Sacred Sites Sustaining Tribal Economies:
The Mescalero Apache
Martha L. Henderson, PhD
The Evergreen State College
Abstract: The Mescalero Apache traditional homelands were what is now known as central New Mexico. Sierra Blanca, along with three other mountains surrounding the White Sands area, was the territorial markers of their area. These mountains were a source of cultural identity, geographic navigation, and subsistence. Today, the Mescalero Apache Tribe occupies a reservation in central New Mexico. The reservation boundaries include Sierra Blanca. Sierra Blanca is a significant sacred site in Mescalero Apache culture. This case study investigates the intersection between sacred sites, traditional native identity, boundaries, and contemporary tribal economic development.
Locating Sierra Blanca
The first time I saw Sierra Blanca was in late October, 1986. I drove across Texas from Louisiana where it had been 80 degrees and deathly humid. Texas was one long ride through piney forests and then endless miles of mesquite shrub. The prickly pear cactus disappeared by the time I crossed into New Mexico. I camped beneath the Sacramento Mountains just south of Alamogordo. The mountains turned ink blue in the evening sky. Early the next morning, I drove around the south end of the Mescalero Apache Reservation, through Tularosa, and north along the western edge of the reservation. To my west was an expanse White Sands National Monument and to my east, the Sacramento mastiff formed a wall against the morning sun. This was Mescalero territory within the American Southwest and northern Mexico area known as Apacheria.
Above the entire landscape rose Sierra Blanca, its 12,000 foot snow covered summit glistening in the morning sun. The perfect conical symmetry balanced the rugged ridges of the Sacramentos. Like a beacon shining across a swelling sea, Sierra Blanca provided a locus of identity, a sense of direction, and a mantle against unpredictable perplexities. I knew, at that moment, that I had entered into another world, a landscape defined by the mass of a landform that reached back into history. What power Sierra Blanca held today was to be revealed as I drove across the reservation boundary and entered the Mescalero Apache cosmos.
I arrived in town of Mescalero armed with questions about Mescalero Apache land use practices since their assignment to the reservation in 1872. As one of the last Southwestern native groups to be forced to a reservation, the Mescalero have maintained a relatively high degree of cultural identity, as well as economic and political power. As a geographer, I wanted to understand how their relationship with the government had changed over the years, and how this relationship was symbolized in their cultural landscape. In order to do this work, I investigated the Mescalero’s ability to utilize the physical environment in traditional and contemporary practices, tribal leadership that promotes economic development, and the protection of cultural preferences.
Geographical and Cultural Context
The Mescalero Apache Indians, prior to being assigned to a reservation, occupied a large area of the Southwest. This region was also occupied by other Apache groups including the Lipan, Chiricahua, and the Warm Springs Apache. These groups shared a common resource base, exchanged critical information, interacted socially, and assisted each other in times of social and cultural stress. Each group maintained a specific homeland, usually associated with regionally significant mountain ranges, yet crossed into each other’s extended areas in search of food and other subsistence items.
The Mescalero Apache’s homeland was the Sacramento Mountains in south-eastern New Mexico. From these mountains, the Mescalero extended their interests into the eastern high plains of New Mexico, across western Texas, and into Chihuahua and Sonora Mexico. They frequently sent hunting parties on to the plains to secure buffalo, hides, yucca, and trade goods from the east. Here, the Mescalero interacted with other Apache groups as well as the Comanche and Kiowa. The Sacramento Mountains, however, held the most important resources such as constant fresh water sources, large game animals such as elk and deer, and numerous plant species. The mountains were also the home of the respected bear.
Sierra Blanca is the highest peak on the northern fringe of the Sacramento Mountains. The mountain is one of four sacred mountains, each in a different cardinal direction and each representing different spiritual powers. Sierra Blanca, located at the northern end of the Sacramentos, is balanced by the Guadalupe Mountains in West Texas, the Three Sisters Mountain to the southwest of Sierra Blanca, and Oscura Mountain to the northwest. According to the tribal brochure “Mescalero Apache: Culture,” Sierra Blanca symbolizes “a place called White Mountain…where the creator gave us life and it is a special place. It was on White Mountain, according to legend, that White Painted Woman gave birth to two sons, Child of Water and Killer of Enemies….When they grew up to be men, they rose up and killed the monsters of the earth. There was peace and all human beings were saved.”
