The Mescalero Apache tribe formed a part of the Faraones and Vaqueros of different periods of the Spanish history of the southwest. Their principal range was between the Rio Grande and the Pecos River in New Mexico, but it extended also into the Staked plains and southward into Coahuila, Mexico.
Recognition Status:Federally Recognized
Traditional Name / Traditional Meaning: Ndee, meaning “the People.”
Common Name / Meaning of Common Name: Mescalero comes from mescal, a food derived from the agave or century plant and an important part of their diet.
Alternate names / Alternate spellings / Misspellings:
Name in other languages: Apache comes from the Zuni word Apachu, meaning enemy.
State(s) Today: New Mexico
Traditional Territory: Their principal range was between the Rio Grande and the Pecos River in New Mexico, but it extended also into the Staked plains and southward into Coahuila, Mexico. The Mescalero traditionally lived from east of the Rio Grande to the Pecos and beyond to the west Texas plains.
Confederacy: Apache Nations
Reservation: Mescalero Reservation
The Mescalero Reservation, in southeast New Mexico, is home to Mescalero, Chiricahua and Lipan Apaches. They obtained title to the reservation in 1922. Intermarriage has tended to blur the distinction between the once-separate tribes on the Mescalero Reservation. The reservation confronts relatively few social problems, despite its high unemployment rates.
Land Area: 460,000 acres of land
Population at Contact: Perhaps 3,000 Mescaleros lived in the region prior to contact with non-natives.
Registered Population Today: In 1990, of the roughly 25,000 Apaches nationwide, 3,500, including Chiricahua, Mescalero, and Lipan Apaches, lived on the Mescalero Reservation; another several hundred lived off-reservation.
Tribal Enrollment Requirements:
Traditionally, the Mescalero knew little tribal cohesion and no central political authority. They were a tribe based on common territory, language, and culture. As much central authority as existed was found in the local group (not more than 30 extended families). Its leader, or chief, enjoyed authority because of personal qualities, such as persuasiveness and bravery, often in addition to ceremonial knowledge. (All the famous Apache “chiefs” were local group leaders.) Decisions were taken by consensus. One of the chief’s most important functions was to mitigate friction among his people.
The Mescalero Apache Tribe is a federally recognized tribe. They have established tribal governments under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (25 U.S.C. 461-279), also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act, and they successfully withstood attempts by the U.S. government to implement its policy during the 1950s of terminating Indian tribes.
They were granted U.S. citizenship under the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. They did not legally acquire the right to practice their Native religion until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (42 U.S.C. 1996).
Other important rights, and some attributes of sovereignty, have been restored to them by such legislation as the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1966 (25 U.S.C. 1301), the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975 (25 U.S.C. 451a), and the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (25 U.S.C. 1901).
The Wheeler-Howard Act, however, while allowing some measure of self-determination in their affairs, has caused problems for virtually every Indian nation in the United States, and the Apaches are no exception. The act subverts traditional Native forms of government and imposes upon Native people an alien system, which is something of a mix of American corporate and governmental structures.
Invariably, the most traditional people in each tribe have had little to say about their own affairs, as the most heavily acculturated and educated mixed-blood factions have dominated tribal affairs in these foreign imposed systems.
Frequently these tribal governments have been little more than convenient shams to facilitate access to tribal mineral and timber resources in arrangements that benefit everyone but the Native people, whose resources are exploited. The situations and experiences differ markedly from tribe to tribe in this regard, but it is a problem that is, in some measure, shared by all.
Charter: After 1934, the tribal business committee began functioning as a tribal council. In 1964, a new constitution defined the Mescalero tribe without reference to the original band.
Name of Governing Body: Tribal Council
Number of Council members:
Dates of Constitutional amendments:
Number of Executive Officers:
Number of fluent Speakers: Up to three-quarters of the people still speak Apache, although the dialect is more Mescalero than Chiricahua or Lipan. The written Apache language is also taught in reservation schools.
Origins: Ancestors of today’s Apache Indians began the trek from Asia to North America in roughly 1000 B.C.E. Most of this group, which included the Athapaskans, was known as the Nadene. By 1300, the group that was to become the Southern Athapaskans (Apaches and Navajos) broke away from other Athapaskan tribes and began migrating southward, reaching the American Southwest around 1400 and crystallizing into separate cultural groups.
The Apaches generally filtered into the mountains surrounding the Pueblo-held valleys. This process ended in the 1600s and 1700s, with a final push southward and westward by the Comanches. Before contact with the Spanish, the Apaches were relatively peaceful and may have engaged in some agricultural activities.
