The term “Apache” is one of the most widely known names for Native American groups, but it’s actually quite problematic. There is, I think, a general perception that it refers to a specific “tribe,” but it doesn’t. What it really is, at least as it’s used today, is a designation for all the Southern Athapaskan groups except the Navajos. These groups include the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apaches in New Mexico and the Western Apaches (several closely related contiguous groups) in Arizona. There are also some smaller groups that have largely merged with the others, most notably the Chiricahuas, who famously fought the US Army for many years under Geronimo and other famous chiefs but have since mostly merged with the Mescaleros. These various Apaches, however, don’t form a single group linguistically. Some of the languages, especially Western Apache, are closer to Navajo than they are to some other “Apache” languages. This makes “Apache” polyphyletic in classificatory terms. In other words, there is no group of “Apache” languages the members of which are more closely related to each other than to other Athapaskan languages.
This fact has been recognized for a long time. Harry Hoijer published an initial attempt at classifying the Southern Athapaskan (or “Apachean”) languages in 1938. In it he posited that all the Southern Athapaskan languages form a single genetic unit divided into Eastern and Western branches, with Navajo, Western Apache, Mescalero, and Chiricahua all belonging to the Western branch, with Jicarilla and the apparently closely related Lipan belonging to the Eastern branch.
Also belonging to the Eastern Apachean branch in this classification were the so-called “Kiowa Apaches,” although Hoijer recognized that their language diverged from all the other Apachean languages in important ways. This group has long been a puzzle for ethnographers. They have been called both “Kiowa Apaches” and “Plains Apaches,” but some anthropologists have preferred to call them “Na’isha” after their name for themselves, and I will follow their example for reasons that will soon become apparent. Culturally and politically, they are very closely connected to the Kiowas, who speak a totally unrelated language (which has its own puzzles, but that’s a separate matter) and as of the nineteenth century lived way out on the Southern Plains, far removed from any other Athapaskans groups. The Na’isha, however, do not speak Kiowa but their own language, which is clearly Athapaskan. Despite the clear divergences between it and the other Southern Athapaskan languages, it does also show some similarities to the Eastern Apachean languages specifically, and Hoijer therefore classified it in 1938 as an Eastern Apachean language with some major divergences from the others, in the same way that he considered Navajo a Western Apachean language with some divergences. Later in life, however, after fuller data became available on a wider variety of Athapaskan languages outside the Southwest, he seems to have changed his mind and reclassified Na’isha as an Athapaskan language closely related to the Apachean languages but not more closely related to them than to some other Athapaskan languages found further north. In 1985 Martin Huld published an article pointing to some additional differences between Na’isha and the Apachean languages that further support the idea that Na’isha is not Apachean.
The picture emerging from this research is that both Na’isha and Proto-Apachean seem to have separated from other Athapaskan languages somewhere on the far northern Plains, perhaps in southern Alberta. The Athapaskan language still spoken in the Calgary area, Sarcee, also shows some similarities to both Na’isha and Apachean. The implication of these conclusions is that all of these languages were once spoken in the same area by groups in close contact with each other, resulting in many similarities in the languages. Crucially for understanding the prehistory of the Plains, however, the Na’isha seem to have split off and headed south separately from the Apachean speakers. This model is in strong contrast to other models which have the Na’isha splitting from the other Apacheans after the latter had moved to the Southwest, and it is more consistent with Na’isha and Kiowa oral tradition, which holds that they had been associated with each other for a very long time and came to the southern Plains from the north.
So, it seems that the “Kiowa Apaches” are neither Kiowa, despite close association with the Kiowas, nor Apache, despite their Athapaskan language. Instead, they most likely represent an additional Athapaskan migration to the south, separate from the migration(s) that brought the Navajos and the various other Apaches to the Southwest. This is why both “Kiowa Apache” and “Plains Apache” are very problematic as terms; the Na’isha are probably not “Apaches” in the linguistic sense, nor are they Kiowas, and they are not the only Athapaskans to occupy the Plains either. The Eastern Apachean Jicarilla and Lipan Apaches also lived on the Plains, to the west of the Kiowas and Na’isha, closer to their Western Apachean brethren. These groups are, indeed, often considered intermediate culturally between the Southwest and the Plains. They were in contact with the Pueblos, and the Jicarillas even farmed to some extent, but they also hunted bison and had various Plains cultural traits, although to a lesser extent than the Na’isha, Kiowas, and Comanches, the preeminent bison-hunting cultures of the southern Plains.
The importance of this conclusion for archaeology is that the “Athapaskan migration” that has been so elusive in the archaeological record likely consisted not of a single large group but of multiple smaller groups which would be very hard to find evidence for, some of which later coalesced into the Apache groups known from the ethnohistoric record. This is another example of the huge and largely untapped potential for linguistics to contribute to archaeological problems.
Hoijer, H. (1938). The Southern Athapaskan Languages American Anthropologist, 40 (1), 75-87 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1938.40.1.02a00080
Huld, M. (1985). Regressive Apicalization in Na’isha International Journal of American Linguistics, 51 (4) DOI: 10.1086/465932