The Mescalero Apaches

The Mescalero Apaches

by Carol Sonnichsen, Charles L. Sonnichsen

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Frederick Webb Hodge remarked that the Eastern Apache tribe called the Mescaleros were “never regarded as so warlike” as the Apaches of Arizona. But the Mescaleros’ history is one of hardship and oppression alternating with wars of revenge. They were friendly to the Spaniards until victimized, and friendly to Americans until they were betrayed

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Frederick Webb Hodge remarked that the Eastern Apache tribe called the Mescaleros were “never regarded as so warlike” as the Apaches of Arizona. But the Mescaleros’ history is one of hardship and oppression alternating with wars of revenge. They were friendly to the Spaniards until victimized, and friendly to Americans until they were betrayed again. For three hundred years Mescaleros fought the Spaniards and Mexicans. They fought Americans for forty more, before subsiding into lethargy and discouragement. Only since 1930 have the Mescaleros been able to make tribal progress.

C. L. Sonnichsen tells the story of the Mescalero Apaches from the earliest records to the modern day, from the Indian's point of view. In early days the Mescaleros moved about freely. Their principal range was between the Río Grande and the Pecos in New Mexico, but they hunted into the Staked Plains and southward into Mexico. They owned nothing and everything. 

Today the Mescaleros are American citizens and own their reservation in the Tularosa country of New Mexico. While the Mescalero Apaches still struggle to retain their traditions and bridge the gap between their old life and the new, their people have made amazing progress.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A well-written history of a group of Indians who helped to keep the Southwest in an uproar for several centuries. . . . Here, retold as it affected and still affects the Mescaleros, is also the story of our errant and confused Indian policy.”—Library Journal

“An excellent book. . . . Beautifully written by a master craftsman.”—The Journal of Southern History

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University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date:
Civilization of the American Indian Series
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5.48(w) x 8.12(h) x 0.89(d)

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The Mescalero Apaches

By C. L. Sonnichsen


Copyright © 1973 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-1615-0



An Introduction

ONLY A LITTLE over one hundred years ago the United States took possession of New Mexico and immediately became involved in Indian trouble. In theory the country belonged to the people of Spanish blood who had been holding the upland sheep pastures and the narrow fields beside the rivers for two and one-half centuries. But it was an enormous and an untamed land—far too big for the handful of Mexicans to occupy—and the Apaches and Navajos regarded it as their own particular and private preserve. It was their home, and they were ready to fight for it.

Actually, much of it seemed hardly worth fighting for. Miles of burning desert intervened between wooded mountain ranges and fertile valleys. To the east, beyond the Pecos, the endless, inhospitable plains began. To the west, the mountain wilderness of the Black Range, the Mimbres, and the Mogollon challenged the courage and endurance of the few hardy souls who ventured there. The Great River of the North flowed down the middle, and the tides of commerce and settlement mostly followed its banks. In 1846 it was hard to imagine that any significant portion of the country would ever be useful to civilized people. Nevertheless, the Americans claimed it, as the Spaniards had before them, and spent many lives and much treasure trying to make their title good.

West of the river they had the Gila Apaches and the Navajos to contend with. Eastward the Jicarilla and Mescalero subdivisions of the Apache people shared the country. The Jicarillas ranged north and east of Santa Fé; the Mescaleros branched out fanwise from the Sierra Blanca in the southeast—into the Texas Panhandle, south to the Big Bend country of Texas, and on into Mexico, where, with their cousins the Lipans, they had raided the ranches and villages for centuries.

There were Mescalero bands in the Sierra Blanca, the Guadalupes, and the Davis Mountains. They were people of the mountains, but they were equally at home in the parched desert wastes by which they were surrounded. They moved about freely, wintering on the Río Grande or farther south, ranging the buffalo plains in the summer, always following the sun and the food supply. They owned nothing and everything. They did as they pleased and bowed to no man. Their women were chaste. Their leaders kept their promises. They were mighty warriors who depended on success in raiding for wealth and honor. To their families they were kind and gentle, but they could be unbelievably cruel to their enemies—fierce and revengeful when they felt that they had been betrayed.