For the Apaches, the family is the primary unit of political and cultural life. Apaches have never been a unified nation politically, and individual Apache tribes, until very recently, have never had a centralized government, traditional or otherwise.
Extended family groups acted entirely independently of one another. At intervals during the year a number of these family groups, related by dialect, custom, inter-marriage, and geographical proximity, might come together, as conditions and circumstances might warrant.
In the aggregate, these groups might be identifiable as a tribal division, but they almost never acted together as a tribal division or as a nation—not even when faced with the overwhelming threat of the Comanche migration into their Southern Plains territory.
The existence of these many different, independent, extended family groups of Apaches made it impossible for the Spanish, the Mexicans, or the Americans to treat with the Apache Nation as a whole. Each individual group had to be treated with separately, an undertaking that proved difficult for each colonizer who attempted to establish authority within the Apache homeland.
Women were the anchors of the Apache family. Residence was matrilocal. Besides the political organization, society was divided into a number of matrilineal clans. Apaches in general respected the elderly and valued honesty above most other qualities.
Gender roles were clearly defined but not rigidly enforced. Women gathered, prepared, and stored food; built the home; carried water; gathered fuel; cared for the children; tanned, dyed, and decorated hides; and wove baskets. Men hunted, raided, and waged war. They also made weapons and were responsible for their horses and equipment. The male puberty ceremony revolved around war and raiding. Girls as well as boys practiced with the bow and arrow, sling, and spear, and both were expert riders.
- Apache Tribe of Oklahoma
- Aravaipa Apache – See San Carlos Apache Tribe
- Bedonkohe – (Chiricahua Apache Band name)
- Chiricahua – (Also See San Carlos Apache Tribe, White Mountain Apache Tribe, and Fort Sill Apache Tribe)
- Choctaw-Apache of Ebarb
- Fort McDowell Mohave-Apache Community of the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation
- Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Oklahoma
- Jicarilla Apache Nation
- Kiowa-Apache – (Also see Apache Tribe of Oklahoma.)
- Mescalero Apache Tribe of the Mescalero Reservation
- Lipan Apache
- San Carlos Apache Tribe of the San Carlos Reservation
- Tonto Apache Tribe of Arizona (Western Apache)
- White Mountain Apache Tribe of the Fort Apache Reservation
- Yavapai-Apache Nation of the Camp Verde Indian Reservation
Traditional Allies: Pueblo tribes.
Traditional Enemies: Historically, the Apache made formidable enemies. Their main enemies were the Comanche and Mexicans. After they acquired horses, raiding became one of their most important activities. The main purpose of raiding, in which one sought to avoid contact with the enemy, was to gain wealth and honor.
It differed fundamentally from warfare, which was undertaken primarily for revenge and which, like hunting, was accompanied by complex rituals and rules.
Only the war leader, who had undergone a special purifying ritual, took scalps. The Mescalero did not maintain formal warrior societies.
Military equipment included shields with painted buckskin covers, bows and arrows, quivers, bow covers, wrist guards, spears, rawhide slings, flint knives, and war clubs.
Ceremonies / Dances:
Modern Day Events & Tourism: Traditional dancing by costumed mountain spirits now coincides with the July Fourth celebration and rodeo. It is held each year on July 1-4 at Mescalero, New Mexico.
Albuquerque Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico
American Research Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Art Center in Roswell, New Mexico
Bacone College Museum in Muskogee, Oklahoma
Black Water Draw Museum in Portales, New Mexico
Coronado Monument in Bernalillo, New Mexico
Ethnology Museum in Santa Fe, NM
Fine Arts Museum in Santa Fe, NM
Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Great Plains Museum in Lawton, Oklahoma
Hall of the Modern Indian in Santa Fe, NM
Heard Museum of Anthropology in Phoenix, Arizona
Indian Hall of Fame in Anadarko, Oklahoma
Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM
Maxwell Museum in Albuquerque, NM
Milicent Rogers Museum in Taos, New Mexico
Northern Arizona Museum in Flagstaff, AZ
Oklahoma Historical Society Museum in Oklahoma City, OK
Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, OK
Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko, OK
State Museum of Arizona in Tempe, AZ
Stovall Museum at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, OK
San Carlos Apache Cultural Center in Peridot, Arizona.
Art & Crafts: Traditional arts included fine basketry, pottery, and tanned hides. Daily items included baskets (pitch-covered water jars, cradles, storage containers, and burden baskets); gourd spoons, dippers, and dishes; leaf brushes; sheep-horn ladles; rock pounders; and a sinew-backed bow. The people made musical instruments out of gourds and hoofs. The one-stringed, so-called Apache fiddle, a postcontact instrument, was played with a bow. Mescaleros also used parfleches, which they originally acquired from Plains tribes.
