Editor’s Note: Mescalero Apache Vice President Gabe Aguilar welcomed and accommodated ICTMN’s visit to the tribe’s annual puberty rites and was explicit about what could and could not be presented. ICTMN was provided with written rules about what could be photographed and shared with readers. Consequently there are no images of the Big Tipi or Crown Dancers. Readers will have to attend the 2017 rites to experience those wonders for themselves.
Every Independence Day at the Mescalero Apache tribal lands in New Mexico, the public is invited to witness the tribe’s traditional puberty rites, a series of rituals deeply connected to the Apache deity White Painted Lady.
For a nominal entrance fee, the public can join the extended community that gathers around the girls who take on the rites’ rigors, and whose families have the funds to make their dreams come true. “People used to tell me I was strong,” Haley Tsinnijinnie, 13, said. “But deep down I never knew I was; going through with this feast tells me I really am a strong person.”
The four-day ceremony require intermittent fasting, abstinence from bathing, eating ritual foods, and vigorous prayer sessions. On the first and last mornings there are ceremonial runs. On the final evening, the girls must stay awake all night and dance together until dawn in the Big Tipi. “It’s tiring,” admitted 9th grader Jerica Lea Mancito-Baca,“but I know that I’m doing something good for my culture.”
This year, Allysa Iris Kazhe, Amber Ruth Lathan, Jerica Lea Mancito-Baca, Tahnice J. Moreno, Shaylee Mangas, and Haley D. Apache Tsinnijinnie stood with their families and medicine men and women in front of the Big Tipi facing east toward the Creator, giving and receiving blessings. Tobacco was smoked, herbs were tied to the Big Tipi, and there was a prayer for the trees cut down to serve as its poles.
The girls’ faces and scalps were soon streaked bright yellow with bee pollen (considered an agent of fertility) collected from local cattails and stored in deerskin pouches. Purchasing the pollen or any ritual ingredients is strictly forbidden. Preparations, such as harvesting herbs for “Indian tea” or mescal, must be done in advance, and in season.
The girls wore buckskin ceremonial dresses either inherited from a relative or made for the occasion. “When the maiden is in the dress, it’s a disciplined role,” explained Zelda Yazza, a sixth-generation medicine woman. “She represents the mother of our people.”
“When you’re in this dress,” Mangas explained, “you’re the one that’s got the power to help heal people who are sick and injured. It’s a joy.”
The girls are not allowed to touch their own bodies—any scratching must be done with a special stick, perspiration must be wiped with a scarf; water cannot touch them, lest it bring a great flood to interrupt the rites; holding a baby is prohibited lest it invite pregnancy too soon.
Before the first run the medicine women eases the girls face down onto a mat, rocking them into the earth, molding them into righteous Apache women. “She’s a virgin, untouched by men,” Yazza explained. “We’re pressing her body and molding her mind—that she not think crazy, that she remember things well, remember our people. We pray for her to be strong, straight, that her life will be good, easy for her, not difficult, that she’ll have a good home, that food will always come to her. We straighten her back so she’ll run fast, hard and good.”
When the men start to shake their rattles and sing, it’s a signal that the time is nearing for the girls to run. Women ululate. “I cry to lighten the burden of the girl, to make sure she knows I’m here for her,” Yazza said. The girls step forward, their medicine women holding onto them, a hand on the shoulder, some holding onto the fringe of their dresses. “This expresses the mother’s hope to always be in touch with her daughter,” Yazza explained.
Slowly moving one bold step at a time, some of the girls, who are supposed to maintain a dignified even stoic composure, smile. “We’re supposed to keep our emotions calm and look respectful,” Amber Ruth Lathan said. “But we don’t want to look unhappy, either.” The men blow and kiss the fringe on their deer hoof rattles to help their prayers go straight into the rattle and right up to the Creator. The medicine women whisper encouraging words into the girls’ ears.
The girls, who’ve been fasting since sundown, run a lap and return to the Big Tipi. Their friends straighten their moccasins, which have fallen down around their ankles in the run, offer water through straws, and wipe their brows. There are four laps during the first run—one for each stage of life in the Apache worldview: infant, toddler, pubescent youth and elder.
When the medicine woman gives the thumbs-up, Apache Burden Baskets are spilled over the girls’ heads: candies, coins and piñon rain down. Gum balls, bags of popcorn and toys are thrown out at the crowd. This is just a small part of the family’s generosity; to fulfill their feast-giving obligations, they often serve 200 to 300 meals to the public each day.
Experienced feast organizers and head cooks like Louwana Barcus are hired to head up each family’s immense feeding operation. “On the first day we kill the cow, butcher it and take out the insides—liver, tongue, tripe. We serve the beef along with mesquite beans, Indian bananas, which is a kind of squash, and also deer meat with red chile.” In addition to the public, the family must feed their relatives and guests, hired dancers and singers, medicine men and women, and all the helpers. Before every meal, every day, the girl blesses all the food.
After breaking their fast, the girls returned to the Big Tipi to light the main fire from which all other fires will be lit. They then kneel together, taking turns twirling a stick between their palms, trying to create a spark.
Meanwhile cattail fronds that had been soaked in water are spread like a fresh carpet on the floor of the Big Tipi. Certain poles, bundles of twigs and rocks are rubbed with red clay mixed with marrow extracted from cow bones, and are blessed and thanked for their service.
That night, the bonfire blazed to the heavens, its orange cinders releasing bright plumes of fire toward the abundant luminous stars that shine fiercely over Mescalero Apache lands.
The Crown Dancers were electrifying in their black hooded masks, brandishing wooden swords—their bare torsos covered with paisley patterns painted in clay, the effect almost hallucinatory as they charged the fire, vocalizing in unison the high-pitched trills sounded in the Dance of the Mountain Gods.
The next day, everyone returned to the Feast Ground to resume the rites.