The Mescalero’s call themselves Shis-Inday, “People of the Mountain Forests,” or Mashgalénde / Mashgalé-neí / Mashgalé-õde, “People close to the mountains.” Spanish settlers referred to them as the Mescalero and neighboring Apache bands called them Mescalero Nadahéndé, “People of the Mescal.” Both external references are a testament to the importance of mescal agave in their diet. Groups of 8-12 women harvested the mescal agave south of the Sacramento Mountains, in the Chihuahuan desert. Men and women worked together to process it, storing it to survive during lean times.
Spanish and, later, American colonists applied new names to the various Mescalero Apache bands. Often the naming conventions were based on territory. For example, they identified bands based on specific mountains, i.e. Sierra Blanca Apaches, Sacramento Mountains Apaches, Guadalupe Mountains Apaches, etc.
When the U.S. military established forts in the area in the middle of the 1800s, they were determined to subdue the Apaches. They rounded up the bands of Mescalero, sending them to Bosque Redondo with the Navajo in the early 1860s. That was a disaster. At various times throughout history, Navajo and Apache have been allies and adversaries. The relationship varied between bands and changed over times. The U.S. Army didn’t realize that or they didn’t care. It was more likely the latter. The U.S. Army didn’t allow the Apaches or Navajos to hunt. The Navajo outnumbered the Apache and there was a serious shortage of food and fresh water. Desperation, disease, and death set people against one another.
Many Apache prisoners fled the reservation in 1865, returning to the Sacramento Mountains. The U.S. Army rounded them up again, confining them to Fort Stanton, where they set up a camp in the square until their reservation was established several years later.
President Ulysses S. Grant established the Mescalero Apache Reservation by Executive Order on May 27, 1873. The 463,000-acre reservation is located on the eastern flank of the Sacramento Mountains. It borders the Lincoln National Forest, encompassing most of Otero county. Additionally, there is a small, unpopulated swath that extends into Lincoln county. US Route 70 is the major thoroughfare.
The Mescalero had considerable influence on some bands of the western Lipan in the 18th century. The Mescalero formed an alliance with their southern neighbors to protect the eastern border of Apacheria against a common enemy, the Comanche. Later, the Mescalero Apaches provided refuge when the U.S. Army massacred the Lipan people in Texas and northern Mexico. They welcomed the survivors to the Mescalero reservation around 1903.
Additionally, over 180 members of the Chiricahua band of Apaches joined the Mescalero reservation. The U.S. Government secured Geronimo’s surrender in 1886 by promising a 2-year exile. However, they reneged on the deal. The Chiricahua were prisoners for 27 years. Many died of tuberculosis and typhoid. Finally, the U.S. Government gave the remaining Chiricahua the choice of staying at Fort Sill in Oklahoma or relocating to Mescalero, with roughly 2/3 choosing to relocate to Mescalero in 1913. All became members of the Mescalero Apache Tribe when it was reorganized in 1936 under the provisions of the Indian Organization Act.
History of the Mescalero Apache
The Mescalero language is a Southern Athabaskan language, closely related to Chiricahua, more distantly related to Western Apache. Although Navajo is a related Southern Athabaskan language, their language and culture are distinct from those of the Apaches, their linguistic cousins.
Prior to the reservation period, the Mescalero people were nomadic, pursuing game and gathering a variety of indigenous foods. They were thoroughly integrated with the natural world, intimately aware of the seasonal cycles, moving their camp to harvest different areas, attune to the seasonal migration of potential game. Warriors hunted elk and deer in the mountains, buffalo on the grassy, eastern plains, and antelope on the northern prairies. When they established a new camp, they built short, rounded shelters with brush, known as a “Wickiup” or, alternately, they constructed tipis made of elk and buffalo hides.
Each band of Mescalero Apache had the right to use the resources of the neighboring bands, hunting and foraging together, often collaborating during wars and raiding. Overall, they roamed an immense territory encompassing New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora. Yet, there aren’t many Apache artifacts or archaeological sites, because they traveled light, implementing “Leave No Trace” principles long ago.
Hunters used simple weapons, killing what they needed to survive. While men hunted big game, Mescalero women pursued small game, like rabbit and squirrels, as well as harvesting an extensive variety of plants and herbs. During long periods of drought or hardship, the Apaches raided pueblos and Spanish, Mexican, and American settlers. They weren’t held in high regard by non-Apache neighbors.