Mescalero Apache women also fashion sandals and bags from mescal fibers.
Animals: Mescaleros acquired horses in the sixteenth century. Prior to that time dogs had drawn the travois. To ford rivers, the Mescalero used rafts or boats of skins stretched over a wooden frame.
Clothing: Men wore buckskin shirts, breechclouts, leggings, and hard-soled, low-cut moccasins. Moccasins were sewn with plant fiber attached to mescal thorns. They braided and wrapped their hair. Women also dressed in buckskin and braided their hair. They also plucked their eyebrows.
Housing: Mescalero Apaches lived in dome-shaped brush wikiups, which they covered with grass thatch or with hides in bad weather. The doors always faced east. When on the plains they used tipis.
Subsistance: Mescalero Apaches were primarily hunters and gatherers. They hunted buffalo into the eighteenth century, and afterward they continued to hunt deer, elk, antelope, rabbits, and other game. They did not eat fish, coyote, snake, or owl.
Wild foods included agave shoots, flowers, and fruit; berries; seeds; nuts; honey; and wild onions, potatoes, and grasses. Nuts and seeds were often ground into flour. The agave or century plant was particularly important. Baking its base in rock-lined pits for several days yielded mescal, a sweet, nutritious food, which was dried and stored.
Traditional farm crops were obtained from the Pueblos by trade or raid. The Mescalero also practiced some agriculture: Corn, for instance, was used to make tiswin, a weak beer.
Trading partners included Pueblo and Hispanic villages, as well as some Plains tribes, especially before the eighteenth century. At that time their main surplus item was buffalo meat and hides.
Important industries include logging, cattle raising, and the Inn of the Mountain Gods. This 440-room Mescalero resort has a gift shop, several restaurants, and an 18-hole golf course, and offers casino gambling, horseback riding, skeet and trap shooting, and tennis.
Many members of the Mescalero Apache find employment at their ski resort, Ski Apache. Others work at the tribal museum and visitor center in Mescalero, Arizona.
The tribe also has a 7,000-head cattle ranch, a sawmill, and a metal fabrication plant.
In 1995, the Mescaleros signed a controversial $2 billion deal with 21 nuclear power plant operators to store nuclear waste on a remote corner of the reservation. The facility is scheduled to open in 2002, barring any legal challenges.
Religion & Spiritual Beliefs:
Apache religion is based on a complex mythology and features numerous deities. Most deities are seen as personifications of natural forces. The sun is the greatest source of power. Culture heroes, like White-Painted Woman and her son, Child of the Water, also figure highly, as do protective mountain spirits (ga’an).
The latter are represented as masked dancers (probably a sign of Pueblo influence) in certain ceremonies, such as the girls’ puberty rite. Apaches believe that since other living things were once people, we are merely following in the footsteps of those who have gone before.
Supernatural power is both the goal and the medium of most Apache ceremonialism. The ultimate goal of supernatural power was to facilitate the maintenance of spiritual strength and balance in a world of conflicting forces. Apaches recognize two categories of rites: personal/shamanistic and long-life.
In the former, power is derived from an animal, a celestial body, or another natural phenomenon. When power appears to a person and is accepted, rigorous training as a shaman follows. Shamans also facilitate the acquisition of power, which may be used in the service of war, luck, rainmaking, or life-cycle events.
Power may be evil as well as good, however, and sickness and misfortune could be caused by the anger of a deity or by not treating properly a natural force. Witchcraft, as well as incest, was an unpardonable offense.
Long-life rites were taught by elders and connected to mythology. Among the most important and complex was the girls’ puberty ceremony. Lasting for four days and nights, this ceremony involved masked dancers, feasting, games, rituals in a ceremonial tipi, and a long and intricate song cycle. Other important rites included cradle, first steps, first haircut, and boys’ puberty ceremonies.
The Native American Church has recently declined in popularity. Many Mescaleros are Catholic.
Some young women still undergo the traditional puberty ritual, and there is a marked interest in crafts and other traditions.
Burial Customs: All Apaches had a great fear of ghosts. Death was repressed as much as possible. Mescaleros who died had their faces painted red and were buried quickly. Their personal possessions were burned or destroyed, including their house and favorite horse, and their names were not spoken again for fear of attracting their ghost. The afterworld was pictured as a paradise.
Apache women were chaste before marriage. Apache culture is matrilineal. Once married, the man went with the wife’s extended family, where she is surrounded by her relatives.
Spouse abuse is practically unknown in such a system. Divorce was unusual though relatively easy to obtain. Should the marriage not endure, child custody quarrels were also unknown: the children remained with the wife’s extended family.
