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The Mescalero Apache Story

Hundreds of years ago … long before white men came to this land, these mountains … and plains … and deserts belonged to my people, the Mescalero Apaches.

They roamed free … from Texas, through Chihuahua and New Mexico … into Arizona and Sonora. It was our land … and our life.

Today, three sub-tribes, MESCALERO, LIPAN, CHIRICAHUA, make up our Mescalero Apache Tribe. We live on this reservation-463,000 acres of what once was the heartland of my people’s aboriginal homelands.


Our grandfathers would often speak to the place called White Mountain. It was there that our creator gave us life. And it is a special place. It was on White Mountain, and according to legends, the White Painted Woman gave birth to two sons, CHILD OF WATER and KILLER OF ENEMIES. They were born during a turbulent rainstorm when thunder and lightning came from the sky.

And they were feared by Giant Monsters who wanted to kill them. But White Painted Woman raised them to be brave and skilled … and when they grew to be men … they rose up and killed the monsters on earth.

There was peace … and all human beings were saved.

But the land was harsh … and my people quickly learned that survival meant not only living on the land… but with the land!

Our men hunted Buffalo on the grassy plains. They hunted Antelope on the prairies and deer in the mountains. They killed only what they needed for their immediate use. Their weapons were simple, but our men were swift and cunning hunters.

Our women, too, were skillful providers. They could find water where the white man would die of thirst. They prepared the meat and skins brought home by the men.

And while the men hunted … the women gathered wild plant foods, nuts and seeds. They picked fruit and berries, dug roots and harvested the plants.

They would gather the sweet fruit of the broad-leafed Yucca and pounded its roots in water to make suds for shampoo. Our women prepared staple food from the heart of the mescal plant. That is why Spanish called our people “MESCALERO” … the people who eat mescal.

All food was shared among the entire group. No one starved. This group and family support is still important to all of us today.

Our ancestors lived in small bands … too many people would deplete the food supply too quickly. They moved from place to place, following the seasonal sources of food. The routes were carefully planned. They built only temporary houses at each campsite.

The women would cut young trees and arrange them to stand in circles. They would bend the tops and tie them together, forming a dome-shaped frame which was covered with brush. And they would set up tipis … and cover them with tanned buffalo or elk hides to provide warm, dry shelters.

Buckskin provided the material for old time Apache clothing. Women wore a skirt and a loose, fringed top. Men usually wore just a loincloth and moccasins. In colder weather, they would add buckskin shirts and leggings.

Instead of owning many things which would make it difficult to move from place to place, our ancestors developed a rich tradition of oral literature and a religious system filled with beautiful thoughts.

They enjoyed telling stories … especially humorous ones that taught a lesson. Honesty and truth telling were virtues most admired.

My people were kind to their children, they taught them good manners, kindness, fortitude and obedience. The children would play games, ones that helped improve their dexterity.

Traditional Apache religion was based on the belief in the supernatural and the power of nature. It explained everything.

It guided moral conduct. It told of the cultural heroine … White Painted Woman and her sons, CHILD OF WATER and KILLER OF ENEMIES. It was White Painted Woman who gave Apaches their virtues, pleasant aspects of life and longevity.

Today, when one of our young girls reaches the age of womanhood, her relatives hold a magnificent four-day ceremony for her. During the ceremony the young girl imitates White Painted Woman, the model she will follow in living a good life.

Prayers are sung for the girl and for our people. We perform the Girls Puberty Ceremony today the same way our ancestors did long ago.

The story of the Mountain Spirit originated from time memorials in the life and culture of our Mescalero Apache people. This sacred Spirit, which is the symbol of our Mescalero Apache Tribe, symbolizes protectorship, security and confidence.

In this way, Apache religion, expressed in poetic terms, has passed from generation to generation.  It has related my people to all the forces about us, and it has filled Apaches, even to this day, with a feeling of kinship with nature.

This … is my background. It is my present and it will be my future. My heritage has made me what I am today. This is also the background and the heritage of our people. We are a proud people.

Reservation History

The Mescalero Apache Reservation -tong recognized by Spanish, Mexican, and American Treaties -was formally established by Executive Order of President Ulysses S. Grant on May 27, 1873. Mescaleros on the reservation numbered about 400 when the reservation was established more than 100 years ago.