The Apachean tribes were historically very powerful, consistently at odds with the Comanche, Puebloans, Navajo, Spaniards and/or Mexicans. Once the Spanish introduced the horse to the region, the Apaches quickly became adept equestrians. Additionally, they were consummate strategists and highly skilled guerrilla fighters; stealthy, cunning, fierce and fearless.
Apache women were skillful providers, known for their ability to find water where others would perish. They knew how to extract food from an enormous variety of plants. Also, some Apache women, like Gouyen, Lozen and Dahteste, were just as dangerous on the battlefield as Apache men.
Though warrior ethos is inherent in the culture, Apache social structure is matrilineal. Extended families consisted of grandparents, unmarried children, and their remarried daughters’ immediate families. Though a man’s heritage was lauded if there was a famous warrior in his lineage, tradition required him to join his wife’s band and move in next to the in-laws. Newlyweds would move into a new tipi or wickiup close to the wife’s parent’s home. Furthermore, the groom became responsible for defending and providing for his wife’s family.
Mescalero identity is defined by ancestral legacy and legends. Apache spiritual beliefs are passed from one generation to the next, conveyed in poetic terms. Oral history and tradition serves as a ballast, an anchor to the past that provides continuity, guidance, and strength to successive generations. Based on traditional beliefs, the Creator is beyond human comprehension, neither male nor female. The sun is the physical representation; however, the Creator manifests throughout the natural world in the thunder, wind, mountains and rivers. Four is a sacred number, because the Creator made the world in four days.
Mescalero’s Sacred Mountains
Mescalero’s four sacred mountains are Sierra Blanca (White Mountain), Guadalupe Mountain, Three Sisters Mountain and Oscura Mountain Peak. Mescalero oral history includes the legend of a creator bringing the Apache to life on White Mountain. The Apache heroine, White Painted Woman, gave birth to two sons on White Mountain during an intense rainstorm, Child of Water and Killer of Enemies. The sons grew up and killed the monsters of earth who preyed on human beings.
Based on Apache beliefs, power suffuses the universe and can be leveraged for good or ill. Their focus is on maintaining harmony and balance in the natural order. Though several Christian churches are active on the Mescalero reservation, many tribal members compartmentalize or synthesize their spiritual lives, observing both traditional and Christian customs.
Medicine men direct ceremonies and lead prayers, singing complex recitations and following elaborate rituals. Singers bless ceremonies, sometimes in concert with the Mountain God dancers, who are often called upon to bless endeavors and give thanks for success. The primary extant ceremony is the girls’ puberty ceremony, sung any time after the first menses. However, Apache spiritual traditions are not the same for every tribe or band. Some groups had creation stories involving emergence from another place; however, the Mescalero and the Chiricahua don’t.
Today’s Mescalero Apache Tribe is governed by a Tribal Council of eight members with an elected President and Vice-President. The economy is based primarily on ranching and tourism. The Tribal Council manages resource and commercial development. They opened a cultural center in Mescalero, with historical information available and tribal artifacts on display, as well as a larger museum south of Alamogordo in Dog Canyon. Additionally, they opened the Casino Apache Travel Center on US Route 70, about a mile west of Ruidoso.
The Mescalero’s beautiful, mountainous land offers ample opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. Hunting, fishing, clay shooting, hunting, skiing, snowboarding, hiking and biking opportunities are readily available throughout the area, including ample activities offered at Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort and Casino. The Inn is a beautiful property and a major employer for the tribe. They host concerts by nationally known recording acts and have a first-rate golf course, ranking 23 in Golf Digest’s “Top 40 Casino Golf Courses.” Additionally, the resort operates Casino Apache for guests who enjoy Las Vegas-style gambling. (575) 464-7059, (800) 545-9011.
The tribe also owns and manages Ski Apache, which is under contract as a concession with the U.S. Forest Service. Ski Apache is the southernmost major ski area in North America, situated adjacent to 12,003-foot Sierra Blanca. Sierra Blanca peak is sacred ground. The tribe does not allow access without a permit. (575) 464-3600, snow phone (575) 464-1234
Mescalero Apache Reservation
P.O. Box 227
Mescalero, NM 88340