Mescalero Apache

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Mescalero Apache

ETHNONYMS: Apaches de Cuartelejo, Apaches del Rio Grande, Apachi, Faraones, Mezcaleros, Natage, Natahene, Querechos, Sierra Blanca Apaches, Teyas, Tularosa Apaches, Vaqueros


Identification. "Mescalero" is from the Spanish: -ero, "people of," and mescale, "agave" (the century plant). They were so named for their reliance on the huge roasted and preserved root of the plant they used as their primary carbohydrate source. Apache is not an aboriginal Southern Athapaskan word. The term seems to have been applied by outsiders to groups of non-Puebloan hunters and gatherers/foragers who entered the Southwest at least a couple of centuries, if not several centuries, prior to the mid-sixteenth-century arrival of the Spanish conquistadores-explorers. Some few Contemporary Mescalero aver that the word Apache could have come from ' abesh' z hi, a term referring to those who came from above (to the north of) the Black Rock place, which is thought today to be around Yellowstone. The Mescalero refer to themselves as "Ndé" (The People). Often they will also include a band name or a location name to further qualify their identity, as in "Dzithinahndé" (Mountain Ridge Band People) or "Ch' laandé" (Antelope Band People).

Location. Since May 27, 1873, and the establishment of their reservation by executive order of President U. S. Grant, the Mescalero Apache have lived in south-central New Mexico between 33°00 and 33°23 N and 105°18 and l05°56 W. At the time of Spanish contact, they ranged between southern Colorado and central Chihuahua, Mexico and from central Texas to the Gila River in New Mexico. Today their reservation encompasses approximately 720 square miles and varies in elevation from 3,400 feet to slightly more than 12,000 feet. Terrain is mountainous with some high desert plateaus. There is a summer rainy season and heavy snowfall most winters in the higher elevations. Temperatures rarely exceed 85° F in summer, and winter temperatures below freezing are common.

Demography. The Mescalero Apache Tribe includes Chiricahuas and Lipans. Tribal figures cite slightly more than 2,500 (official designation) enrolled members in 1988. There is no breakdown available on relative numbers of Mescalero to Chiricahua, but popular belief maintains there are approximately equal numbers of those two groups, with perhaps two dozen or so Lipan. There were 468 enrolled Mescalero when the reservation was established in 1873. Between 1903 and 1905 the remnants of the Lipan, said to be just a few wagonloads of people (about 40), joined their Mescalero "cousins," and in 1912 several hundred Chiricahua, or Fort Sill Apache, moved to Mescalero after their imprisonment in Alabama, Florida, and Oklahoma. Population estimates for the period from the mid-sixteenth century until 1873 are difficult to interpret, since often they were inflated for various strategic or political reasons. Because the Apache were not sedentary, they were difficult to count accurately; for example, a Spanish governor, Ugarte, boasted in 1790 that he had secured peace with 3,000 Apache, including Mescalero. It seems plausible to estimate that the group we call Mescalero today probably never numbered more than 6,500-7,000, even when considering all the bands scattered over a very large area.

Linguistic Affiliation. Mescalero Apache is one of the Southern Athapaskan languages. It is mutually intelligible to speakers of other Apachean languages and Navajo and is related to Athapaskan languages in Alaska, western parts of Canada, and the northern California and Oregon coast.

History and Cultural Relations

Coronado's 1540 expedition through central Mexico and into the contemporary American Southwest noted that there were Querechos, generally acknowledged to be ancestral to Eastern Apache, on the Llano Estacado, a vast plains area of eastern New Mexico, western Texas, and southwestern Oklahoma. The Querechos were described as being tall and intelligent; they lived in tents, said to be like those of Arabs, and followed the bison herds, from which they secured food, fuel, implements, clothing, and tipi coversall of which was transported using dogs and the travois. These Querechos traded with agricultural Puebloan peoples. Initial contact was peaceful, but by the mid-seventeenth century there was all-out war between the Spanish and the Apache. During the seventeenth century, Spanish suzerainty in the Southwest was being enforced with often impossible demands on the Pueblos who, in turn, found themselves subject to Apachean raids when Spanish exploitation left nothing to trade. At the same time, all native people were being decimated by diseases for which they had no immunity. There was also pressure from the Ute and Comanche who were moving southward into the area previously held by Apache. Documentary evidence suggests that the Spanish were arming Comanche to assist in their unsuccessful efforts to subdue and control the Apache.

The Mescalero quickly picked up horses from the Spanish, making their hunting, trading, and raiding infinitely easier. They also borrowed the Spanish practice of slave trading and thus gave the Spanish a weapon to use against them in that Spanish colonists, while taking slaves from Apache captives, raised fear in the Pueblos that they would be the next slaves the Apache sought. In fact, the Apache began to rely less upon trade with Pueblos and more on raids against Spanish colonists.

Despite the Spanish policy of pitting tribes against each other, the latter joined together in 1680 in the Pueblo Revolt and successfully removed the Spanish from New Mexico. Many Puebloan people, who had fled the Spanish by going to live with Apache and Navajo, returned home and it seems the older pattern of Plains hunting and Puebloan trading was reinstituted. In 1692 the colonists returned and the pace of war with Apache quickened.

