Bent and Mescalero — home of the Mescalero Apache

View from Mescalero Apache Tribal Offices. Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks
View from Mescalero Apache Tribal Offices. Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks

The Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation headquarters is located in the town of Mescalero, on US 70 seventeen miles northeast of Tularosoa. Originally established on May 27, 1873 by Executive Order of President Ulysses S. Grant, the reservation was first located near Fort Stanton. The present reservation was established in 1883, covering 463,000 acres between the White and Sacramento mountains, all in Tribal Ownership status.

According to information furnished by Ellyn Bigrope, Mescalero Museum Curator, the Executive Order setting aside these lands uses the term "Mescalero Apache Indians and such other Indians as the Department may see fit to locate thereon."

The Lipan Apaches from northwest Chihuahua, Mexico were brought to the United States about 1903 and placed on the Mescalero Reservation. In 1913 almost 200 members of the Chiricahua and Warm Springs bands of Apaches who had been held as military prisoners since the capture of Geronimo were moved from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to the Reservation.

The population at the time the Reservation was established was about 400 but now exceeds 3,300 enrolled members of the Tribe. The Lipan and Chiricahua bands became members of the Mescalero Apache when the Tribe was organized formally in 1936 under provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act. All the land within the boundaries is owned by the Tribe, with the exception of a few privately owned acres. Individual Indians may be granted the right to use specific tracts called "assignments," but title and control remains with the Tribe.

The Reservation is 27 miles from north to south and 36 miles from east to west at the widest point. It lies on both the east and west slopes of the Sacramento range. Much of the Reservation is covered with timber pine, fir, spruce, aspen, white oak, pinon and juniper. The east slope of the mountain drains into the Pecos River and the west slope streams drain into the Tularosa Basin where the waters sink into White Sands.

Ski Apache on Sierra Blanca (White Mountain), sacred mountain of the Mescalero Apaches, at 12,003 feet is near the northwest center of the Reservation, and dominates the landscape of south central New Mexico.  It was a landmark for the first Spanish explorers more than 400 years ago. For centuries before the first Spaniards and other explorers moved into this area, the Apaches had already known the mountain’s power to soothe the thirst of both mind and body, following the rigors of the desert life. "The Apaches know the secrets of the mountains and the deserts as no other people have known them, before or since the first strangers came," says their General Information brochure.

The Tribe maintains its own police force, fish and game agency and has an elementary school, kindergarten through sixth grade. A Headstart program is available for four year olds. Junior High and Senior High School students are transported daily to and from the Tularosa schools, seventeen miles each way. The Ruidoso Public School System (K-12) is available to residents of the reservation who live adjacent to Ruidoso.

There are five churches located on the Mescalero Reservation, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, the Mescalero Reformed Church, the Church of the Latter Day Saints, the Apache Assembly of God and the First Baptist Church. The Bahai Faith of Ruidoso and Alamogordo is also available. Native religions are still practiced. A Traditional Counseling Program has been developed to insure the continuance of the Mescalero Apache Culture, Traditions and Religion.

The program is composed of selected elders who teach the members of the Tribe the "Old Indian Ways" by participation in traditional activities.

A Coming of Age Ceremony is held every year on the first week of July. Indian dances and a rodeo are held each of the four days in addition to the traditional Puberty Ritual Ceremony, Dance of the Apache Maidens and Dance of the Mountain Gods. It is a solemn and serious time in life when a girl child ends the years of her girlhood and prepares for the years of womanhood. Non-Indians are privileged to watch the principal parts of the puberty rites, if they conduct themselves with proper respect. During these few days before and after the 4th of July many Mescalero families, along with Indian visitors from other tribes, pitch tents on the hill and live for a short time as their ancestors did. It is good to remember the old ways now and then, they feel.

For the rest of the year, however, the Mescaleros live in houses. Families own cattle. Most women and men are career oriented, many with college degrees. The tribe is governed under a constitution that has been in effect since 1936 and is a Federally Chartered Corporation. The governing body is the Mescalero Tribal Council, with 10 members elected by popular vote. The Tribal Council supervises the management of tribal affairs, regulates the use of tribal property and funds and, in general, functions much as does a board of county commissioners or city council. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, an arm of the Federal Department of Interior, provides the Tribe with technical services in land management, social welfare and other fields.

Activities of the tribal government are supported principally from income from timber sales. The Tribe is striving to develop the tourism potential of the reservation as a new source of revenue for the tribal government and jobs for tribal members. Other income is derived from the operation of a cattle industry. The Tribe operates Ski Apache Resort, Inn of the Mountain Gods, Apache Casino, a Tribal Lounge, a General Store and Mescalero Timber Products. The Bureau of Indian Affairs handles all timber sales for the Tribe with the income being deposited in the U.S. Treasury to the credit of the Mescalero Tribe. Such funds are used for tribal budgets that cover business administration, domestic water, law and order, home improvements, welfare, education assistance, health and social activities. Grazing land on the reservation supports approximately 6,500 good grade Hereford cattle owned by tribal members through the Mescalero Apache Cattle Growers Association. The Mescalero Apache Tribe is one of the most prosperous.

Changes have occurred in their way of life. The tepee and the buckskin garments are gone and almost gone is the mescal gathering when the cactus is ripe for harvest. The Spanish gave them the name "Mescalero" meaning the people who eat mescal. Deer hunting takes place but with rifles rather than bows. The Apache language is still spoken although almost all speak English fluently and a few also speak Spanish. Tribal members work for their living, as do their neighbors. Contrary to belief, the Mescalero Apaches are not receiving an annuity from the U. S. Government. There are World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans on the reservation and a number of Tribal members now serve in the Armed Forces. The majority of the adult Mescalero Apaches are registered voters in Otero County and vote in all elections.

"The Mescalero Apache adjustment to the complex ways of the white man’s society is not yet complete. However, the Mescaleros have come far along the new road and the trail should be smoother from now on." - from the General Information brochure on the Mescalero Apache Reservation.

Four miles west of the Reservation is a neighboring settlement, Bent, settled in 1906 by George Bent. He was a miner and promoter, establishing a mill along the Rio Tularosa. The post office was established then also and took his name for the community. The mill no longer is active but the settlement is still there. Near it is "Round Mountain" as it is shown on some maps but officially it is known as Tularosa Peak.

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