Over the 4th of July weekend in 2009 I took a University of New Mexico Continuing Education excursion to the Mescalero Apache ceremonial near Ruidoso for the girls’ puberty ceremony. The whole thing takes 12 days to perform and years for the girls’ families to prepare for, but four days of it were scheduled to coincide with the annual ceremonial at which the Mountain Gods dance.
There was a midway, of course, with “fair”-type food to buy and souvenirs, umbrellas (for the sun), jewelry and art, and an open space where traditional dances and songs were performed all day, with bleachers and room to set up folding camp chairs around the edge. Apaches and Native Americans had come from all over. People camped in tents set up outside the meeting grounds. The families of the girls going through the ritual prepared mammoth amounts of food to feed anyone who showed up at meal time. Fry bread, always. Other stuff, sometimes traditional, sometimes not. What appeared to be green beans cooked in some kind of broth, salad, meat cooked in sauce (which was excellent).
When we arrived on the 4th, there didn’t seem to be a lot of people in attendance, though more drifted in throughout the afternoon. Since it’s up in the mountains, it wasn’t as blazingly hot as it might have been, and even so, when the wind died down, it must have been nearly 90o. Evening came on and they built the bonfire around which the four Mountain Gods would dance. Night fell, and the Gods began to dance: several different sets of Mountain Gods, doing a succession of dances which relate an important Apache myth. There are four sets of Gods because there are sixteen dances, and each group does four, so the groups have time to recuperate before they’re on again. The dancing continues until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning.
The moon, almost full, came up, and on the other side of the mountain range, which seemed to rise right on the other side of the highway, flashes of light began. We initially thought it was fireworks. Instead it was lightning beyond the range, far enough away that we didn’t hear thunder. While the Mountain Gods danced, the four girls were in a teepee at the edge of the dancing ground, its opening facing east. The girls were carrying on their own ceremonies, dancing and singing under the supervision of medicine men. When we left at about 10:00 p.m., I think we were all surprised to find that suddenly there were two or three times as many spectators as there had been earlier. They must have drifted in like fog, to fill the bleachers and set up their own chairs around the field.
The moon, lightning, fire and social dancing (with a great ring of spectators dancing around the edge, circling the Mountain Gods) will stick in my mind for a long time. But the best memory is of a young Apache woman in fatigues, first watching in a dignified manner, then dancing in place while chatting with a friend, and finally, as darkness came down, joining the dance line when someone lent her a dance shawl. The Apaches have a high regard for their warriors; at the entrance to the grounds, military flags flew with the U.S. flag. In the Apaches’ casino, Inn of the Mountain Gods, a few miles away, a plaque (a big one) lists all the Apache veterans who have died while serving, from U.S. Cavalry Indian scouts to losses in Iraq.
When we got out to the highway about half a mile from the ceremonial grounds, we found it had poured. But not on the ceremonial. Not a drop.