It became the mission of the white invaders to convince this free and proud people that the country did not belong to them after all—to assure them, in effect, that the Maker of All had turned his face from his red children and that the white man had a divine right to whatever he could lay his hands on. It was now the duty of the Indian to submit, no matter what cruelties and injustices were visited upon him.

The Indian could not understand or accept any such point of view. He felt no inferiority; he saw no reason why he should allow himself to be pushed around. Yet the white man was always giving him the short end of the stick. When some squatter abused a native, that was unfortunate. If the native retaliated upon the squatter, that was armed rebellion.

"When three or four bad white men stop and rob one stage, maybe kill somebody," one old Indian put it, "you send one sheriff to catch three, four bad men; same way when some bad white men steal some cattle or some horses, you send one sheriff; but when three, four bad Injun stop one stage, kill somebody, steal some men's horse or cow, you try catch three, four bad Injun? No! All white men say, 'Injun broke out, Injun on warpath,' and then come soldier for to kill everybody."

It need not have been that way. Primitive as the red men were, they held no grudges at the start. They were not unfriendly toward the Spaniards until the Spaniards betrayed them. There is evidence to show that they were friendly toward the Americans until the Americans betrayed them in their turn. Once the cycle of murder and revenge was started, the situation went from bad to worse; but it might all have been unnecessary with a better beginning. And time and again as the years went on, good men tried to help their Indian friends toward self-respect and independence, only to see them slip backward under the pressure of starvation, coercion, or outrages by white men more savage than they.

The main trouble was lack of comprehension. The Indians, not knowing about politics, expediency, and instructions from Washington, could not understand how a white man could say one thing on Sunday and reverse himself on Monday. Likewise, it seemed to them that any and all white men were accountable for the misdeeds of one.

The "White Eyes," as the Apaches called the Americans, saw a creature with a complexion different from their own, a set of customs which seemed barbarous to them, and a language which they could not understand. "Heathens and savages," they said, "standing in the way of progress. They must be restrained or removed, and they have no right to resent what we do to them because they are inferior." And they had the idea, too, that what one Indian did, all Indians were accountable for.

The gulf between the two races was widened and deepened because they were so completely opposite in their system of values. The Americans were punctual, acquisitive, and laborious. The Indians cared little for time, personal property, or work. The white man thought the Indian was lazy. The Indian thought the white man ran himself to death. Cadete, the great Mescalero chief, explained his views on these matters to Captain John C. Cremony when the tribe was rotting at Bosque Redondo in the sixties:

You desire our children to learn from books, and say, that because you have done so, you are able to build all those big houses, and sail over the sea, and talk with each other at any distance, and do many wonderful things; now, let me tell you what we think. You begin when you are little to work hard, and work until you are men in order to begin fresh work. You say that you work hard in order to learn how to work well. After you get to be men, then you say, the labor of life commences; then too, you build big houses, big ships, big towns, and everything else in proportion. Then, after you have got them all, you die and leave them behind. Now, we call that slavery. You are slaves from the time you begin to talk until you die; but we are free as air. We never work, but the Mexicans and others work for us. Our wants are few and easily supplied. The river, the wood and plain yield all that we require, and we will not be slaves; nor will we send our children to your schools, where they only learn to become like yourselves.

Cremony had nothing to say in reply. "It was so utterly impossible to make them comprehend the other side of this specious argument," he adds, "that it was not attempted."

Impossible as it was to reconcile the Apache and white points of view, there would have been less difficulty if the white man had known his own mind. Whenever the administration changed in Washington, whenever a new agent appeared on the reservation, the game had to be played by a new set of rules. The military insisted that the red men must be "civilized," which meant that they must stop being Indians and become second-class white men. One Indian commissioner would recommend that all the tribes should be herded together as far from the settlements as possible with the army standing guard. The next man in office would be convinced that the only solution was to give every brave 160 acres of land and turn him loose.

