Years ago, a friend of mine started dating a vivacious American girl. Being American himself, he naturally included her ancestral lineage in his discussion of her charms. “Yes, Dan,” he said, “She’s part Scottish, part Irish, part German, a little English and also Apache - on her great-great-grandmother’s side.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” I said.
“Well, because her great-great grandmother was raped, of course. What do you think the white settlers were doing on Indian lands in the 19th century? They weren’t passing the bong around at a groovy inter ethnic love-in, I’ll tell you that for nothing. “
Actually I didn’t say that. But I was tempted. You see I’m always a little skeptical when somebody with a European name and European features (this girl even had carrot colored hair) tells me he or she has Indian blood, for two reasons:
1) This ancestor is always conveniently located beyond living memory, and sometimes even before the invention of the photograph.
2) This ancestor is always a member of one of the cool sounding tribes that everybody has heard of. The Cherokee make very compelling ancestors, for instance, as do the Apache and the Sioux. And yet for some unfathomable reason, nobody ever wants to claim descent from the Kickapoo. Why not, eh? What’s wrong with the Kickapoo?
Some of these claims must be true, but many - I believe - are inspired by the common human desire to be exceptional. A little invented Indian heritage in the family background can work wonders for a person’s sense of specialness (a friend also tells me that on certain college campuses it can - and does - score you a free laptop).
Anyway I was thinking about this because recently I read an article in a magazine about Apache baskets, which have become extremely collectible in recent years due to their increasing scarcity. This scarcity is down to two things:
1) The scarcity of actual Apaches
2) The mind-bendingly tedious process of making the damn things.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen photographs of Apache artifacts and some of them are very striking. Apache baskets usually feature black geometric figures like rectangles, triangles and diamonds set alongside humanoid and animal shapes. I saw one from the 1890s, and the little men looked like demonic figures from an early arcade game. The problem is that these baskets were made out of an incredibly tough, thorny plant called “Devil’s Claw.” Back in the 1800s the only way to make Devil’s Claw malleable enough to weave with was for Apache women (for it was women who did all the weaving) to run it repeatedly through their teeth, thus forming deep grooves which completely ruined their smiles. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the entire process - from gathering the Devil’s Claw to completing the basket - took about six months.
Unsurprisingly, the Apache pretty much quit making baskets like this in the 1930s. It is a pity of course, when a skill is lost, and certain beautiful things cease to enter our world. But who can blame the Apache? What a dreadful way to spend your time. It’s a bit like the phenomenon of the Castrato - male eunuchs may have beautiful voices, but I can’t justify somebody losing his gonads just so I can enjoy opera a bit more.
But then I read on, and discovered something even more interesting, this time about Apache backpacks, which were woven not from Devil’s Claw but rather willow root. Apparently an Apache backpack was not considered finished until chimes had been attached with a strip of cow or deer hide.
These were considered essential for two reasons:
1) To scare away nasty creatures such as snakes.
2) To alert men whenever their mother-in-laws were approaching.
Apache culture placed a premium on keeping the generations at a distance from each other, you see. They well knew the trouble that can arise when young and old clash.
What a simple, and yet genius idea! I thought. Compare it to modern systems for establishing intergenerational distance - such as putting your parents in a nursing home, or fleeing to another city. These methods can be extremely costly, disruptive to your routine, and even cruel.
It’s hardly surprising then that these old Apache backpacks are now highly collectible. However since they were in constant use, specimens in good condition (with the tassels intact) are ultra-rare. A good example can fetch upwards of $100,000 at auction. Now that’s very expensive, and out of the reach of most people.
Unless, that is, you’re one of those European-looking types lucky enough to be descended from the Apache. Then you might want to start rooting around in your attic, to see what you can find up there. I’d suggest you start looking next to tomahawks, over by the pile of peace pipes.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.