Since their creation at White Mountain, the Mescalero had gathered resources in mountain refuges. These refuges allowed them to survive the hot and arid climate of the region. The mountains were the home of the Crown Dancers who acted as inter-mediators between the Mescalero and White Painted Woman and the supernatural world. The ability to hunt and gather montane resources, and visit sites of cultural significance on Sierra Blanca was critical to the Tribe. Using the resources of Sierra Blanca was part of the process of maintaining the legacy of Mescalero creation and the balance between the natural and supernatural.
Prior to Euro-American intrusion into the Southwest and Mexico, the Mescalero Apache hunted and gathered resources from a variety of ecosystems. Male hunting parties often travelled into the plains for buffalo and antelope. Hunting and food gathering was also done in higher elevations. The mountainous environment included diverse ecosystems with the capacity to provide a variety of subsistence goods through the year. Water was consistently available in the otherwise desert region. Protection from invading groups was also possible. Women prepared the meat and skins for use by clan members. Women annually gathered yucca, seeds, roots, and nuts in the deserts. The mescal plant, also known as yucca, was prepared as a food and cleansing agent. The Spanish named the Apache group Mescalero based on their consumption of mescal.
Spanish explorers were the first Europeans encountered by the Mescalero and associated Apache groups. Coronado crossed into Apacheria during the sixteenth century. His interests in exploration and wealth accumulation placed his primary interests in the pueblo culture groups of the Rio Grande. Jesuit missionaries followed Coronado into the American Southwest. While the Apache were not a primary target of European interests, the Mescalero and others territorial interests were disrupted by the demands on resources by the explorers. As pueblo cultures were decimated, Apacheria became vulnerable to European diseases and new demands on traditional resources by groups who did not usually enter Apacheria. Knowledge of the desert and mountainous environments created opportunities for the Apache to counter the Spanish with decisive raids.
The introduction of horses following Spanish incursion into the region greatly expanded the range of all groups and increased the frequency of interaction. The appearance of Americans in the region brought a greater degree of cooperation and extended affinities between the mountain Apache. Alliances enabled to Apache to resist American military power, administrative efforts to rid the region of their clans, and prevent white settlement. By the late 1870s, the American government had attempted but failed to engage in treaty making with these mountain groups. Instead, the Americans found these Apache to be resistant to treaties and reservation settlement. Constant attacks by the Apache and their un-canny ability to disappear into the desert plains or high mountain homes prevented the Americans from ‘settling’ the Apache groups. Slowly, however, the Apache lost their ability to hunt and provide resources for themselves. The Americans pushed them to regional forts and held them there until legal action was taken to place them on reserved land areas.
In 1873, President Grant forced the Mescalero to live within reservation boundaries. These boundaries were changed in 1874, 1875, 1882, and 1883 gradually reducing the reservation to its current size of 463,000. The Lipan were also assigned to the reservation. While most reservation assignments placed native groups in places and ecosystems foreign to their cultural and physical identities, the Mescalero reservation boundaries included their homeland in the Sacramento Mountains and the plains to the east of the mountains. Sierra Blanca, the only sacred mountain to be included in the reservation boundaries, became an important site of traditional practices and life ways. Hunting, the gathering of traditional foodstuffs, and time in the home of the mountain gods continued traditional practices over time.
Natural History and Altitudinal Zonation
Sierra Blanca is the most scenic and ecologically diverse location on the Mescalero Apache Reservation. It is generally described as a montane vegetative environment with an average annual precipitation of 22 – 24 inches per year. Rainfall accounts for 42% of the precipitation with the remaining amount arriving as snow in the winter months. Various species of plant and animal life live in unique ecological zones that change with elevation. Many large fauna such as elk, bear, and cougar cross all zones while preferring specific areas on the mountain. This concept of changing ecosystems by elevation rise, increasing precipitation, and exposure is known as altitudinal zonation.