There was never any stable attitude. A consistent policy was beyond the reach of the official imagination. All that anybody appeared to be sure of was that the Indian was a hopeless creature who seemed, fortunately, to be eliminating himself as fast as a declining birth rate could arrange it. Meanwhile, he must be forced to become something different from what he was, whether he liked it or not.

The Indian did not like it. He was satisfied with himself just as he was. In fact, he felt superior to the government official—often a soft and helpless one—who was telling him what to do. He saw no point in trying to remodel himself according to the white man's suggestions, especially when the white man seemed unable to inform him what he was supposed to be like when the remodeling was finished. Was he supposed to be a pensioner, a farmer, or a corpse? Some officials wanted him to be one of these things, some another; and a few seemed to feel that he should be all three at once.

The Indian reacted as any human creature would. He rebelled when he was angry; he submitted when he had to. For the first forty years of Indian-American contact in the Southwest he starved and fought. For the next forty years he mostly just starved. Every year his numbers diminished and his hopelessness grew greater. The traditional pattern of his life was ended forever. The game was gone; his old life of raiding and warfare was forbidden. Yet there was no place for him in white society even if he had been prepared to take it. It seemed that there was no way out.

Then, after World War I, things commenced to change. A new spirit of helpfulness began to stir among the whites. More intelligence and sympathy were applied in the consideration of the aborigine and his problems. Education, sanitation, and better management altered the picture. In 1928, for the first time since the Americans came, the birth rate of the Indians caught up with the death rate. In 1934 the Indian Reorganization Bill gave the race new life and hope.

But, as usual, the white man was unable to do the thing reasonably. Now the pendulum swung to the other extreme and the "Indianists" took charge. Indian religion suddenly became nobly spiritual. Indian life and customs seemed admirable, especially to people who had never been on a reservation. Indian arts and crafts embodied all beauty and originality. The market was soon glutted with junk manufactured by Indians who had long since lost any need to follow their ancestral crafts and had therefore forgotten them. At the same time anthropologists, psychologists, journalists, and collectors of folklore pursued the tribesmen into their tipis and, in the name of science, pumped information out of them which even a white man would have preferred to keep to himself.

How the Indian stood up to this new form of persecution is a real modern miracle. But he was hardened by eighty years of paleface capriciousness and eccentricity; he endured, and still endures, the assault by kindness just as he once withstood more lethal weapons.

He knew it would not last—and it didn't! By 1950 the forces of opposition were organized. The Indian was costing too much money. He was taking too much time in becoming civilized. Why should he be getting so much attention, anyway? It was time, as one writer put it, to "give the Indian back to the country"—in other words to turn him out, ready or not, to make his own way in the World he Never Made. The Indian Bureau itself proclaimed that its sole object was to go out of business as soon as possible—to liquidate its wardship and take one bureau out of the bureaucracy.

A thoughtful Indian could only shake his head and wonder, "What next?"

Meanwhile most of the tribes live in poverty far below the white average. Education is available only in small quantities to most of them. Integration and acceptance in white communities continue to be painfully slow. There is still much to be done before the Indian is self-sufficient.

The two things most needed are now, as always, understanding and a shoulder to the wheel. Even a little comprehension of what an Indian is, what he comes from, and where he wants to go would help the situation.

So here is the story of a group of First Americans—the Mescalero subdivision of the Eastern Apaches, a people with a long history which epitomizes what the white man has done to the Indian, and vice versa—a group which has held to a reasonable proportion of its traditional culture but has taken much of what the white man has to give; a tribe of relatively poor Indians who are making progress in working out an Indian destiny in a white man's world. Their story is the story of the red man in America, sad in places, hopeful in others—a long road traveled and a longer one still to go; a road which can be easier if the white brother shows any symptoms of knowing and understanding what it means and has meant to be an Indian.



The Apaches and Their Way of Life

AN OLD-TIME APACHE doesn't talk much. To strangers, especially white strangers, his remarks are few and to the point. His dark, immobile face doesn't tell a great deal, either. Not a muscle twitches, though his black eyes may be watchful and suspicious. A white man who has had little to do with Indians might consider him sullen or stupid. He is neither, but he does have extraordinarily good reasons for keeping his mouth shut.