Survivors of the Lipan Apaches, a tribe which suffered heavily in the Texas wars, were brought from northern Chihuahua, Mexico about 1903. In 1913, approximately 200 members of the Chiricahua band of Apaches came to the reservation. They had been held prisoner at Fort Sill, Oklahoma since the capture of the famed Apache Geronimo in 1886. All became members of the Mescalero Apache Tribe when it was reorganized in 1936 under the provisions of the Indian Organization Act.

The Reservation has a gross area of approximately 464,000 acres.

Today’s Mescalero Apache Tribe is governed by a Tribal Council of eight members with an elected President and Vice-President. Each official is chosen for a two-year term by secret ballot. Authority and responsibilities of the Tribal Government are defined in the Constitution of the Mescalero Apache Tribe, as revised January 12, 1965.

“Coming of Age” Ceremony

The Fourth of July Ceremonial is held every year on the first week of July. Indian dances and rodeo will be held each of the four days in addition to the traditional Puberty Ritual Ceremony, Dance of the Apache Maidens and Dance of the Mountain Gods.

It is a solemn and serious time in life when a girl child ends the years of girlhood and prepares for the years of womanhood ahead. The Apache for many ages have observed this time in the life of their maidens with fitting solemnity. They still observe it as much today as they did in older days when life was harsher in many ways, but simpler in others.

The Coming of Age Ceremony now is held each year in the week of the Fourth of July. It extends through four full days and into the morning of a fifth day, with time out for rest and other events. Preparations for the events take even longer.

Non-Indians are privileged to watch the principal parts of the puberty rites, if they conduct themselves with proper respect. The sketch that follows was prepared so that visitors might have a better understanding of the ceremony they will see. But before the ceremony is described, let us spend a moment in learning something more about the Mescalero Apaches as they are today.

If you are a stranger to this region you no doubt saw the teepees and the tents on the hillside as you drove along the highway. Perhaps someone in your party exclaimed, “Look, an Indian Village!” An Indian Village it is, but for a few days only.

During these few days before and after the Fourth of July many Mescalero families, along with Indian visitors from other tribes, pitch tents on the hill and live for a short time as their ancestors did. It is good to remember the old ways now and then.

For the rest of the year, however, the Mescalero live in houses as you do. Their children go to public schools. Families own cattle. Most women and men are career oriented, many with College Degrees. Most Tribal members speak English well.

There are now 3,300 members of the Tribe. The Reservation totals about 463,000 acres or 1,278 square miles. The tribe is governed under a constitution that has been in effect since 1936 and is a Federally Chartered Corporation. The governing body is the Mescalero Tribal Council, with 10 members elected by popular vote. The Tribal Council supervises the management of tribal affairs, regulates the use of tribal property and funds, and in general functions much as does a board of county commissioners or city council.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, an arm of the Federal Department of Interior, provides the tribe with technical services in land management, social welfare and other fields.  

Activities of the tribal government are supported principally from income from timber sales. The tribe is striving to develop the tourism potential of the reservation as new source of revenue for the tribal government and jobs for tribal members.

Now to the ceremonial, which had its origin hundreds of years ago, long before the white man came …

First Day

By tradition, the ceremony honoring Apache maidens who have come of age in the past year begins at early dawn. The beginning may be delayed an hour or two, however.

Preparation for the ceremony has been underway for several days. On the south side of the Feast Grounds, teepees have been erected for each honored maiden. Next to the teepees, a long arbor of oak brush has been built. Inside the arbor are the small cooking fires of the families of the maidens. Members of the families have been busy for hours, preparing food to serve friends after the ceremony and making certain that the maiden is dressed properly according to tradition.

The day before, men of the family have gone into the forest to cut the poles for the ceremonial teepee. Medicine men have accompanied them, to bless the trees as they are cut. Now the poles have been brought to the Feast Grounds, with the oak brush that will be used for the teepee walls.

A chanting begins at the west side of the grounds where a small group has gathered. These are the medicine men, one for each maiden and relatives and friends of the maidens. The chanting continues for some time, punctuated at intervals by sharp keening from the women.

The medicine men are invoking the blessing of the Great Spirits on the girls to be honored, on the teepee that is to be raised, on the relatives and friends, and on all the people in the crowd.

