A time of tragedy, culminating in triumph for an Arizona tribe, will be commemorated on February 26 when the Yavapai-Apache Nation hosts its annual Exodus Day Commemoration Event. “The event commemorates the forced removal of the Yavapai and Apache from the Verde Valley in 1875,” says YAN Public Relations Manager Fran Chavez, who is enrolled in the 750-member tribe.
For centuries, the Wipuhk’a’bah, one of the bands of the Yavapai, and the Dilzhe’e, or Tonto Apache band have shared the Verde Valley in Central Arizona. The Dil’zhe’e lived mostly east, and the Yavapai west of the Verde River.
The verdant riparian zone of the Verde River provided water, shade from the hot summer sun and rich soil in which the two peoples grew crops, families and eventually, a shared culture and history while also maintaining their own cultures, languages and lifeways. The peaceful coexistence of the two tribes stands in sharp contrast to the stereotype of the Apache as only capable of brutality and terror.
However, the bloody reputation attributed to the Apache by a lurid 19th-century press and a few tragic incidents clung to the bands, and when white settlers happened upon the green ribbon meandering its way through the arid valley, they also found the Yavapai and Apache. In one story told by Yavapai elders at nearby Fort McDowell, when settlers asked the identity of the people living in one village, they answered “Aba’ja,” or “the people.” Unfortunately, that Yavapai word was misheard by the settlers to mean “Apache,” and the settlers, frightened by tales that they would be murdered in their beds, set about ridding the valley of Indians.
Also, in 1863, gold was discovered in nearby Prescott in the midst of the ancestral Yavapai homelands, which once stretched from just east of the Colorado River to the Matzatzal Mountains, up to just south of modern-day Flagstaff and south to the O’odham lands in what is now Phoenix. Within two years of the discovery, Yavapai people were being hunted down and killed.
Naturally, the Yavapai and their Apache neighbors took to arms to defend their homes and families. In the battles following, the several Yavapai bands were swept up alongside their Apache friends.
Despite the establishment of the Rio Verde Reservation for the Verde Valley tribes in 1871, the reserve was rescinded by presidential order in 1875 and, on Feb. 27, 1875, 1,400 Yavapai and Apache people in the reservation along with Yavapais from Prescott and Fort McDowell were forcibly marched to the San Carlos Reservation about 100 miles east of Phoenix; the trip totaled about 180 miles. The brutal march across the mountains, fording swollen rivers and struggling along steep trails instead of the easier wagon roads through Phoenix caused many who stumbled to be left where they fell; hundreds of men, women and children perished.
After 25 years living in what was essentially a concentration camp, in 1900 all the Yavapais and the Dil’zhe’e Apache were finally allowed to return to their traditional homes. About 200 returned to the Verde Valley, only to find their lands occupied by white settlers. However, over the next few years, small reservations were established by executive order for the displaced Indian people.
Today, the Yavapai-Apache Nation is one of three Yavapai tribes and one of four Apache tribes in Arizona. The small Camp Verde Reservation has grown to four non-contiguous communities totaling more than 1,600 acres of trust land, including land in Middle Verde, Clarkdale and Rimrock. The nation’s principal enterprise, Cliff Castle Casino Lodge and Conference Center, is the largest employer in the Verde Valley and is a major player in the region’s economy. The nation also owns an RV park, a sand and gravel operation, a convenience store and a construction firm. A cultural center helps the two peoples preserve their traditions and helps tribal youth connect with their rich heritage.
The Exodus Day Event includes a commemorative walk, live cultural entertainment and vendors offering art, food and more. Tribal royalty help serve traditional acorn stew and other traditional foods to elders during a traditional luncheon open to the public.
Chavez sums up the event: “Today, the Yavapai-Apache Nation commemorates those who lost their lives and those who persevered to return home and reestablish their place in the Verde Valley.”