Before the name "Fort Sill Apache" was applied, the Tribe was what the linguists and anthropologists refer to as the Chiricahua Apache Tribe. The Fort Sill Apache Tribe is made up of the descendants of the Chiricahua Apache who were held as Prisoners of War by the United States from 1886 – 1914. The name "Fort Sill Apache" was applied to the group while imprisoned at Fort Sill and was retained by the portion of the tribe that received allotments of land in Oklahoma. The Chiricahua Apache were made up of 4 bands:
- Chihende - also known as Warm Springs Apache Band.
- Chukunende – also known as the Chiricahua Band.
- Nde’ndai – sometimes known as Pinery Apache Band.
- Bidanku – sometimes known as Bronco Apache Band.
The Chiricahua Apache speak a Southern Athabascan language. The other Southern Athabascan nations are Navajo, Mescalero Apache, Jicarilla Apache, Lipan Apache, Kiowa-Apache, and Western Apache (Northern Tonto, Southern Tonto, White Mountain, Cibicue, and San Carlos).The Chiricahua Apache language is said by linguists to be most closely related to the Mescalero Apache language.
The Chiricahua subsisted primarily through the harvest of wild foods, both plants and animals. They were very knowledgeable about plant use, resource locations, harvest times, and the processing and storage of supplies. Trade of excess resources with other tribes was useful to acquire desired items ranging from corn and blankets to shell and turquoise. An alternative to hunting was to acquire goods from enemy people. When harvesting became too dangerous due to attacks by enemies, the Chiricahua had to rely more on acquiring their subsistence from enemies and Chiricahua Apaches became very skilled at this. The most successful expedition was one wherein goods were acquired and no one was hurt on either side.
Ancestral lands of the Chiricahua Apache include what is now known as Southeastern Arizona, Southwestern New Mexico, Northwestern Sonora, Mexico, and Northeastern Chihuahua.
Spain, like other European nations, laid claim to native lands by virtue of "discovery" and the fact that the natives were not Christians. Though Spain laid claim to Chiricahua territory, they were not able to consistently impose control over the area. The Chiricahua Apaches therefore were not Spanish subjects as were other tribes and so were considered fair targets for Spanish slave raiders. This situation significantly affected the Chiricahua Apaches who became adept at resistance. In the 1600s, the Chiricahua formed an alliance with some tribes to their south to fight the Spanish. Those tribes were absorbed into the Chiricahua and probably formed a portion of the Chiricahua band whose name translates as "enemy people".
Though Mexico became independent of Spain, there was little difference for the Chiricahua Apaches. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of February 2, 1848 followed the close of the war between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic. The treaty ceded Mexico's claim of sovereignty over a vast territory called the Mexican Cession Territory from the Mexican Republic to the United States. This included lands owned, and occupied, from time immemorial by the Warm Spring Apache and Chiricahua Apache tribes. (Jozhe pg 427)
Homelands of the Chihende - also known as Warm Springs Apache Band were located in what is now the Southwestern part of New Mexico. They lived in what is now known as the Mimbres, Pinos Altos, Mogollon, and San Mateo mountains. The tribe occupied an area around the head waters of the Gila Riva in what was known as “Ojo Caliente”, which is the vicinity of the Copper Mines near Santa Rita, New Mexico and Hot Springs. It is located near the town of Dusty, New Mexico. In Chiricahua language it is called Dii'guteel, which means “Four broad plains.” (Jozhe pg 427)
Warm Springs Apache leaders since 1848 were Mangus Coloradas, Loco, and Victorio. Mangus Coloradas succeeded Juan Jose as Chief after he was killed in the vicinity of the Copper Mines by white men in the employ of Mexicans. Mangus Coloradas was regarded as one of the greatest leaders of the Warm Spring Apache. He was responsible for the treaty in 1852 with the United States. He has numerous descendants within the tribe today.
Chief Loco succeeded Mangus Coloradas. He was peaceful and cooperated with the United States Government. He has numerous descendants within the tribe today. Victorio also tried to cooperate with the United States but became impatient with the Government demands for his people to be removed for San carlos Reservation, Arizona Territory, and refused to leave his country. He considered it unfair and unjust for his people to leave their country against their will. He fought for the rights of his people until he was killed by Mexican troops in Mexico.
Homelands of the Chukunende – also known as the Chiricahua Band, was Southeastern part of what is now known as Arizona, within the present United States. They lived in the following areas within their country: Dos Cabezas, Chiricahua, and Dragoon mountains.
The Chiricahua leaders since 1848 were Cochise, Taza, and Naiche. Much has been written about Cochise and his story. He was regarded as one of the greatest leaders of the Chiricahua Apache. When he died in 1874 of natural causes, he chose his son Taza as his successor before his death. Taza died while on a delegation to Washington, D.C. to discuss peace talks. Naiche succeeded him as Chief and was the last leader of the Chiricahua Apache. Cochise has numerous descendants within the tribe today.
Ancestral lands of the Nde’ndai – sometimes known as Pinery Apache Band, were located in the Northern part of the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua. The remnants of the Nde’ndai people came to live with the Chiricahuas prior to their imprisonment in 1886.
Juh (Ho) was the last chief of the Nde’ndai Apache. After the dominant leaders of the Chiricahua and Nde’ndai Apache died or were killed, Geronimo influenced some of the leaders of these tribes. Geronimo was never considered a Chief by the Apaches. He died in 1909 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and is buried in the Apache Prisoner of War Cemetery.
In 1886, when Geronimo and some of the Apaches were brought in by General Miles, all the Warm Springs Apache Tribe, and the Chiricahua Apache Tribe, and the Nde’ndai Apache Tribe, and the Bidanku Apache Tribe were imprisoned at Fort Pickens and Fort Marion, Florida.
Peaceful and hostile alike were taken to Florida, including the scouts who took the oath to serve the United States under the flag at Fort Apache, Arizona Territory. They were lined up under the same flag and were disarmed and sent to the Florida prisons. Approximately 512 women, Children, and men were imprisoned. While at Florida 112 children were sent to the Indian school at Carlisle Pennsylvania. Nearly one-third of them died at Carlisle. Due to the unhealthy condition of the prisons in Florida, many died. The prisoners were transferred to Mount Vernon Barracks, Alabama in 1888. This was not a significant improvement for the death rate.
In October 1894 they were brought to the Fort Sill Reservation in Oklahoma Territory. This land was given for the permanent settlement of the Apache Prisoners of War by the Kiowa, Comanche and Kiowa-Apache tribes. While at Fort Sill they engaged in farming and cattle-raising. They were highly successful in each. Many of the men were Indian Scouts and some of them enlisted in the regular army.
In 1913 the larger group of the Apache Prisoners of War (or Fort Sill Apaches as they were called by the people here in the area) were moved to the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico and were released from prisoner of war status. The smaller group, approximately one third, remained as prisoners of war for another year and in 1914 were released to small scattered allotments of farmland mostly in Caddo county and Comanche county in Oklahoma.
The Fort Sill Apache Tribe maintained ties through visits with relatives and through the Apache Reformed Church which they maintained after the Mission at Fort Sill was closed. In the 1970s, a land claim settlement allowed the Tribe to adopt a constitution and to acquire land that would be tribal trust land. The Fort Sill Apache Tribe has since acquired small parcels of land in Oklahoma, and in the Tribe's home territory within New Mexico and Arizona.