top of page

The Native Perspective, Episode 13: Mescalero Apache

The Native Perspective is a Food Circle project that discusses taking urgent climate change action in order to protect indigenous peoples who depend on their natural environments for survival, food, shelter, and to maintain their cultural identity. Because climate change affects those who rely on nature the most, it is crucial to support indigenous communities worldwide which in turn ensures the preservation of ecosystems, as indigenous peoples have developed a balanced rapport with their natural surroundings and there is much knowledge to be gained from their lifestyles for more sustainable living. The dialogue also draws talking points from ecocriticism; it examines people’s attitudes towards nature, and indigenous studies; centering and elevating the voices of different indigenous cultures and promoting their experiences. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

A Force to Reckon with

Located in the Southwest of the United States, the Mescalero Apache Reservation was officially established on May 27, 1873, when President Ulysses S. Grant issued an executive order creating the Apache Tribe. The Mescalero Apache, Chiricahua Apache, and Lipan Apache are the three sub-groups that make up the tribe. Among them, the Mescalero people were nomadic hunters and gatherers who roamed the Southwest before the reservation era.

The Apaches were the only Native Americans in the Southwest that consistently instilled panic and fear in the hearts of the settlers [1]. They were considered to be skilled guerilla fighters who protected their homelands as they raided Spanish, Mexican, and American immigrants. The Mescalero were mostly nomadic hunters and warriors who lived in brush shelters called "Wicki ups". They are short, spherical structures made of twigs or teepees covered in elk and buffalo hides. In the Southwest, including Texas, Arizona, Chihuahua, and Sonora, Mexico, the Mescalero were free to roam around. In present day, The Mescalero Apache tribe is governed by an eight-member Tribal Council that elects its President and Vice-President. Each official is chosen by secret ballot for a two-year term.

Historically, The Guadalupe Mountains served as the Mescalero Apaches' last refuge. Groups of Apaches were compelled to flee the plains during the Comanche War and seek shelter in these hostile mountains [2]. They learned to use the local plants and animals to their advantage in order to survive. The Mescaleros hunted mule deer, elk, and bighorn sheep as well as they used beargrass and other vegetation like agave.

Agave, or mescal, served as their dietary and cultural staple. Agave hearts were not only used as a source of fiber for ropes, blankets, and sandals, but they were also roasted in big cooking pits and eaten or turned into cakes for later use. The Mescaleros moved around a lot, covering a lot of ground, as they followed the seasons.

The stories, rituals, and ways of life of the Apache people are intricately woven into their spiritual heritage and are tied to their ancestral homelands in the Southwest [3]. The Apaches, who arrived in the American Southwest alongside the Navajos from the north, are connected to other Athabaskan-speaking groups in the interior of Alaska and the Canadian Northwest Territories. According to legend, they came in the American Southwest somewhere between 800 and 1000 CE.

The puberty rite ceremony is one of the Mescalero Apache people's most revered and historic rituals. It is a four-day "Rite of Passage," a ritual that signifies a person's passage from girlhood to womanhood and from one stage of life to the next. During her rite of passage, the young girl partakes in family-prepared feasts, dances, blessings, and customs that date back hundreds of years. It highlights her upbringing, which includes teaching her the tribal language and establishing discipline and politeness from an early age. Through the ceremony, the young girl is blessed with the promise of a long and healthy life and is transitioned into a woman. Even though the ceremony marks the girl's rite of passage, it involves the entire community. The family of the girl invites everyone in the neighbourhood and provides food for them as they become guests for several days. Additionally, a ritual transformation makes the girl's transition to womanhood sacrosanct and bestows blessings on the entire community.