The history of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was written in blood and broken promises. Treachery was rampant and peace treaties were not worth the ink necessary to write them. Mescalero were routinely referred to as "the enemy, heathen, Apache" and were blamed for practically every disaster that befell Spanish colonists. The real effect of Spain was minimal and Mexico was not yet an independent country. The northern frontier of New Spain was entrusted to a few soldiers of fortune, an inadequately supplied and trained military, mercenary traders, jealous sets of Catholic missionaries, and intrepid civilians trying to wrest a living from unforgiving land. In the midst of this, Spanish Regents insisted on treating the Apache as a unified group of people when they were very much several bands, each under the nominal control of a headman; a treaty signed with such a headman bound no one to peace, despite Spanish wishes to the contrary.

In 1821 Mexico became independent from Spain and Inherited the Apache problemat least for a couple of decades. Slavery, on the part of all parties, and debt peonage reached its zenith during this period. By 1846, Gen. Stephen Watts Kearney had taken control of the northernmost portions of the Mexican frontier and established headquarters at Fort Marcy in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo in 1848 formally ceded large portions of what is now the American Southwest to the United States and more was added in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase, transferring "the Apache problem" to the United States. The 1848 treaty guaranteed colonists protection from Indians, the Mescalero; there was no mention of Indian rights. Congress, in 1867, abolished peonage in New Mexico, and an 1868 Joint Resolution (65) finally ended bondage and slavery. The Apache problem remained, however.

Mescalero had been rounded up (frequently) and held (infrequently) at the Bosque Redondo of Fort Sumner, New Mexico, since 1865, although army agents in charge of them continually complained that they came and went with alarming frequency. Four centuries of almost constant conflict and decimation by disease along with the loss of the land base that had sustained them all combined to reduce the Mescalero to a pitiful few by the time their reservation was established.

The late 1870s through the teens of the twentieth Century was a particularly difficult time, because of inadequate food, shelter, and clothing. Despite their own suffering, they accepted their "relatives," first the Lipan and later the Chiricahua, onto their reservation. By the 1920s there was a small but significant improvement in the standard of living, although attempts at making Mescalero farmers have never succeeded. The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act found the Mescalero eager and fully able to assume control over their own lives, a fight they still wage through the courts today on issues of land use, water rights, legal jurisdiction, and wardship. Although the arena of the fight for survival has moved from horseback to a Tribal plane that makes frequent trips to Washington, the Apache are still formidable foes.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The traditional subsistence base was one of hunting and gathering/foraging with primary reliance on the bison and mescal. Seeds, nuts, tubers, fruits, and wild plants formed important parts of the diet along with meat from deer, antelope, rabbit, and elk. Neither fish nor bear meat were consumed. Some sources maintain that Plains Apache would occasionally plant maize, but the Mescalero themselves deny this, maintaining they traded with the Pueblos for maize as well as beans, squashes, turkeys, and cotton. From the Spaniards they took not only horses but also cattle whenever possible as they were much easier to hunt than wild animals.

In this century there has been a steady increase in wage work on and off reservation. Tribal enterprises practice Indian preference in hiring. On the reservation, people work in a variety of jobs: accounting, carpentry, child care, clerical, community health, computer programming and operation, conservation, cow punching, services for the elderly, fishery, forestry, housing, hunting guides, lumbering and sawmill operation, maintenance, nursing, recreation, rehabilitation services, skiing operations, social work, stable hands, teaching, and so on. There are also those who choose a military career and those with law and other advanced degrees who have been unable to find work on the reservation. Arts and crafts, especially bead, skin, and woodwork, are practiced but do not form significant economic activities. Although they were once known for their exquisite basketry, it is now almost a forgotten art. Bead and leatherwork as well as wood carving and other artistic endeavors provide a few with sufficient income. Tribal goals include providing on-reservation jobs for all those who wish them as well as adequate housing for all Families; the latter goal appears more in reach. For some, the most stable income source is through tribally generated income. Each enrolled member of the Mescalero Apache Tribe has one share of stock in the Tribal Enterprises that are run as a corporation; profits are periodically divided into equal share dividends. This income, however, is aperiodic and varies with each payment. A few people subsist on tribal or state welfare, but most work.

Division of Labor. In general, men hunted and women gathered and foraged. But women also hunted, particularly small game, and men participated heavily in mescal making as well as occasionally gathering. Both men and women achieve status through being successful parents; it is not unusual to see men as primary caretakers of infants and children.


Kin Groups and Descent. Mescalero Apache are Matrilineal; however, men are not ignored, especially if one's Lineage includes an important warrior. People today use surnames that are sometimes of one's mother's band or family, sometimes of one's father's, and sometimes a transliteration of a famous ancestor's name into English. People consider as Siblings all the children of one's mother as well as the children of one's mother's sisters. Sometimes a distinction is made among siblings with the phrase, "same mother, same father"; however, the crucial link is through the mother and laterally from her. Today, with the mid-1980s adoption of a new Tribal Law Code, there seems to be a shift to patrilineal surnames and bilateral descent, although the emphasis is still on the mother's side of the family. Inheritance of material items also seems to be moving to a bilateral model, although here, too, the emphasis is still through the matrilineage, especially for things considered traditional or esoteric. Band Membership is no longer of consequence and is preserved primarily through stories and few lexical items or shifts in pronunciation.

