Nde Benah

As told to Alastair Lee Bitsóí

Middle Fork of the Gila River in the Gila Wilderness. Digital photograph by Jay Hemphill. Middle Fork of the Gila River in the Gila Wilderness. Digital photograph by Jay Hemphill.
By Joe Saenz

One hundred years ago, on June 3, 1924, the U.S. Forest Service designated the Gila Wilderness as the country’s first official wilderness area. The designation was spurred by the advocacy of writer and conservationist, Aldo Leopold. Leopold had been working for the fledging Forest Service for ten years when, in 1922, he proposed that the federal government set aside protected land for a wilderness area. At the time, the Gila Wilderness encompassed 755,000 acres; it was later split and expanded into two wilderness areas: the Gila now spans 557,837 acres and the adjacent Aldo Leopold Wilderness spans 202,016 acres.

The designation of the Gila Wilderness preceded the 1964 Wilderness Act which was established sixty years ago to protect wilderness areas from machinery and habitation, among other intensive human activity. The Gila Wilderness also preceded the posthumous 1949 publication of Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac, in which he argued for the need for a land ethic that might help guide people toward a noncommercial relationship to the land. As he wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “Ability to see the cultural value of wilderness boils down … to a question of intellectual humility. The shallow-minded modern who has lost his rootage in the land … prate of empires, political or economic, that will last a thousand years. … It is only the scholar who understands why the raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to the human enterprise.” 

And yet, as Lauret Savoy writes in the chapter “Alien Land Ethic: The Distance Between,” in her 2015 book, Trace, Leopold’s luminous writing about the natural world as an extension of the human community and our responsibilities to it did not seem to extend to humans. Though he was writing up until the time of his death in 1948, he made no mention of the Indigenous peoples dispossessed of their land, African American segregation, or the internment of Japanese Americans—among the many injustices occurring at his time. Savoy reflects that a land ethic is not complete without an ethic that considers human relationships, too: “if the health of the land is its capacity for self-renewal, then the health of the human family could, in part, be an intergenerational capacity for locating ourselves within many inheritances: as citizens of the land, of nations even within a nation, and of Earth.”

First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100, edited by Elizabeth Hightower Allen (Torrey House Press, 2022), contains writing by essayists, poets, and politicians, all of whom have come together to celebrate and grapple with the Gila’s one hundredth anniversary. As Hightower Allen writes in the book’s introduction, to the contributors “the Greater Gila represents one of our last opportunities to reimagine a land ethic that is inclusive, whole, and wild.” Joe Saenz, of the Chiricahua Apache, is one of the voices in the collection’s pages and I am honored to share his essay here, with El Palacio readers.— Emily Withnall

Nde Benah. This is Apache Land. Many know it as the Gila Wilderness, Gila National Forest, Aldo Leopold Wilderness, and Blue Range Wilderness. As Nde people, it is our Northern Stronghold. Our history, culture, and language run deep into this landscape of mountains, canyons, and grasslands. These are the traditional lands and country to the Warm Springs Band of Chiricahua Apaches, of which I’m a descendant.

I have been privileged to live in my traditional lands. It took me a while to really understand the importance of Nde lands. Traveling around and living in different places for a while, I relearned the value of how to live in and appreciate this country. To be part of a group of people that treated this land as it should be, as we were instructed by the Creator, protecting all its functions and all its parts—the animals, the water, the soil, the trees. When I say “country,” I am referring to the Northern Stronghold, ancestral Nde lands. Most of the Gila National Forest is Nde lands, as well as areas now known as Apache, Cibola, and Coronado National Forests in southern New Mexico. The four bands that make up the Chiricahua Apache extended all the way from I-40 three hundred miles south into Mexico, all the way from the Sacramento and Guadalupe Mountains west to Tucson. The Warm Springs Band, my band, mostly inhabited the Black Range and the eastern side of the Gila Wilderness, all the way to the Rio Grande.

Now I see all these place names associated with the Gila Wilderness and within the Gila National Forest, and they have nothing to do with Apache. Or, if they do, these names are very derogatory or disrespectful. I’ve asked our elders what they remember. What is their story of this country?