His reticence is the wariness of one who walks among potential foes. During the last four hundred years and more, there has scarcely been a day when somebody was not scheming to run him out of his native country and take his living away from him. Always he has had to struggle for his existence, whether the enemy was a hostile Indian or an official in Washington. His ancestors lived with danger. He is not out of danger himself. Why should he be trustful and confiding?

Peril and distress brought him to the American Southwest. His forebears straggled down from the Arctic regions centuries ago with other offshoots of the great Athapascan family. They had to move on or die. Two hundred—three hundred—perhaps five hundred years before the arrival of Europeans, the Apaches and their cousins the Navajos, under pressure from fiercer or more numerous tribes, took refuge in the harsh country where they live today. As time drifted by, they adapted themselves so successfully to their new environment that the cactus and the horned toad and the rattlesnake were not more at home in it than they.

The Spaniards called it Apachería. It was an enormous expanse of sandy plains and rocky mountains reaching from California to Texas, and from Colorado into Old Mexico. Most of it was wasteland—practically a desert—where only the hardiest of creatures could survive.

Here and there in the endless reaches of the dry country the green mountain ranges rose up—pine clad, watered by spring-fed streams, hospitable to deer and elk, enriched with fruits and berries. The Apaches loved the mountain valleys and stayed in them during the summers. But the highland winters were cold, and a brush shelter or a skin tipi was no place to live in zero weather. The desert down below was warm, if otherwise discouraging. Therefore the Apache became a migrant, at home anywhere, an Arab of the New World, especially adept at making the most of the scanty resources of a land of little rain. The desert was his mother, and he was the desert's child.

The school he learned in was a hard one. The plants and animals he lived with were armed with spines and thorns, fangs and claws. Everything lived on something else, and every existence had to be bought with another. Kindness and pity were luxuries which the desert could not afford.

As a result, the Apache developed into one of the toughest human organisms the world has ever seen. His powers of endurance, his ability to live off the country, his skill in eluding pursuers and surprising his foes—these things have become legendary, yet the prosaic pages of history testify to the truth of the legends.

"To the natural acuteness of all his kind, the country of his nativity adds a finish peculiarly his own," says one chronicler. "His whole existence a hardship, a struggle with a nature from whose gaunt fist only the most persistent and skillful wrenching can wring bare life, the Apache was whetted to a ferocity of edge, an endurance of temper, which were impossible in a more endurable country. He earned the eye of the kite, the ear of the cat, the cunning of the fox, the ferocious courage and tirelessness of the gray wolf. Over the crags of his arid ranges he could travel farther in a day than the world's champion on a cinder track, and keep it up for more days.... In a word, the Apache would wear out in physical endurance the most enduring of his white foes. Hunger he could stand twice as long, and thirst four times as long, as the best of them."

The early-day Apache was seldom large or heavy. His height was perhaps a little under that of the average white man and his frame was usually wiry. He was built for speed and endurance, with good lung capacity and tough muscles. His head seemed large because of the shock of straight black hair, which he sometimes braided but usually left hanging loose with a headband to keep it out of his eyes. He was proud of this copious gift of hair, and there were ceremonies for children which were intended to insure a good and permanent growth.

His face was broad and round and rather flat. Its color varied from a light tan to a rich chocolate. In some cases his eyelids drooped over his eyes, giving them a hooded effect. By white standards there were not many handsome Indian men, but they had power, and their great men had dignity.

The young women were oftentimes pleasing to look at, though they were apt to shrivel up into animated bags of bones in later life. Childbearing, hard physical work, and the stresses of a precarious existence aged them early.


Excerpted from The Mescalero Apaches by C. L. Sonnichsen. Copyright © 1973 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

C.  L. Sonnichsen (1901-1991) was Benedict Professor of English at the University of Texas, El Paso. His many books include The Mescalero Apaches, Tucson: The Life and Times of an American City, and Cowboys and Cattle Kings: Life on the Range Today

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