Alcohol is ingrained in virtually every culture and place around the world. Rare is it where the ancient elixir hasn’t had a fixture within a society at some point in time. From the earliest moments when a human being learned how to brew the fermented drink, it was drunk. Depending on the culture and time it could be for religious purposes, rituals, parties and festivals or even in times of dour need when water was unsafe, for health.

A unique drink particularly comes from the American southwest primarily among the natives there. The drink was called “tiswin.” As though it were of two halves, it could seemingly become either benevolent or malicious depending on the tribe and how it was consumed.

One tribe’s history, the Papago, relates the creation of tiswin through a mother and her child. The mother tied a cloth tied around child’s head to which she attached a feather. The child soon wandered off to play with other children where they teased him about how proud he was of his feather. He then thought that “…perhaps there was something inside his head of which he could be more proud than of his feather.” Thus he made a circle on the ground and began to sink. The children quickly ran to get his mother but by the time she arrived, only a feather had remained above the ground. A badger was called to dig the boy out but in spite of the badger’s best efforts, the boy remained submerged. Then the crows were called and they claimed they had found him in the Koyota Mountains. Here they found the boy standing. The mother pleaded for her son to come home but he spoke, “No; I want to stay in the hills, but I will be of use to my people.” At this point he turned into a saguaro cactus, and, as he did so, he told them how to make the alcoholic drink, tiswin. Then the child began to sing a song, the first of potentially hundreds, saying that these songs and drink were meant to be used in a ceremony to call for rain.1 The Papago were to continue this tradition for as long as any Papago remained alive and if the custom had ever stopped, the rain would cease forever.

A medicine man would then hold the ceremony in late August to call for rain. Taking the fruit from the saguaro cactus and creating tiswin, the Papago would use the wine in an ancient tradition.2

But such uses of alcohol would differ throughout the Americas, both before and after the arrival of the Europeans. This would largely depend upon their knowledge to manufacture it or their social, religious or other experiences. And before the arrival of the Europeans, only the Aztec were capable of distillation which could produce either beer or wine.3 But the arrival of the Europeans had changed much of this dynamic.

Natives throughout the Americas would then be stereotyped for their inability to handle alcohol, which wasn’t altogether true. While for many it was a new drink, it wasn’t nearly as much of an epidemic as some accounts claim.

Rather than merely calling it something tamer sounding like “Tiswin” or some sort of weak wine or beer, alcohol would quickly develop the name of “Firewater.” This term originates from two points, one with the combination of alcohol with tobacco juice, hot peppers or opium or, alternatively, there was a way to test the proof of the alcohol by tossing it into a fire.4

Meanwhile, the technology expanded with the Mayans developing a drink called “balche” which was a wine made of honey and balche bark. Soon over forty different alcohol drink types were made throughout Mexico from such products as honey, palm sap and wild plum.5 It was also in this area, among the Aztecs which formed the early concoctions of tequila; at the time a mild wine using the sap of the agave.6 But rather than the social libation tequila has today, it was reserved solely for religious purposes.

Tiswin itself was made from well-cured corn (the mescal plant could also be used) which was placed in a hole in the ground lined with straw. The corn was then covered with another layer of straw and kept wet with warm water for several days until “sprouting” took place; roughly four days in the summer. Afterwards, it was set out to dry. At this point it was ground up and turned to powder which would be mixed with water to where it would be transferred to a low fire where evaporating water would be replaced by more water in a steady movement. This would take hours and would only be ready when the mix looked like baker’s yeast. With the Apache, tiswin would only have the equivalent of one percent alcohol.7 But they understood how to make it more effective.

The Apache would conduct a long fast for multiple days leading up to the moment of drinking. Entertainment would be found and eventually the people would be ready to drink. One member of the party would take a drink from a cup and pass it around, an event which would be repeated until everyone was drunk. Then the danger would begin as they would proudly claim how many people they’d killed, boasting of their strength. Fights would often break out and murder was common.8, 9 The natives had their own ways of handling these problems but by the late 1800s, the Americans had done their best to ban the production and use of tiswin due to the resulting violence.

