Introduction to Apache Sacred Space

 

Mountains and other significant geographical locations are vital components of Mescalero Apache culture, tradition, religion, and ceremonial practice. Mescaleros have traditionally made their homes in the mountains of the Southwestern United States and the northern regions of Mexico. While most of their sacred mountains are found within the boundaries of contemporary New Mexico, there are sacred mountains in Arizona, Texas, Mexico, and as far east as the Mississippi river.

One reason that mountains are so important to the Mescalero is that given Southwestern ecology, the majority of resources for life are found within the mountains. In the Sonoran desert, most rain and snow falls in the mountains, thus providing fresh water. Trees are also confined mostly to the mountains, which were (and still are) used by the Mescalero for the constructions of tipis (called kuughan), their traditional form of shelter. Furthermore, the vast majority of medicinal plants can be found in the mountains where ecological diversity is at it's greatest. These plants were invaluable to the well-being of the Mescaleros in traditional times and still play an extremely important role in contemporary Mescalero ceremonialism and the medicine practices of the medicine people.

Not only are mountains significant for their ecological properties, but for their spiritual properties as well. In fact, Mescaleros make very few distinctions between these two considerations of ecology and spirituality. Within traditional Mescalero thought, ecology and spirituality are intimately related and are co-dependent. For example, the amount of water available within the local environment is considered to be directly related to the integrity of the community's prayers and spiritual conviction. In this sense, drought or lack of available water would be attributed to lack of sincerity in prayers or to superficial ceremonial practice. Similarly, there are a number of medicinal plants which grow in the mountains that are necessary for the proper enactment of ceremony. The absence of such plants within the local ecology would be taken as a sign by the Mescaleros that something was lacking in their spiritual integrity. In this sense the spiritual integrity of the culture as a whole is understood to have a direct and immediate impact on local environmental conditions. Ecology and spirituality cannot be separated in traditional Mescalero thought.

In actual ceremonial practice, mountains are often the focus of prayers. As with other Native American cultures, Mescaleros have a sophisticated system of thought which considers prayers to be directly related to mountains. As Mescaleros explain it, prayer is initiated by individual intentions in the mind. Intentions are then shaped in the mind by language. Once shaped by language, thought can be expressed in the spoken word through conscious prayer. Prayers, once spoken, become part of the air. The intentions of the individual have become externalized through this process. Once externalized, the intentions, in the form of prayer, must find a destination. Broadly speaking, the destination of prayers is to the "four directions" of the world, which are characterized by the movement of the sun across the sky, starting in the east with the sunrise, the south with the midday sun, the west with the setting sun, and the north, with the nighttime sky. More concretely, the "four directions" are often concretized in Mescalero thought through the physical presence of mountains. Mescaleros often conceptualize there being "four sacred mountains" with each mountain representing each of the four directions in turn. When prayers are spoken, they are directed at the mountains of the four directions. The mountains are then understood to "catch" the prayers. This spiritual consideration of mountains is directly related to an ecological observation. Mountains "catch" air in that weather tends to form over the mountains in the Southwest. This is where clouds collect and release their live-giving waters. As externalized prayers have become part of the air through the act of speech, prayers can then be caught by the mountains in the same way that air is caught. Mountains are thus a direct connection between the power of Life and the Creator, as expressed through the four directions and the natural environment and the prayerful and ceremonial lives of the Mescalero.

Given this centrality of the significance of mountains in Mescalero thought, it should come as no surprise that mountains are often the subject of religious practice and experience. Mountains, as with all things, are understood as having an internal, spiritual nature. Through prayer this spiritual nature of mountains can be directly contacted and interacted with the result being that mountains are understood to be the main source of religious and spiritual revelation in Mescalero culture. This is most concretely expressed through the Mountain Spirit tradition. Deserving individuals are granted revelations (through dreams, visions, and spiritual encounters) from the mountains where they are imparted the knowledge and rights to conduct Mountain Spirit ceremonies. In these ceremonies, men, who perform as ceremonial dancers, are dressed and painted as "Mountain Spirits" who, through processes of ceremonial transformation, are understood to embody the power of the four directions and the power of the mountains. Once transformed, these dancers, through highly choreographed performances, are understood to affect blessing and healings. This ceremonial tradition is one of the most significant and vital aspects of contemporary Mescalero religious practice.

Mountains are also used in a variety of other spiritual capacities as well. Young people seeking some form of medicine to help guide them through their lives will fast out in the mountains for two to four days while seeking a vision. Mountains are also routinely used by medicine people as places of prayer, contemplation, meditation, and vision. They also serve as the main gathering areas for medicinal plants. Often individuals and family groups become particularly attached to specific mountains. For example, groups of Mountain Spirit singers and dancers are often extremely attached to the mountains where their groups originated from in the founding spiritual revelation. In this sense, personal and family relationships to mountains form a major component of Mescalero identity and spiritual understanding.

White Mountain
Guadalupe Mountain
Capitan Mountain
Three Sisters Mountain
Florida Mountain
Salinas Peak