Marital harmony is encouraged by a custom forbidding the wife’s mother to speak to, or even be in the presence of, her son-in-law. No such stricture applies to the wife’s grandmother, who frequently is a powerful presence in family life. The mother’s brother also played an important role in the raising of his nephews and nieces.
Although actual marriage ceremonies were brief or nonexistent, the people practiced a number of formal preliminary rituals, designed to strengthen the idea that a man owed deep allegiance to his future wife’s family.
Intermarriage between Mescalero and Lipan Apaches has tended to blur the distinction between the once-separate tribes on the Mescalero reservation.
Education: Children have attended public schools since 1953. A tribal scholarship fund exists to help with college expenses.
Wendall Chino has been the most important leader of the Mescalero tribe since the 1950s. He is mainly known for diversifying the tribal economy, particularly with a ski slope and a resort. In an extremely controversial 1991 decision, he agreed to study the possibility of accepting high-level nuclear waste on the reservation.
Thrust into contact with the Spanish, the Apaches, having acquired horses, began raiding Spanish and Pueblo settlements. This dynamic included trading as well as raiding and warfare, but the Spanish habit of selling captured Apaches into slavery led to Apache revenge and increasingly hostile conditions along the Spanish frontier. After 1821, the Mexicans put a bounty on Apache scalps, increasing Apache enmity and adding to the cycle of violence in the region.
The Mescalero had moved into southern New Mexico by the early sixteenth century and had acquired horses at about the same time. They and the Jicarilla raided (and traded with) Spanish settlements and pueblos on the Rio Grande, and after 1680 they controlled the Camino Real, the main route from El Paso to Santa Fe. They hunted buffalo on the southern plains and were its de facto masters.
After 1725, the Comanche (who had access to French guns) forced the Apaches into the mountains, ending their life on the plains and inaugurating an era of semipoverty. Still, they battled the Spanish, who alternately tried to fight and settle them. An 1801 treaty, reaffirmed by the Mexicans in 1832, granted the Mescalero rations and the right to land in Mexico and New Mexico. Even so, their relations with the Mexicans were tenuous.
Following the Mexican War (1848), during which they had sided with the Texans, the Mescalero assumed that the Americans would continue as allies. They were shocked and disgusted to learn that their lands were now considered part of the United States and that the Americans planned to “pacify” them. Having been squeezed by the Spanish, the Comanches, the Mexicans, and now miners, farmers, and other land-grabbers from the United States, they were more than ever determined to protect their way of life.
Some Mescalero bands tried to stay out of trouble in the 1850s by planting fields under the supervision of federal agents, but when raiding resumed owing to broken promises of food and protection, all sides became caught up in a spiral of violence. By 1863, General James Carleton forced them off their informal reservation in the Sierra Blanca Mountains to Fort Sumner, at Bosque Redondo, on the Pecos. It was a concentration camp: Living with 9,000 Navajos, the Mescalero endured overcrowding, disease, bad water, and starvation. Two years later they escaped into the mountains, where they lived for seven years.
In 1873, the U.S. government granted the Mescalero a small reservation surrounding the Sierra Blanca, which included their traditional summer territory. This land made a harsh home in winter, however, and in any case it was too small for hunting and gathering. That decade was marked by disease, white incursions, and violence directed against them. In 1880, in retaliation after some Mescaleros joined the Chiricahua in their wars against the United States, the army placed the Mescaleros under martial law, disarmed them, and penned them in a corral filled deep with manure.
By the mid-1880s, gambling had replaced the traditional raiding. Missionaries arrived, as did a day school, which the Indians hated for separating the children from their elders. Meanwhile, their population plummeted from 3,000 in 1850 to 431 in 1888. These were years marked by dependency, agent thievery, tyranny, disease, starvation and malnourishment, and uncertainty about the status of their reservation. Still, they survived the epidemics and efforts to steal their reservation by turning it into a national park (a move that proved unsuccessful in the long run).
The Mescaleros had absorbed Apache refugees and immigrants in hopes that increased numbers would help them gain the elusive title to their land. In 1883, the Jicarilla arrived, although they left by 1887. In 1903, 37 Lipan Apaches arrived, followed in 1913 by 187 Chiricahuas from Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Eventually, largely through intermarriage, all evolved into the modern Mescalero community.
The United States engaged in extreme repression and all-out assault on traditional culture at the end of the nineteenth century. Cattle raising and timber sales proved lucrative in the early twentieth century. Eventually, day schools replaced the hated, culture-killing boarding schools. By the late 1940s, every family had a house, and the reservation economy was relatively strong. The reservation is managed cooperatively with the Chiricahua and the Lipan Apache.
In the News: