Link to Previous Artist
8 of 13
Link to Next Artist

Chesley Goseyun Wilson

July 31, 1932

Loading...
Apache violin by Chesley Goseyun Wilson, courtesy Chesley Goseyun Wilson and National Endowment for the Arts
Chesley Goseyun Wilson playing his Apache violin, Tucson, Arizona, 1991, photograph by Alan Govenar
Chesley Goseyun Wilson on his land on Highway 60 across from Calva and three miles west of Bylas, Arizona, San Carlos Apache Reservation, San Carlos, Arizona. Courtesy Chesley Goseyun Wilson and National Endowment for the Arts
Apache violin maker Chesley Goseyun Wilson describes the sound of the one-string instrument as a cross between that of a soft flute and a dulcimer. “My fiddle only plays Apache songs.” Tucson, Arizona, 1991, photograph by Alan Govenar
Chesley Goseyun Wilson playing his Apache drum, Tucson, Arizona, 1991, photograph by Alan Govenar
Chesley Goseyun Wilson with other singers at Bylas, Arizona, Sunrise Dance Ceremony, courtesy Chesley Goseyun Wilson and National Endowment for the Arts
Chesley Goseyun Wilson playing his Apache drum, Tucson, Arizona, 1991, photograph by Alan Govenar
The Goseyun Family at theSunrise Dance Ceremony on the San Carlos Apache Reservation, San Carlos, Arizona. Courtesy Chesley Goseyun Wilson and National Endowment for the Arts
Chesley Goseyun Wilson and Alice Wesley, wife of Medicine Man Clarence Wesley and mother of Medicine Man Norwyn Wesley of the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona. Courtesy Chesley Goseyun Wilson and National Endowment for the Arts
Pastor Elmer Nosie (center) and his wife, Lottie Nosie (left), of the Miracle Church of Bylas with Chesley Goseyun Wilson (right), San Carlos Apache Reservation, San Carlos, Arizona. Courtesy Chesley Goseyun Wilson and National Endowment for the Arts
Chesley Goseyun Wilson and Mary Hinton Small, daughter of Medicine Man Emanuel Hinton and wife of Medicine Man Scott Small of Bylas, Arizona. Courtesy Chesley Goseyun Wilson and National Endowment for the Arts
Ella Patten Burdette and her 109-year-old mother, Majel Shaw Patten, of San Carlos, Arizona. Courtesy Chesley Goseyun Wilson and National Endowment for the Arts
Chesley Goseyun Wilson, photograph by Helga Teiwes, courtesy Arizona State Museum

Chesley Goseyun Wilson was born in the village of Bylas on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in the White Mountain area of southeastern Arizona. He is a Western Apache of the Eagle Clan and is the great-grandson of Aravaipa Chief Hashkebansiziin (Eskiminzin) and the great-great-grandson of White Mountain Apache Chief Hashkedasila, who invited the United States government to establish a military facility on his land.

Wilson is a medicine man, qualified to conduct important tribal ceremonies, a singer, a dancer and the last active member of a family of Apache violin makers descended from Amos Gustina, a seminal musician of the Western Apache people. The Apache have a long tradition of wood carving in general, but are especially notable for their tradition of stringed instrument making, a musical tradition shared only, as far as is now known, with the Seri Indians of northwestern Mexico. The origin of the Apache violin is difficult to establish, though it seems likely that the tradition existed prior to the coming of the Spanish.

The Apache name for the one- or two-stringed violin is Tsii' edo'a'tl, which translates to "wood singing" or "wood that sings." The instrument is also known by its colloquial name, Ki'zh ki'zh di'hi, which translates to "buzz buzz sound." Wilson describes the sound produced as a cross between a soft flute and a dulcimer.

The present-day Apache violin is most typically made of the dried flower stalk of the agave (Agave desertii) or century plant, cut to lengths of about 40 centimeters, although some are nearly 70 centimeters long. The soft interior pith is hollowed out and the stalk is shaped into the body of the violin, leaving a few inches of stalk intact at both ends to support the string peg and the tuning peg. The instrument is strung with black horsehair, as is the bow, which is made of any flexible wood that can be bent into shape. Only one string is used, and the violin is played by placing the lower end against the chest, stopping the string with one or more fingers of the left hand and moving the bow with the right hand. As in the playing of most similar unfretted instruments, there is frequent use of microtones, which are often not noticeable to the untrained ear. This also is a characteristic of Apache melodies. Because the instrument is intended for solo performance, its tone is delicate and soft. Songs played on the Apache violin include love songs, ceremonial songs, social dance songs and improvisation for the performer's own enjoyment.

Wilson finishes the violin with ornamentation that includes painting and light carving of the body and tuning pegs. In addition to the usual two or three soundholes near the base, he usually drills patterns in the body. Early violins, those made prior to 1920, were most often painted with simple geometric designs using black or red paint, or both colors together. After 1920, the decoration became more ornate, intricate and colorful. Geometric designs and traditional symbols employed for decoration might represent the four directions, clouds, mountains, the sun, serpents, wind spirits and the Ga'an (Mountain Spirit or Crown Dancer).

Over the years, Wilson has had various jobs to earn a living. He worked for Comstock Silversmiths, Inc., of Nevada for 25 years, and has been employed as a security guard. In his free time, he has made violins and striven to keep other Apache crafts, customs and ceremonies alive. He sings traditional Apache songs that he learned from his uncles and his father, all of whom were prominent medicine singers. He also carves and paints figurines of Ga'an dancers and participates as a singer in traditional Ga'an dancing ceremonies. As an authority, he has instructed younger Apache students on the discipline of Ga'an.

Wilson has also spoken and demonstrated before wider audiences at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, at the Southwest Museum in Santa Fe and at the Tucson Meet Yourself Festival, among others. Wherever he goes, he embodies the Apache qualities of independence and cultural commitment. He says, "My fiddle only plays Apache songs."

Bibliography Lokenvitz, J. E. "Keepers of Tradition." Cobblestone (August 1991) 12, 8: 38.

Watch

Chesley Goseyun Wilson interviewed by Charles Kurait, 1989 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Listen

Chesley Goseyun Wilson, audio biography, produced and recorded by Alan Govenar, edited and narrated by Nancy Lamb

Chesley Goseyun Wilson performs 'My Father's Blessing Song' and accompanies himself on an Apache violin, Tucson, Arizona, 1991, recorded by Alan Govenar

Chesley Goseyun Wilson sings 'The Spirit Dancer's Song' and accompanies himself on an Apache drum, Tucson, Arizona, 1991, recorded by Alan Govenar

Chesley Goseyun Wilson plays an Apache violin and sings a blessing song, Tucson, Arizona, 1991, Rrecorded by Alan Govenar

Chesley Goseyun Wilson plays an Apache flute, Tucson, Arizona, 1991, recorded by Alan Govenar