Kinship Terminology. There is an elaborate set of Kinship terms allowing one to distinguish between relatives through one's mother as distinct from those through one's Father; siblings and first cousins through the matrilineage are referred to by the same term, and other cousins are terminologically distinct. When speaking English, however, Eskimotype rules are used.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Although polygyny, especially sororal, was practiced, the new law code forbids it. Until very recently those men having more than one wife would marry one "in the White man's way" (legally, according to American law) and other(s) "in the Indian way" (with a formal ritual uniting two families). Even today, if a man is widowed and there is a Marriageable woman in his dead wife's matrilineage, it is expected that the man will seriously consider marrying again within the lineage. Divorce used to be by mutual consent or by the wife simply removing her husband's belongings from her house; now, of course, American law is followed. Mother-in-law avoidance was standard practice for men even into the mid-1950s; however, it seems no longer to be practiced even though men still often report feeling "uncomfortable" around their mothers-in-law.

Domestic Unit. A woman owns the family home and everything in it; she and any brothers and sisters share primary responsibility for raising the children, including discipline; the father is friend, confidant, and protector. It is Common for a household to be comprised of a woman and her children, children of her sisters, her husband or consort, her unmarried brothers and sisters (especially if the parental home is unavailable for any reason), children of her unmarried children, and often a "grandparent," who may be a biological grandparent or an aunt or uncle of the mother through her matrilineage. Children have a great deal of freedom Concerning with whom they will live; often the choice is to live with a maternal aunt. Foster parenting is common, and frequently older children are sent to live with grandparents if the older people are living alone. It is considered especially appropriate to have been raised by one's grandparents.

Socialization. Socialization is through the matrilateral extended family; any older person has the license to correct those younger. Children are expected to learn through observation and practice rather than through questioning or direct verbal instruction. Even today, much of moral and social significance is taught by "elderlies" through stories. Individual rights are respected, even those of small children; the elderly are accorded great respect, even when they claim no special knowledge.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The matrilateral extended family is the primary social unit. Bands are no longer of significance and clans were never a part of the Mescalero social fabric.

Political Organization. The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act resulted in the establishment of the Tribal Business Committee, which later became the Tribal Council. The council consists of ten members, each elected, in staggered fashion, for two years. The position of president of the Tribal Council, one of the ten positions, is also open for election every two years; the president serves as president of the tribe as well. Other officers are agreed upon within the council. The council prefers to achieve consensus rather than majority agreement. Committees and subcommittees within the Council administer the affairs of the tribe from road maintenance to forestry management to social services.

Social Control. Social control is managed through a tribal court system that operates on a combination of traditional and Anglo law. Minor issues are often handled by families. Public talk is also used to control antisocial behavior.

Conflict. Conflict may be managed within families, Between families, by appeal to the president of the tribe, through the tribal court, or through the U.S. judicial system for some federal crimes. Alcoholism continues to escalate and contributes to increased intratribal conflict.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In traditional belief, a Creator (neither male nor female), which is beyond human comprehension but is manifested in natural phenomena, made the world in four days. Portions of the Creator may be seen in the natural universe (thunder, wind, and so on), and the physical representation is said to be the sun. In addition, there are two Culture heroes, the Twin War Gods, Born for Water and Killer of Enemies, as well as a heroine, White Painted Woman. Power suffuses the universe and can be employed for good or ill. There are now many Christian denominations on the reservation; most people compartmentalize and maintain both Religious systems.

Religious Practitioners. Singers are the traditional practitioners and are so named for they sing ceremonies, complex recitations, and rituals. There are also medicine people, skilled in herbal and psychological healing. Ga?hé, Mountain Gods, are impersonated in complex rituals; they may dance to conduct a blessing or healing.

Ceremonies. The primary extant ceremony is the girls' puberty ceremony, sung any time after initial menses. Singers also sing blessing ceremonies, sometimes in concert with the Mountain God dancers, who are often called upon to bless endeavors and give thanks for success.

Arts. See Economy.

Medicine. There is a Public Health Service hospital on the reservation as well as community health representatives who offer in-home services and training. Additionally, people use traditional medicine and blessing dancers and singers.

Death and Afterlife. The world of humans is the world of illusion and shadow; reality resides in the other world of Power and Creator. Upon death a soul remains close to home for four days; if a proper funeral and burial is held, the soul is freed to make its way to the Land of Ever Summer, as some call it. There is disagreement about whether reincarnation is possible, although most traditional people believe it is.


Forbes, Jack D. (1960). Apache, Navajo, and Spaniard. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Opler, Morris E. (1983). "Mescalero Apache." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 10, Southwest, edited by Alphonso Ortiz, 419-439. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Opler, Morris E., and Catherine H. Opler (1950). "Mescalero Apache History in the Southwest." New Mexico Historical Review 25:1-36.

Sonnichsen, Charles L. (1972). The Mescalero Apaches. 2nd ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.