The blessing song continues as men of the participating families start erecting the teepee. First, four poles … one on each corner of square.-are raised. The poles are strong and straight, from 25 to 30 feet tall. Evergreen branches have been left at the top.

The first four poles, one for each of the four corners of the world, are slanted inward until they touch to form a pyramid, They are laid in place, lashed to the central poles, and firmly tied.

A young man climbs to the top of one pole, wraps a length of canvas around the teepee top. Others begin to lay oak brush against the walls, and set in place young trees at the sides of the teepee entrance.

The teepee is finished in an amazingly short time. A pit is dug in the center, for a fire that will be started later in the day. Mothers and Grandmothers of the maidens come from the arbor and place canvasses and blankets and buckskin on the ground in front of the entrance.

The maidens then come from their tents, through the arbor, and kneel on the buckskins. In front of each girl is a medicine man. By her side is her mother and godmother.

The girls are dressed in traditional buckskin, with fringed blouses and skirts, intricately decorated with beadwork. They wear buckskin moccasins and buckskin leggings. In some instances, the girls and their mothers and sisters make the ceremonial garments. More often they are newly hand made. Some of the garments have been handed down for several generations.

Each girl carries a small buckskin bag filled with yellow pollen, a symbol of strength and fertility. The pollen has been gathered painstakingly from water plants … which are in abundance.

As the girls kneel, their attendants pass in front of them. The godmothers reach into the pollen sacks, lift a small portion between thumb and forefinger to the four directions. Then pollen is placed on the shoulder, chest, back and across the noses of the girls. The girls in return mark their godmothers with pollen and also the medicine man.

A line forms at the right of the girls, who are facing the sun; mothers carrying babies, some in cradle boards, pass in front of the girls to be blessed and marked with pollen and have their children blessed. Youths go through the line, too, and men both young and old.

The girls are wishing their fellow tribal members the best of all good things … peace, health and happiness. In the meantime, the medicine men keep singing and shaking their rattles made from the hooves of deer.

At last the lines of those waiting to be blessed comes to an end. There is another song, during which the girls stretch out on the buckskin, face down. Another ritual takes place; the attendants massage the girls from head to toe, praying meantime that the girls always have strong bodies, strong arms, sturdy legs.

The ritual ends, and preparations are made for another.

A medicine basket is placed in the area in front of the teepee. It contains, among other items, eagle feathers, gramma grass, pollen, and red and white clay. All these symbolize important native beliefs. A signal is given and the buckskin-clad maidens run toward the basket, around it and back to their places in front of the teepee.

The basket is moved to the east and again the girls run and circle it.

In all, four runs are made. Then the girls, back in line, pick up the buckskin on which they have kneeled so much of the morning. They shake the buckskins toward the sun. With the gesture, according to tradition, they are driving away any evil spirits that may be near and frightening off the supernatural bearers of illness.

The rug is given one last shake. Then a basket of fruits and candles and other treats is spilled over the heads of the girls. Youngsters scramble for the treats. Elsewhere on the grounds, other baskets of good things are scattered for the crowd to pick up.

Tribal members and their friends wander over the grounds, stopping in the arbor perhaps for a breakfast of beef and Indian bread, corn and beans, potatoes and coffee.

The family of the maiden is host to all comers throughout the four days of the festival and even afterward.

The morning ceremony is over. The maidens may visit in the crowd a bit, talking with their friends. They are somewhat weary but very proud.

On the fourth day, when the girls are painted, they mark their attendants and the medicine men. And the lines of their friends and relatives pass before the maidens again to receive another blessing.

When the blessing is over, eight of the teepee poles are brought down. The girls, their attendants and the medicine men again stand in lines facing the east in front of the four remaining poles.

There are four more runs by the girls toward the medicine basket. On the last run, instead of returning to the teepee, each girl grabs a feather from the basket and sprints eastward off the grounds. The last four teepee poles crash to the earth. Again baskets of candy and fruit and tobacco are scattered among the crowd. Another basket awaits in the arbor.

Officially, as far as spectators are concerned, another ceremonial has ended. But the girls must follow their strict regime, wear their buckskins and avoid water for at least four more days. They will have proven, then, their worthiness of the privilege of womanhood.

