Cowboys, Aliens, and Chiricahua Apaches

Set in 1873, the summer blockbuster Cowboys & Aliens follows an outlaw (Daniel Craig), a cattle baron (Harrison Ford), and an Apache chief (Raoul Trujillo) as they fight a technologically superior foe from a foreign world. Filmed largely on location in and around Albuquerque, New Mexico, the film features breathtaking desert landscapes, gun-toting cowboys, and a fairly authentic band of Chiricahua Apaches.

You’ve probably heard of the Chiricahua’s fiercest warrior—Geronimo—but what else do you know about Apache history and how it compares to Hollywood’s version?


1. Chiricahua Apaches violently resisted colonization longer than other indigenous groups.
2. In one scene, Craig’s character drinks a tea that revives his erased memory. Traditional Chiricahua tea is known for its hallucinogenic properties.
3. Feathered headdresses and bone breastplates were typical elements of Apache war garb.
4. Many Chiricahua Apaches were taken to Florida and Alabama as prisoners of war, and later settled in Oklahoma.
5. “Black Knife,” the film character played by Trujillo, was the name of a real Apache chief.


1. TRUE. In 1872, (the year before the alien invasion!), Chief Cochise and other Apache tribes surrendered to the U.S. army, leading them to hard lives on reservations. But one renowned warrior led a group away from the reservation to resume raiding and rebellion. In the film, Chief Black Knife (Trujillo) leads this group, but in reality, it was Geronimo whose band surrendered in 1886, marking the end of major armed resistance by Native Americans.

2. FALSE. The Chiricahua Apache are not widely known for making hallucinogenic tea. It is plausible that such tea might have been prepared by an individual Chiracahua Apache shaman. However, the use of alkaloid-producing hallucinogenic plants such as peyote and San Pedro cactus were more common among the eastern Mescalero Apache. (Today, the Native American Church uses peyote in its rituals, though the traditions are fairly recent, and the Church is not affiliated with a specific tribe.)

3.FALSE. As shown in the film, Apaches wore cotton shirts and headbands, not bone breastplates or feathered headdresses. Starting in the early colonial days, they traded or raided Western style cloth from Mexican and American settlers from . The headbands worn by many Apaches that we see in old photographs served many practical purposes. It kept the sun and their own hair out of their faces. The Chiricahua may have also used the headbands to draw fire from their enemies during standoffs by raising them up in the air using sticks, much like the cowboys of old Westerns did with their hats.

4.TRUE. Cowboys & Aliens offers no epilogue for the Apache, but we know that most Chiricahuas were shipped to tropical Florida as prisoners of war, a status they retained for 27 years. The government eventually resettled the few hundred who had survived the tropical heat and squalid prisons. Today, some Chiricahuas live in semi-autonomous reservations such as Fort Sill, Oklahoma, while others have returned to southwestern New Mexico.

5. FALSE. Apache names usually describe personality traits, not objects or animals. For example, Geronimo’s Apache name, Goyaalé, means “one who yawns.” So the name “Black Knife” sounds unauthentic to the Apache ear, not just because of the translation, but the content as well. The character is based—very loosely—on an Apache chief killed in 1857. Named Baishan in Apache, he is best known by the Spanish nickname “Cuchillo Negro,” translated into “Black Knife” for the film. Baishan fought alongside the Apache chiefs Vitorio and Mangas Coloradas in the Chíhéne band of the Chiricahua tribe. A moderate, he pushed for compromise with whites. In 1857, American soldiers killed Baishan accidentally, while looking for the murderer of a government agent. His Spanish name lives on in the landscape in his homeland, from the Cuchillo Negro Creek to the Sierra, both near the Gila National Forest.

–Cedar Attanasio

Special thanks to Michael Darrow, Tribal Historian and Business Committee Treasurer of the Fort Sill Chiricahua Apache tribe.

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