Brief History of the Mescalero Apache | Mescalero Museum |
Mannekins wearing doeskin dresses and a crown dancers regalia.

The ancestors of the people we know today as the Mescalero Apache migrated from Canada, arriving in the Southwest 800 years ago. Perhaps their ancestors even crossed the Bering Land Bridge thousands of years earlier. Their legends say they have always been here. These were the Inde, The People.

Mescalero is the Spanish word for “mescal eater.” Apache came from the Zuni word ápachu, meaning “enemy.”

Mescalero Apache Homeland

The Sierra Blanca Mountain Range
Sierra Blanca

The Mescalero homeland today is a 463,000-acre reservation in the Sacramento Mountains, including Sierra Blanca. It was established in 1883 by President Ulysses Grant’s Executive Order. The people who live there today are sub-tribes of Chiricahua, Lipan, and Mescalero. Survivors of the Lipan tribe, which suffered heavily in the Texas wars, were brought from northern Chihuahua, Mexico, in about 1903.

Approximately 200 members of the Chiricahua came to the reservation in 1913. They had been held prisoner at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, since the capture of Geronimo in 1886. All became members of the Mescalero Apache tribe when it was reorganized under the provisions of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

The reservation is governed by an eight-member tribal council with an elected president and vice-president. While they maintain their historic culture and traditions, the Mescalero today are as modern as anybody — and astute businesspeople. They operate the Ski Apache ski resort and the Inn of the Mountain Gods, a premier New Mexican resort and casino, both on reservation land.

Once, however, the Mescalero homeland lay between four sacred mountains — Three Sisters near Deming marking the west, the Guadalupe Mountains in the south, Oscura Peak in the north, and Sierra Blanca in the east.

Mescalero Apache Traditions

A sculpture at the Mescalero Museum showing women digging mescal.
A sculpture of women digging mescal on display at the Mescalero Apache Cultural Center and Museum.

In their territory, men hunted elk, deer, bison, and other game. Women gathered plants, fruit, nuts, and other edibles — including the all-important mescal, a species of agave, from which they got their name. Women chopped the plant’s root, producing a white bulb ready to cook. Once it had steamed, everyone enjoyed the syrupy, stringy pulp. What wasn’t eaten was dried for storage. Mescal was also fermented into a potent alcoholic drink.

These nomadic people lived in shelters called wikiups, dome-shaped homes made from bent willow poles covered with bear grass. It was easy to construct and easy to abandon if necessary.

They did not recognize personal property rights. To them, the earth was their mother, their provider, and that assured everyone’s necessities would be met. When they could not sustain the tribe’s needs, they made use of their neighbors’ resources, undoubtedly the source of both the conflicts it caused and their moniker, Apache.

You can learn much of this history at the Mescalero Apache Cultural Center & Museum in Mescalero. It’s open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free. The museum exhibits ancient stone Apache tools, weapons, clothing, and a great collection of beautiful baskets.

Rites of Passage

Men were the principal hunters, and they trained their sons. Once boys reached the age of 8, they were separated from girls. They studied the cycles of nature. They were taught the habits and characteristics of animals and how to observe and stalk them for hours. Becoming a warrior also meant they needed to master skills of hiding and escape, necessitating an intimate knowledge of local geography. There is a rite of passage for boys, it is not often spoken of, perhaps considered too sacred to talk about.

Maiden’s Puberty Ceremony

However, the maiden’s puberty ceremony is a public event, celebrated by everyone — including those who aren’t members of the tribe. Mescalero is a matrilineal society, meaning kinship is charted through the woman. It is also perhaps why, when a girl reaches her first menarche, she takes part in this rite of passage and enters tribal life as a woman. This is a time of beauty — not just physical, but also spiritual.

When you attend this ceremony, this is what you’ll observe…

It’s dawn on the Mescalero Reservation, on a day near July 4. Five medicine men are there to attend to the ceremony. Twelve fir trees have been trimmed of their branches except for their very tops. The trees are 20 to 30 feet tall, with bases seven to 10 inches around. There are piles of branches from oak trees. The medicine men each bless the poles using cattail pollen.

On a hill overlooking the village are camps –- arbors of lashed oak branches topped with tarps, one for each family. Mescalero come from all over the country back to their ancestral home.

On the ceremonial grounds, there is a communal arbor – 60 to 90 feet long — made from poles and lashed oak branches. Family dining areas adjoin the arbor, and behind it are canvas tepees, one for each girl’s family. Women make fry bread on the cook fires. Everyone is fed and for today, everyone is Inde.

When everything is ready, the holy men chant, keeping time with rattles. A rope is tied to the top of one tepee pole. Four poles are raised — representing the four directions. Men muscle the poles upright. They are raised moving clockwise. One man adept at flipping the rope circles the poles lashing them to each other. Then, another eight more are added — again clockwise.