About the Name Mescalero

The Indians who live today on the Mescalero Apache Reservation are descendants of bands known earlier as Mescalero, Chiricahuas and Lipans.

The Mescaleros took their name from the “mescal cactus. ” The mescal, a desert plant, in earlier days supplied the Apaches with food, beverage and fiber. Literally, it was their staff of life.

For this reason, says one Indian informant, the Apaches of long ago made the ceremonial teepee for the Coming of Age Ceremony from mescal stalks. Thus tribute was paid to the plant that meant so much to the people.

After the Apaches were confirmed to this reservation, in mountain rather than desert country,  evergreens were used as teepee poles instead of mescal stalks. Use of the evergreen is not inappropriate for the present-day tribal members, because the reservation forests are the principal source of tribal income.

The Dance Of The Mountain Gods

Night has come to the ceremonial grounds of the Mescalero Apaches. A small fire burns in the pit of the medicine teepee in the west. Small cooking fires still smolder in the arbor of oak brush in the south. But most eyes are on the big fire in the center of the ceremonial circle as its flames reach skyward.

A group of singers between the ceremonial teepee and the big fire start an age-old chant. Into the circle from the east stamp five grotesque figures, swaying, posturing, gesticulating.

Four of the figures are masked in black. Their upper bodies each are painted black also with an odd symbol in white on their chests and backs. Each wears a weird headpiece, and a skirt and leggings of buckskin. Each brandishes a broad wooded stave in each hand.

The fifth figure is masked and painted in white. Tied to his belt at the rear is a cowbell that clangs as he stomps, prances, and gesticulates.

The group of five circles the fire. Another group of five figures enters the circle, similarly garbed but with varied markings on the bodies and skirts. These are of another clan. They circle the fire, charge into the flames, thrust their staves at each other and at the crowd. Then still another clan group of five stalks in and wild indeed are the shadows cast as the three groups compete for the crowd’s attention.

This is the “Dance of the Mountain Gods.” To understand it and envision the performance of long ago, take a long look into the red flames and the shadows. Picture in your mind the old Apache legend of the first men who ever saw the mountain ghosts.

As was told to us in our youth, there were two young men, one was crippled and the other was blind. Their band had been attacked and was fleeing from the enemy. For the good of our band, the two handicapped men were left in a lonely mountain cave so that they would not slow the flight of their tribesmen.

Many days and nights they waited for their tribesmen to come and rescue them. Their food ran out, their bodies grew gaunt. They came to fear that they had been abandoned, that death could claim them soon.

Then one night as they huddled in the darkness, they heard strange and frightening sounds outside the cave. The sounds became louder and louder. Finally, into the cave stalked five strange figures … four painted black with white symbols and with strange and mystical headgear, one painted white.

A mysterious light illuminated the cave silhouetting the figures of the strange intruders. The luminous rays somehow became a bonfire. Around the fire the ghostly strangers danced, posturing and chanting, calling upon the winds and rain and brandishing their staves against unseen enemies.

The blind man and the crippled man cowered at first against the side of the cave, certain that the ghosts had come to them. They were powerful gods who would drive away the evil that handicapped them.

The gods led the blind man and the crippled man from the cave. The white-painted god struck a gigantic rick with the stick he carried and the rock became divided to form a passageway.

Through the passageway stepped the blind man and the crippled man. Suddenly the blind man could see and the crippled man was no longer lame. Each was clothed in the finest buckskin and each carried the finest bows and arrows ever found.

The mountain gods were done but the healed men were no longer alone. In the distance, a village of camps became clear. As they drew near the village, they learned it was their own band. recently returned from a long journey.

They joined their people and told them of the miracle that had occurred. They performed the dance just as the mountain gods had danced. For many generations hence, the Apaches have performed the “Dance of the Mountain Gods” to drive away sickness and evil and bring good health and good fortune. Each year, the dance of the Mountain Gods is performed nightly during the annual Fourth of July Mescalero Apache Ceremonial.

The “gahe-nde dance,” as you will see, is now great fun for both the dancers and the audience. But look into the fire and the shadows, imagine yourself lonely and hungry and abandoned in a mountain cave. Then you can understand how the first audience of two must have felt when they first saw the weird dance team.

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