Others, such as the Papago, would simply color their faces in white clay and soft black mud ground together. The drink was provided early in the morning as the people seated themselves in a circle around a fire. At each cardinal position a singer would be stationed and then three more singers between each of those at the cardinal points. Those at the cardinal points would have their faces painted half red and half white. Medicine men would then distribute the wine in a basket which also contained cups. And after a few slight gestures toward the sun with their fingers, they would offer the drink to anyone who had wanted it as the singers sang.10 Some of these tribes used instruments to accompany the singing while others went without.

After distribution of tiswin, the medicine men would stand silent behind the singers as a speech was made by a native. This native’s clothing would be old and ragged, tattered as though appearing poor. He’d cake his hair with white clay and walk with a cane calling for rain and green plants to arise from their seeds.11 The drink would then be served again. If it had to be replenished at this point, it would be until there would be none left. The Papago’s ceremony would last roughly “one night and a day.”12

Also used for spiritual purposes, the Papago, aka the Tohono O’odham, used tiswin with speeches and song to “bring the clouds down.” While their ceremonies weren’t nearly as violent as the Apache, neither were they always so peaceful as they would later result in vomiting which was part of the ceremony called “throwing up the clouds.” Villagers would then plant effigies of their desired crops they wished to grow in their fields.13

Therefore, it is no surprise that of the many tribes in the American Southwest and those in Mexico, the Apache often received the harshest reception. This aside from their natural violent tendencies. But much of this had to do with culture as they saw homicide as something very different than the Americans. The Western Apache, for example, could exact restitution for a family member killed in anger. Or if his wife had cheated, the husband was permitted to either kill his wife or cut off her nose.14 The differences in culture were vast by the turn of the century even if the wild west is often portrayed like a tired dime novel.

But the Apache were particularly aggressive. Some of this undoubtedly had to do with the encroachment of the other tribes and countries. By the late 1880s, within Arizona, Native Americans were the most likely race to kill outside of their ethnic group, with 35 percent of their murders being that of whites.15 Naturally retribution would occur through harsher prison sentences or other punishments.

Tiswin could sometimes the one to be blamed rather than outright Indian aggression. By this point, Tiswin’s weak alcohol content was improved with other additives which the Apache could use, notably by including the roots of the plant or adding other liquids such as whisky.16 Tiswin itself wasn’t the cause, but rather was used almost as a ceremonial precursor to attack or invasion. However, Indians of all types were landed as having an inability to handle their liquor due to perceived actions.

Alcohol, just like anything else, was used to spur action. But there were moments in time when tiswin worked on its own accord and sent the natives, particularly the Chiricahuas (Apache), onto the warpath.17, 18 The alcohol was naturally blamed and the Indians along with it. General Crook dared to threaten to kill all of them even “…if it took fifty years…”19 And while there were moments that the region seemed to be under control, “tiswin breakouts” continued to occur.

The later penned-in tribes on their reservations would also turn to drinks like tiswin. Such events ought to have been predictable due to the culture of having the drink, but also having their entire way of life distorted. As different as their ways were with the Americans in the southwest, suddenly throwing out an entire civilization’s culture and their point of view within the world will have incredibly damaging effects on the society. For if a tribe’s purpose or point of being is stripped away, then what reason is there to live? Survive? Or try?

The Mescalero (Apache) tribe had such difficulty. At one point they were given 250 cattle but this quickly fell away to 124. Tiswin brawls were common and Captain Burnett who had arrived in 1893 said that nobody wanted to work and the children lacked “promptness and diligence.”20

Quite naturally, the natives who practiced their tiswin in a more reserved way weren’t as often noticed. As recorded by E.C. Kemble, “Their [The Apache’s] tiswin orgies, during which they rehearse with song and dance their warlike deeds, are often the occasion for settling their private grudges, and as an Indian, when he quarrels, usually quarrels to kill[;] their tiswin dance is not uncommonly a death dance.”21 It is not surprising due to such recollections that the tying between Indians and alcohol have such a terrible reputation.