Three general vegetative types exist on the mountain. As elevation and precipitation increases, the three types tend to occupy altitudinal zones at varying rates although all three types can be found at any elevation. At lower elevations, forbs, or grasses, create a dense mat of vegetation. This ecosystem indicates a high root mass and short above ground biomass. Animals that prefer grasses such as deer and antelope are attracted to this lower elevation area. Fire plays a significant role in maintaining the open grasslands. Burning the grassy area on a regular basis provided the Mescalero with an accessible source of meat throughout the year.
With elevation gain, shrubs and trees become more dominate. Oak and locust trees create a park-like setting with an understory of plants who require little water. Fire plays an important role in this zone. Deer and smaller animals can also be found in this region. Ponderosa pine, also fire dependent, is the dominate conifer. Elk and larger animals generally prefer the pine forests where an understory of berries is available. Forbs and wildflowers become the dominant vegetation above 9,000 although other species can be found in protected areas. These highlands create accessible browse for wildlife during summer months. Snowy conditions force most large animals to lower elevations during winter months.
Ecologists and resource managers in the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S Fish and Wildlife call mountain homelands like the Sacramentos
“mountain refuges.” The term captures the value of mountain homelands to the Apache as they created subsistence patterns across the diverse and sometimes difficult Southwest region. Today, ecologists and resource managers have created policies that protect the mountain environments and habitats. Sierra Blanca is a refuge of diverse flora and fauna.
Economic Development and Sacred Sites
Economic development of a sacred site seems at first glance to be a contradiction. Yet many places valued for their embodiment of perfection, redemptive or healing qualities, prayer, or worship are also major sources of income. Raising funds to maintain buildings, care of landmarks, or supporting those who care for the places is common. Mescalero Apache development of Sierra Blanca is an example of the intersection of sacredness, subsistence, and economic development. It may appear to non-Mescalero Apache that the Tribe has sold out to non-native economic development schemes and sacrificed a sacred site. An examination of Mescalero choices with regard to the mountain reveals alternative definitions of sacred, sustaining economies, and the ability of the Mescalero to maintain identity in a culturally diverse world. The economic development of Sierra Blanca for non-tribal visitors raises a number of questions for tribal members and visitors.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1936 was a defining moment for the Mescalero Apache. The Indian Reorganization Act changed the relationship between the federal government and native groups. The intent of the Act was to create a process that encouraged native groups to organize as economic entities for the purpose of protecting and enhancing tribal identity. At Mescalero, tribal leadership was vested with the Business Council. The Council was made up of elected tribal members from whom a Chair was elected. The Mescalero, Lipan and Chiricahua agreed that tribal business and economic development would be separate from religious practices.
The Council made many smart economic decisions over time. Relying on the reservation’s diverse physical environments, economic development focused on timber and grazing resources. The large forested areas on the western side of the reservation were valued for commercial timber production. A tribal sawmill and Indian logging operations began generating an income for the Tribe and its members. The eastern half of the reservation was developed by the Mescalero Cattlemen’s Association. The reservation was fenced to protect tribal resources from intruding non-natives who wanted access to the rich mountainous environments and eastern grasslands.
Under Chair Wendell Chino’s leadership, the Tribe expanded its economic development projects. Chino was particularly adept at merging traditional ideals and customs with emerging economic opportunities. Chino brilliantly saw possibilities and options in federal guidelines. For example, the Mescalero Tribe was one of the first to invest in gambling and recreational development schemes in the 1970s. By the 1980s, the Tribe had revenues sufficient to build a Five Star resort known as the Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort and Casino that capitalizes on views of Sierra Blanca. The Tribe also built and manages Ski Apache, located on the eastern slope of the mountain. These economic development choices promote eco-tourism on the reservation.
