The Apache, Navajo & Mandan Civilizations

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  • 0:01 Three Civilizations
  • 0:40 Apache
  • 3:01 Navajo
  • 4:05 Mandan
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore three Native American tribes in, what is today, the America's Southwest and Midwest. Though all three were different cultures, they were all ultimately decimated by the same thing: contact with European settlers.

Three Civilizations

Today, if you're a fast driver, you can probably go ten miles in under ten minutes. Well, several hundred years ago, that same stretch that you zip by in moments used to be entire worlds to some people. Indeed, some historians and anthropologists theorize most people in the Middle Ages were born, lived, and died all within a 10-mile radius! Despite this, civilizations as a whole still built cities, fought each other, and conquered seemingly distant lands. In this lesson, we'll discover the achievements and histories of three such civilizations in North America: the Apache, the Navajo, and the Mandan.


The first of these groups we'll explore is the Apache civilization. Apache refers to various Native American tribes that settled in, what is today, the American Southwest and share a similar dialect with the neighboring Navajo civilization. Their traditional lands roughly cover what is today Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Northern Mexico, Texas, and Colorado. 'Apache' is not the name these tribes gave themselves. Rather, it was likely a Spanish bastardization of the Navajo word for 'enemy' because Navajo tribes and Apache tribes routinely fought one another.

Our understanding of the history of the Apache people is patchy prior to their contact with Europeans. What we do know has been gleaned from oral tradition and the work of anthropologists and paleontologists. Their best guesses claim that the Apaches first arrived in their now traditional homeland a few centuries before the arrival of the Spanish from more northerly lands. Apache tribes soon took up residence in the land and began trading animal hides, crops, and other goods with their neighbors.

The Apaches also routinely raided neighboring cultures for livestock and other goods, and it is likely how they gained their name. The Apache were not a homogeneous group either; Apache tribes were relatively distinct organizations and raided and fought each other just as willingly as outside civilizations, like the Navajo or Pueblo.

Most Apache tribes were led by a chief who was elected by a council of elders. Though the chief was generally in charge of tribal decisions, important decisions, such as those regarding war or moving the tribe's settlement, often required a unanimous decision after debate by the council. By today's standards, the system was rather informal; there were no set guidelines concerning what the chieftain could and what he could not do.

When the Spanish first encountered Apache tribes in their 16th-century exploration of North America, they noted the Apache groups maintained a thriving and friendly trade relationship with Pueblo tribes. This relationship had likely been forged over centuries. When the Spanish began making permanent settlements in the Southwest, Apache tribes were more hostile than other Native American tribes, happily raiding the newcomers' villages and farming communities. Despite this, they developed better trade relations on the whole with the Spanish than with later Mexican or American governments and settlers.


The Navajo, traditional enemies of many Apache tribes likely became so because they inhabited the same land, largely in modern-day New Mexico and Arizona. The Navajo language is closely related to the language spoken by Apache tribes, causing anthropologists to suggest they both migrated from more northerly homelands and possibly from common ancestors. Navajos, like their traditional Apache enemies, began life in the American Southwest as hunter-gatherers, though soon after making contact with Spanish explorers in the 16th century, they acquired European livestock and became some of the best sheepherders in the region.

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