To this frame, the men lash oak branches — giving rigidity and privacy to the structure. Meanwhile, men dig eight holes — four on each side of the east-facing entrance. Into these are placed fir trees, each about 6 feet tall. The entire area within the tepee and between the two rows of trees is covered with reeds.

The Ceremony Begins

A doe-skin dress for a maiden's puberty ceremony.
A doe-skin dress for a maiden’s puberty ceremony on exhibit at the Mescalero Apache Cultural Center and Museum.

As the medicine men chant, they stand in the east facing the tepee opening. Holy women gather behind them. They wear fringed shawls — each of a different color and unique design. As the men chant, at appointed times, the women trill their voices.

Then, the sponsors bring out the girls. Five maidens participate today, each dressed in a two-piece doeskin dress — skirt and shirt — and boots. The dress, which must be worn to participate, is decorated with beads, silver buttons, dangle cones, and fringe. There is a cattail pollen pouch, a symbol of strength and fertility, attached at the waist. The dresses for the maidens are hand-made and exquisite. They must also cost a small fortune. The girls have long, glistening hair with two eagle fathers braided into it. They are radiant. This is their special day.

They stand between the trees with their sponsors, who are their aunts and mentors. Mothers and fathers stand behind. Each medicine man blesses each girl, invoking long life and fertility. Their faces are marked with cattail pollen. Each girl is laid face down while prayers are said, then lifted. This is representative of the death of the child and the birth of the woman.

A basket with feathers and other ceremonial objects is placed 100 feet east of the tepee. The girls run toward the sunrise — sprinting toward the new day, fringe flying, metal cones jingling. They run around the basket. It’s moved closer. They run again. Four times. Symbolizing the hardships of being a woman and how, when responsibility is accepted, life gets easier. Four times they are blessed.

Then the sponsors and parents pour a burden basket of candy over the girls, representing prosperity.

Additional Ceremonies

Today’s ceremony ends. Families distribute gifts to elders and every witness and begin the feast, serving meat, beans, potatoes, and fruit as well as traditional foods such as mescal. They feed everyone, including any visitor who may or may not be Mescalero.

The ceremony begun today continues for four days — days of recitations with the holy men and women and private ceremonies confirming entrance to womanhood of the tribe. The girls’ mentors train them to care for themselves, their families, and their community.

Each girl wears two eagle feathers in her hair, earned by maintaining a good moral character and personal habits. The private ceremonies are complemented with bonfires and ceremonial dances led by the Crown Dancers, representations of the supernatural Mountain Gods. They stake a claim to tribal traditions, banned for nearly a century, and declare their allegiance to the Apache way.

A Family’s Investment in Daughters

Each participating family invests 12 days — a four-day setup, four days of the ceremonies, dances, and feasts, and a four-day takedown. Cooks prepare food round-the-clock. Someone cuts enough oak wood for tents and fires. Families line up medicine men and women, plus drummers, singers, and the Crown Dancers.

For a year, they gather traditional herbs and foods in season — sumac berries, agave hearts, sotol stalks, piñon nuts, and yucca fruit. They butcher a steer. If their family doesn’t have an heirloom dress, they collect deer hides and create new ones. They purchase Pendleton blankets, camping gear, tools, and housewares to thank their helpers.

A family can invest upwards of $20,000 in the ceremony. Some families prepare for years. The expense is a hardship some families can’t afford, but tribal officials say enough families participate to keep the ancient ceremony alive.

The maiden’s puberty ceremony can be held any time of year, but usually begins around July 4. This public ceremony involves a centuries-old Apache rite.

Importance of the Ceremony

When you consider the time, energy, and resources invested in this ceremony, you’ll realize how valued Mescalero women are to the tribe. This is an important moment in a girl’s life. She has reached the point where she can bear children. There are obligations associated with being a woman. It’s time to leave childhood behind and be taught a woman’s customs and responsibilities. Like their mothers, these girls choose to become Mescalero women, keepers of the tribe.

The maiden’s puberty ceremony is important for the survival of the Mescalero people, for their customs and culture. The Mescalero accepted Christianity more than 200 years ago. Most people go to church, and yet, this ceremony is so old its origin is lost in the mist of time. It is foundational to what makes the Inde The People.

In other societies, girls become women, and — too often — no one, except perhaps their mothers, knows or cares. But in Mescalero tribal society, women know their place in the order and structure of the community. They know their value. They know how much the men of the tribe respect and cherish them.

When you attend this ceremony, remember, this is not a performance put on to entertain. It is as sacred to the Mescalero as receiving Holy Orders is to a Catholic priest. For the day, the Mescalero will consider you family. It is wise to behave as if you were a tribal member, showing good manners, kindness, and respect.

Mescalero Apache Cultural Center & Museum

Exterior of the Mescalero Apache Cultural Center and Museum.
The Mescalero Apache Cultural Center and Museum. Courtesy image.

181 Chiricahua Plaza, Mescalero
Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Story and photos by Bud Russo

Posted by

Featured Businesses