Eco-tourism, while promoting a set of ecological conditions known at the time of reservation assignment, satisfied some members of the Tribe as a viable way to enhance tribal funds. But not all Mescalero tribal members were in favor of tourism and the development of Sierra Blanca. Some felt the mountain was sacred and should not be accessible to non-tribal members. Traditionalists spoke against developing the mountain while progressives viewed tourism as an unobtrusive way of gaining an income. Debates about the ethical and practical points of developing tourism occurred at numerous Council meetings.
Traditionalists, often represented by the matriarchs of families, framed their resistance to eco-tourism on the basis that non-natives should not be allowed to venture on the mountain. Reconciliation came in many ways including the requirements for guided hunts, limiting hiking and the enjoyment of vistas to designated routes and areas, and limiting access to a single route. The vista of Sierra Blanca from the Inn of the Mountain Gods is at an appropriate distance to protect the natural setting and the presence of the supernatural.
Construction of the Inn and Ski Apache also created tension between Mescalero Apache beliefs and intrusion into the mountain. The fact that construction of Ski Apache would literally make a physical scar on the mountain was highly contentious. While the Council hoped the construction work would create jobs for the Mescalero, many tribal members refused to work because they did not want to be implicated in scarring the mountain. Those who did construction work were careful to observe cultural traditions. A common story is told of Mescalero workers returning to the job site to find a snake in a ditch. The Mescalero refused to work until the snake, a creature associated with crisis, left the area.
Once the facilities were built and opened, Mescalero were offered service sector employment. The work, regular hours, and sense of servicing non-native visitors was not an attractive idea to many Mescalero. Racism and cultural identity filtered through the employment opportunities in eco-tourism. The status and role of employees at the facilities was debated in Council meetings. The Council needed to keep the facilities in prime condition to attract the highest tourist dollars while at the same time protecting jobs, access, and the surrounding ecosystem. The push and pull between traditional lifestyles and economic development continues to raise issues on the reservation.
Today, the Inn of the Mountain Gods, Ski Apache and guided big game hunting is a significant part of the Mescalero economy. Maintaining specific ecosystem components across the reservation and on Sierra Blanca is a major focus of the tribal forestry and wildlife management programs. Tribal forestry management also works to restore ecosystems and habitats across the reservation. This work protects the natural settings and species common in Mescalero traditional practices and species while promoting limited timber harvesting. Cultural resources such as wild foods and medicines, teepee poles, and sacred sites are protected.
In the current era of tribal self-determination, the Tribe is in the leadership role and the Bureau of Indian Affairs assists the Tribe as directed. Surrounding landowners, primarily the U.S. Forest Service and, to a lesser degree, the Bureau of Land Management work with the Tribe to manage and protect habitats and ecosystems. Management decisions by these agencies on land surrounding the reservation must be done in consultation with the Tribe. Water resources are also protected on the reservation based on tribal needs and objectives. While these agencies recognize the power of the Tribe to set the standards within and beyond the reservation boundaries, animals wander across the boundaries. Human visitors to the region must recognize reservation boundaries and act appropriately when on the reservation.
To reach the resources of the mountain, non-natives must cross a number of grounded, cultural, and economic boundaries. The Mescalero Apache control the boundaries and define the places and ways that non-natives can locate themselves on the mountain. A non-native can drive up the flanks of the mountain by accessing roads north of the non-reservation town of Ruidoso. Drivers cross into the reservation at a well-marked boundary. Gates or checkpoints are usually left open for free flow of traffic. The road to tribally owned and managed Ski Apache is also open and maintained for free flow of traffic. Non-native drivers are not allowed to leave these roads. Signs and occasional tribal patrols encourage drivers to remain on the reservation roads.
Non-native elk and other large game hunting on the reservation is possible only by purchasing a license from the tribe and hiring a tribal guide. Most hunters stay at the Inn of the Mountain Gods and begin their hunts at a tribal game management office near the Inn. Game and forest management policies of the Tribe emphasize ecosystem components that enhance large game animals to provide relatively expensive hunting experiences by non-natives.