My great-grandmother used to talk about this quite a bit, how the northern mountains are the Northern Stronghold—the entire Gila Wilderness and Gila National Forest—and how the Southern Stronghold is south in the Sierra Madres. One elder, a descendant of Mangas Coloradas, confirmed this area being our Northern Stronghold. There is a word for this area, Huułi, meaning “where things originate, or come from,” and this is the cultural knowledge from my elders and ancestors.

Our stories tell us that we were created here. We believe there were many points of emergence throughout the world. And there was one right here. Archaeologists and anthropologists give credit to the Puebloan peoples, who passed through the area and left their ancestral structures, like cliff dwellings, pit houses, and petroglyphs. All of their footprints were left behind. As they passed through, we contend that they came from a different direction, the south; we do not ascribe to the land bridge theory. I grew up hearing a different story. My grandparents told me stories of how Indigenous peoples moved in this area, where they came from, who was here, and who was not. And so those truths were ingrained in me. When I attended college, of course I heard differently. And I’m going, “Wait a minute. I heard it differently.”

So yes, there are Ancestral Puebloan sites here, and we know they moved from the region. But we were here, and we can attest to that. The only people that were able to run us off were the U.S. government and the U.S. military. They did that by trickery, by genocide, and by conventional war. But this is Apache land, and always has been.

We lived off this land. We did not have to grow crops. We did not have rock buildings. There was a way to move through this country to flourish. We had a variety of terrain that accommodated us in winter and summer, plenty of carrying capacity for all of us. Aside from the physical beauty, the mountains, we had the minerals, the timber, the forest, the lowlands with desert and cactus—all of that accommodated us, nourished us, and gave us the spiritual connection.

As Nde, we wove ourselves through these environments because we understood that damaging any system would damage other parts of the ecosystem, and would eventually cause damage to us, so it was important that our movement accommodated that. The philosophies, the medicine, all of that, manifested itself in those lives. Just amazing.

There is a reason most of this country is national forest. The dominant society, also known as Americans, saw these lands from a monetary perspective. But it is impossible to care for this land without the knowledge of our Nde connections and acknowledgment of the Nde as the guardians of this cultural landscape. When comparing Indigenous views and Western perspectives, there is a distorted perception. On the one hand, we are the voice to speak against exploitation of this land for its timber, water, grass, or any of its other elements. Settlers, however, want to use Nde lands for monetary gain.

Instead of calling it the Gila Wilderness, I very much prefer it as the Apache Preserve. That would be a starting point to reclaiming Nde benah, with Apache values, ideology, and culture. Understanding how to manage these lands from our view would help the state and federal governments learn that these lands are sacred. Instead of knowing the latitude and longitude of a specific sacred site, it is the whole country. Our values of what is sacred—both tangible and intangible—run counter to American government and its political system.

There’s really no intrinsic monetary value that goes with our culture. We moved around too much, a value that cannot be capitalized upon. What are we going to do, make bows and arrows on a street corner? When outsiders visit the area, it is marketed as Puebloan culture, and people line up in carloads to see the remnants of what outsiders think is a dead culture, and so there is no responsibility and accountability to those Indigenous narratives. And so that culture is perpetuated; hence, the need for responsibility and accountability. Apache people lived differently and are still present in the area.

We’re here to say there is a different way to experience the Northern Stronghold. Imagine this country without those petroglyphs. Imagine this country without those cliff dwellings. Imagine this country without those pit houses. That’s what we saw. And now this landscape is changing, especially under the management of the Forest Service. We are extremely lucky to have the Gila Wilderness and Gila National Forest. We’re able to hang on. But the wilderness has been in decline due to mismanagement since the land was taken over in the late 1800s.

One of the threats is fire. Fire is a big business. Money. Everything is done around fire now. They need to stop fighting fires in the wilderness and just monitor them.

That’s what we deal with here in the wilderness. Priorities change. I see those changes happening. The whole idea with the first rangers was multiple use—let’s log it, hunt it, let’s do all this. The miners, hunters, and trappers killed everything here—the elk, the deer, the grizzly, the wolf. They destroyed the ecosystems, and now they want to play God and bring back these sacred beings. That has always been an interesting way to think: Let’s use it until it’s gone. Then let’s try to bring it back.