Resilient Adaptability

In the Sacramento Mountains, where a part of Mescalero Apache tribe resides, their climate is changing to one that is warmer and drier [4]. According to local meteorological statistics, three of the region's ten worst droughts and some of its warmest temperatures ever have all happened in the past decade or so. According to trends, the monsoon season is beginning later in the year and monsoon rains are occurring less frequently and for shorter periods of time on average. The typical duration and intensity of winter snowfall have also shifted, which has a severe effect on the tribe's water supply and its Ski Apache ski resort. The duration of both seasons (winter and Indian Summer) is longer, and the average temperature is higher in the spring and summer, therefore there is no doubt that the weather pattern changes are borderline extreme in this region [5].

Residents in the area of Mescalero Apache tribal territory have noticed ecosystem-wide changes in addition to variations in the local temperature. The increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires in the area, as a result of the unusually dry forest conditions, is one particular area of concern. Bark beetles are also affecting the health of the forest environment. Local environmental experts claim that the bark beetles are getting more and more deadly in the already drought-damaged trees. As a result of the bark beetle infestation, more fuel has been produced for wildfires, which feeds the cycle of forest degeneration. Other catastrophic events that the Mescalero Apache are now facing include unpredictable floods, cold snaps that kill crops, strong winds and drastic shifts in temperature from day to night.

Fortunately, there is a Mescalero-based AmeriCorps program that brings together volunteers who have been working hard to develop creative solutions to challenging problems caused by climate change. While the Mescalero Apache Tribe does not currently have a specific climate change program or policy relating to climate change adaptation, the tribe has implemented a number of environmental initiatives to help increase tribal resilience to climate change impacts, according to project leader Mike Montoya. For instance, to ensure landscape conservation Mike and his team have been striving to clear tribal grounds of exotic trees, primarily Chinese elm. The exotics removal initiative helps restore the watershed and gives locals access to more firewood. In this operation, staff members distribute the firewood to community elders after it has dried for six months.

Despite not being an agrarian culture traditionally, the tribe has aslo collaborated with the county extension office of New Mexico State University to develop an innovative real-world classroom where students build and employ various technology to grow food. After successfully constructing the garden and greenhouse, the group is now able to plant a variety of vegetables and fruits and test the viability of producing particular crops in the challenging conditions generally present on Mescalero Apache tribal territory. The collaborative group also educates students and other members of the community about the advantages of a healthy diet via lectures and demonstrations. They also give local farmers the chance to sell their produce to locals directly. The project's goal is to use less fossil fuel when people travel beyond the reservation to buy food. Additionally, the project aids tribal members in avoiding pesticide- and fertilizer-tainted foods.

The US Department of Energy granted the Mescalero Apache Housing Authority a $120,900 grant in 2009 to upgrade aging wood-burning heaters and stoves with more modern, energy-efficient models. The initiative, which improves in-home heating efficiency and lowers greenhouse gas emissions, is primarily designed for elderly and low-income families. The tribe has most recently obtained more financing for an experimental solar energy installation.

Moreover, the initiative has worked to raise the quality of water. The Mescalero fish hatchery's water discharge used to go straight into South Tularosa Creek. This process increased the risk of disease transfer from the hatchery into surface waters and caused an artificial nutrient load into the creek. In response, the program built a 1/2 acre settling and clarifier pond to capture hatchery outflow and contain settleable particles and nutrients before returning the water to the stream. The water quality at the discharge site has improved as a result.

These are merely a few instances, in which local community members together with governmental and non-governmental organisations have demonstrated flexibility and adaptation during these trying times for the Mescalero Apache. Not only are these projects ensuring a more sustainable way of life for the region and the tribe, but also bringing the community together in attempts to both find more durable methods of survival and also work towards a more stable and resilient future. But even with financial support, the strength and capabilities of the Mescalero Apache are being put to test, as the harsh climate forecast pose great risks. Indigenous knowledge together with adaptability and external support are key factors in keeping these communities safe and healthy.

Author: Liva Puka


Read our other blogs:

Check out our recipes to reduce food waste

Follow Food circle over on social media:






Download and use food waste apps

Download the international “Too good to go”