The spectacular views of the mountain as showcased in the main hall of the Inn draws guests across several differing boundaries. The high quality of service, views of the reservation, and resort activities reinforces tribal positive economic and social conditions for guests on the reservation. Arrival at the Inn requires guests to leave U.S. Highway 70 and drive on a reservation road to the Inn’s location. Entering the Inn is to step into a tribally run business. Finally, facing the massive windows that frame Sierra Blanca in the distance pulls the guests’ vision into the aesthetic of the mountain. What guests see in their vision is dependent upon their knowledge of Mescalero culture and regional physical geography.
A visitor’s knowledge is culturally specific, and cannot equal the knowledgeable vision of a tribal member. For the Mescalero Apache, a view of the mountain transcends contemporary time, and social and political settings created by reservation assignment and interaction with the federal government. The constant presence of Sierra Blanca reminds tribal members of Mescalero creation and a period of time when people lived in peace. Significant species and habitats are managed for the survival of Mescalero cultural identity. Crown Dancers continue to communicate across the boundary of the natural and supernatural. Boundaries defining Sierra Blanca and tribal identity are formal and clearly identifiable on maps and in management plans. More importantly, the tribal view of the mountain is a personal and experiential boundary that non-native visitors can not cross.
The boundaries separating cultural identity and appropriate use of Sierra Blanca require a re-examination of the role of Sierra Blanca in Mescalero subsistence and ideas of sacredness. Mescalero Apache uses of Sierra Blanca has been a source of economic sustainability forever. The mountain has provided them with game, water, and cosmic experiences. For the non-native, Sierra Blanca is only reached by crossing into Indian Country along routes defined by the Mescalero. Using the mountainous environment to sell hunting rights, skiing, vistas, and passive forms of outdoor recreation seem counter to non-native ideas of sacredness. How can the Mescalero use the mountain for eco-tourism for non-natives if the mountain is one of the markers of Mescalero cultural identity? Have the Mescalero sold out?
The Mescalero Apache respond to these questions by reviewing what the mountain meant to them prior to non-native occupation of the region. Sierra Blanca and its various ecosystems provided subsistence, water, and protection prior to the introduction of American governmental policies and white settlement in the Apache homelands. While it may seem strange to non-Apache that a sacred site has been developed for economic gain by selling scenery, hunting, skiing, and gambling on the mountain, the Mescalero say that the mountain continues to provide for their existence and protection by offering these opportunities for tribal development.
Sierra Blanca’s power to provide for the Mescalero re-affirms its status as sacred. The mountain’s ecosystems support a variety of species and water sources. Prior to non-native intrusion into Apacheria, one set of resources were especially important in subsistence patterns. These resources are remembered today in ceremonies and gathering activities. A different set of resources and use patterns on the mountain support an expanding reservation economy based on ecotourism and services. The Mescalero move back and forth between these two periods as they honor their culture and Sierra Blanca for providing the resources. The boundary between the two periods is flexible and fluid. The sacredness associated with resources and Sierra Blanca is a process of reshaping resources and ecosystems over time.
The relationship between economic development and sacred sites is unique to each human group. The Mescalero Apache practice sacredness in honoring nature. Over time, the exact species and their ecosystems have been a significant place of sacredness. Sierra Blanca, White Mountain, provided the Apache with a range of resources over time. Continual contact with Sierra Blanca allowed the Mescalero to protect their cultural identity and create a boundary between non-native and native culture. Sierra Blanca and Mescalero flexibility is critical to economic development which in turn, re-affirms the sacredness of the mountain, its ecosystems, and resilience of the Mescalero Apache culture.
I left the reservation late one afternoon in early November. Alpenglow touched the dome of Sierra Blanca turning it first yellow and then vivid pink in the darkening sky. On my way back to Louisiana I wondered about the perceptions and ways of seeing landscape. How do we know a landscape? What values does a culture place on landforms? Would I ever realize what I see compared to what a Mescalero Apache sees when we both look at Sierra Blanca? What constitutes sacredness? How does sacredness change over time? All of these questions are significant elements of tribal identity, resource management, economic development, and cultural survival over time. These questions inform us about Mescalero Apache culture and our own.