Apache Indians are a nomadic hunter-gatherer society and much of its culture and symbolism is rooted in nature. Since the appearance of Europeans in North America, Apaches have been incorrectly conceived as an aggressive warrior people and not as artisans and artists. Today, many traditional Apache art forms are still thriving and many Apache artists have taken traditional symbols and themes into modern mediums.
Apaches were among the first Native Americans to ride horses into battle. In preparation, a warrior would decorate his horse to reflect his personal honors such as enemies killed or horses stolen.
A left hand drawn on the horse's right hip was one of the highest honors for a horse, earned by returning its rider from battle unharmed. Other symbols such as arrowheads and thunder stripes would augment the horse's natural ability and maximize its effectiveness against the enemy.The most sacred of all symbols in all Native American cultures is the circle, however, which for the Apache is most potently embodied in its chief symbol, the sacred hoop.
Called "Dee'" or "Ndee,'" the Apache hoop contains special powers that make it useful in a variety of ceremonies, although it is generally associated with healing and protection. The hoop is divided into four sections, traditionally by the tying of an eagle feather, symbolizing the four directions and the four seasons. Like most traditional Apache symbols, the hoop is usually one of the four sacred colors: black, green, yellow or white.
Building on the circle and the hoop, Apache women spent much of their time weaving burden baskets out of leaves and roots, or using them to carry gathered wild foods. The basket symbolized birth into the world, and the sides were often decorated with other culturally significant symbols by weaving darker-colored leaves over lighter ones.
In the 1930s, a Pueblo Indian named Tony White Cloud revolutionized use of the sacred hoop by incorporating multiple hoops into highly symbolic dances. Although not Apache, White Cloud's technique became very popular in many tribes throughout the region and he later even went on to appear in the films "Valley of the Sun" with Lucille Ball and "Apache Country" with Gene Autry. White Cloud-inspired hoop dancing is still a part of Apache celebration and can be seen at the annual Jii festival on the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona.
Apache artists have found new directions to take the traditional symbols of their culture. Rugs, jewelry, sculpture and paintings produced by Apaches today far exceed the craftsmanship of their warrior ancestors, but retain much of the original themes and symbols.