Well, what if you started with life to begin with?

Right now, there is a growing trend among our peoples to
reclaim our traditional territory in the Gila region. We are seeing more and more Nde and ancestral Nde move back to the area from places like Oklahoma and California, having been forcibly removed through federal policies of relocation. With a growing presence of Nde peoples, we are also experiencing some backlash in our own territory, in part because we are shifting the narrative with Indigenous history, culture, and language.

While we continue to amplify Apache connections to the Gila, we are also on the frontlines organizing around issues that negatively impact this pristine and sacred country. The last stand we took was stopping the damming of the Gila River and the flyovers of the U.S. Air Force, which uses the Gila landscape as training grounds for the military. I want to encourage our
allies and friends to continue opposing these flyovers, because this territory is asking us to protect it in an effort to achieve balance. I told people in the community, we tried a long time ago to step up and protect this country. We’re still here, we’re still fighting. Now it’s your turn. You need to step in and help if you really value this country. As Nde, we want a seat at the table, and hope that the modern land managers—the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service—allow us this opportunity to get involved with the planning and decision-making.

Some believe that this country holds a great power for us. It’s been broken; it’s been severed. What we are trying to do is remake that connection.

As Indigenous people, we know what this land was like before it was colonized by settlers. There were no roads or electric lines. It was a complete wilderness. And as we lived in this space, the perception of what is now wilderness had, and continues to have, a different meaning. Today, wilderness is seen as a place where humans do not belong. If you call it the Gila Wilderness, it should be managed in such a way—as an interactive wilderness that will help teach people. Not as a park for rich travelers and the creation of man-made structures because they are losing sight of what is really there.

How my ancestors lived was through expressing their connections to the world and the Creator. They flourished through our songs and dances, and through honoring the plants, the animals, everything that gave them sustenance. That is true freedom. One of the reasons we were so threatening to American society is that we know the difference between the reality of freedom and the illusion of freedom. As Native people, we had true freedom. That lifestyle is embodied into who we are. Today everyone is into titles—wanting to be an architect, doctor, or some other profession. This is good, but as Apache we think of how we can be the best Apache person we can be. And that requires following the standards and protocols set by our ancestors: how they lived and survived, their knowledge of medicines, food, and everything that makes us Apache.

I run a horse-riding business throughout the Gila, and though I consider the horse to be one of the most destructive animals to the landscape, I make sure to have as little impact as possible. On my trips, we move daily. We do not stay in one spot for too long. If I come across an area where there is very little water, I work with my horses so they can tolerate the dryness. I’ll leave the water for the animals—the birds, elk, and deer. But even that pales compared to what our ancestors did, who set the highest standards of living. We have to work toward those standards because they really are strong.

The value of the wilderness is not just visual. To us, it wasn’t just, Oh, beautiful mountains. Nice river. It was nourishment, life. In modern America, it’s perceived as, Why are you saving that land? Well, it’s pretty and I can drive through it. Maybe we could camp there for a night. But you ask an Apache, and they say, We used to eat that over there. We slept in this country. We traveled here because we knew there was water. It’s a whole different connection that goes much deeper than just aesthetics, than what America seems to be clamoring for.

As we have told people, even though we may have lost physical possession of this country, we still retain one hundred percent of the spiritual ownership of this land. No matter how many monuments you build, and how many beautiful homes, you are never going to have the beauty of the land itself. It does not need improvement. As Creator gave it to us, it is in its perfect form. We need to take care of it. This is Apache Land. Nde Benah.

Joe Saenz serves as a council member for the Chiricahua Apache Nation, and he owns and operates Wolfhorse Outfitters. On the treks he leads through the Northern Stronghold, he shares traditional methods of connecting to the land.

Alastair Lee Bitsóí (Diné) is from the Navajo Nation community of Naschitti, below the Chooshgai Mountains on the New Mexico–Arizona state line. He has been an award-winning news reporter for The Navajo Times and The Salt Lake Tribune. He also formerly served as communications director for the Indigenous-led land conservation nonprofit, Utah Diné Bikéyah, which advocates for Bears Ears National Monument. He freelances as a storyteller, writer, and journalist.