There were Indians who would work with the Americans to root out tiswin and other alcohol. With the aid of four Apache policemen, a raid was able to be conducted which apprehended 25 armed men in an illegal tiswin camp.22

Aside from the violent reactions of the Apache, which had more to do with their culture, acting in retribution or defending their territory, tiswin and other alcohol used was generally used as a controlled and supervised substance. In fact, when the first record was noted of American Indians being given alcohol in 1545 by Jacques Cartier, it was described that, “the North American Indians initial experience with alcohol was untutored by expectations to the contrary, the result was neither the development of an all-consuming craving nor an epic of drunken mayhem and debauchery”23 In a basic sense, they were just like anyone else. Perhaps curious with something new, but not extravagant.

But alcohol naturally gained in prominence after that point. With the introduction of Europeans the technology expanded, as Abbot notes, alcohol became a trade good along with furs and there were potentially some cultural exchanges and different views on what was accepted.24 Alcohol was certainly destructive for native societies, but in many ways it added to their rich histories with elaborate stories and traditions.

Tiswin is a unique bit of history; hardly potent but certainly powerful in its effect depending on its user. As shown, just like any society, a select group of people are likely to drink more or less, to use certain objects in a religious, ceremonial or violent way. This can always depend on temperament, time, situation and belief. But tiswin, along with many others of its type, is a permanent fixture on societal walls for both the past and the future.


1 Densmore pp 149-50

2 ibid. p 148

3 Abbott p 2

4 ibid. p 1

5 ibid. p 2

6 ibid. p 2

7 Eyewitnessess p. 193

8 ibid. p 193

9 ibid. p 328

10 Densmore pp 156-7

11 ibid. p 158

12 ibid. pp 158-9

13 Miroslav p 4

14 Murderers All p 360

15 ibid. p 365

16 San Carlos Apache pp 480-1

17 Smith p 27

18 Sears pp 28-9

19 ibid. pp 29-30

20 Mescalero Apache p 242

21 Eyewitnessess p 205

22 Tate p 102

23 Abbott p 11

24 ibid. p 11

Works Cited

Abbott, Patrick J. “American Indian and Alaskan Native Aboriginal Use of Alcohol in the United States.” Colorado School of Public Health/University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Accessed April 9, 2023.

Cozzens, Peter, ed. Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars 1865 1890 Vol I The Struggle for Apacheria, 2001.

Densmore, Frances. “Papago Music.” Smithsonian Institution. Accessed April 9, 2023.

Hrdlicka, Ales. “Notes on the San Carlos Apache.” American Anthropologist. Accessed April 10, 2023.

McKanna, Clare V. “Murderers All: The Treatment of Indian Defendants in Arizona Territory, 1880-1912.” American Indian Quarterly 17, no. 3 (1993): 359–69.

Sears, Joseph Hamblen. “The Career of Leonard Wood.” Google Books. Google. Accessed April 7, 2023.

Smith, James Weldom. “Colonel Ranald Slidell Mackenzie and the Apache Problem, 1881-1883.” University of Texas Tech. Accessed April 8, 2023.

Sonnichsen, Charles Leland. “The Mescalero Apaches.” Google Books. Google. Accessed April 7, 2023.

Tate, Michael L. “John P. Clum and the Origins of an Apache Constabulary, 1874-1877.” American Indian Quarterly 3, no. 2 (1977): 99–120.

Černý, Miroslav. “The Role of Ofelia Zepeda in the Tohono O’Odham Language and Cultural Revitalization.” The Czech Science Foundation, September 2022.


Dodge, K. T, photographer. Devils dance i.e. Devil Dancers. , 1899. Photograph.