and ever since a deadly feud has raged between them and the Apaches. You "white-eyes," added Sons-in-jah, know how to read and write; you know how to circulate information and ideas from one to the other, although you may never see or know the party; but we poor Apaches are obliged to relate what we know and have seen by means of words only, and we never get together in large parties to remain long enough to disseminate any great amount of information.
The foregoing incisive sentences precisely reflect the drift of the remarks made to me by the old man on many occasions. I am largely indebted to him for much information on other points, which he imparted with perfect freedom, especially as he considered himself a protege of mine, and received more kindness form me than from his own people. But with all my efforts I failed to obtain from Sons-in-jah any recital of their modes of sepulture. On this point he was invariably reticent. He was by no means vainglorious; seldom referring to his own deeds, unless extracted from him under favorable circumstances. After sunning himself on a fine day, he would wink his bleared eyes in a knowing manner, and invite me to take a seat near him and listen to his recitals. Deeds of violence and sanguinary outrages, hair-breadth escapes, terrific journeys and bold robberies were rehearsed with intense gratification to the old man; but after relating each incident he was always particular to give me a "reason" for his acts. In other words, he sought to excuse the bloody record of his life by stating the incentives. If any other argument were needed to satisfy me that the Apache is fully cognizant of the difference between right and wrong, this old reprobate's excuses were sufficient to remove all remaining doubts.
I utilized old Sons-in-jah in a variety of ways. He was entirely nude, with the exception of a much worn breech-cloth, and he complained bitterly that his people treated him with neglect, and robbed him of his rations. I gave him a good pair of soldier's pants of the largest size, a flannel shirt and a stout pair of shoes, which delighted him greatly. He came regularly every day for food, which he received from me whenever I was in camp, and at other times from some member of the company.
"How is it," said I, "that the Apaches contrive to live in places where there is neither game nor plunder?" The old man laughed heartily at my ignorance and simplicity, and replied:
"There is food everywhere if one only kows how to find it. Let us go down to the field below, and I will show you."
The distance was not more than six hundred yards, and we proceeded together. There appeared to be no herbage whatever on the spot. The earth was completely bare, and my inexperienced eyes could detect nothing. Stooping down he dug with his knife, about six inches deep, and soon unearthed a small root about the size of a large gooseberry. "Taste that," said he; I did, and found it excellent, somewhat resembling in flavor a raw sweet potato, but more palatable. He then pointed out to me a small dry stalk, not larger than an ordinary match, and about half as long: "Wherever you find these," he added, "you will find potatoes." This was in October, and a few days afterward the field was covered with Indians digging these roots, of which they obtained large quantities. Pursuing the subject, Sons-in-jah said: "You see that big field of sunflowers; well, they contain much food, for we take the seeds, reduce them to flour upon our metates and make it into cakes, which are very nice. Again: the mescal, which you white people would pass without notice, is convertible into excellent food by the simple process of roasting. Furthermore, we know exactly when, where and how to trap and catch small animals, like the prairie dogs, foxes, raccoons and others; besides which there are many plants containing nutriment of which you know nothing, or would not eat if you did."