Over July 4th weekend the public can witness traditional puberty rites conducted over four days and nights at the tribe’s Feast Grounds, ceremonies that were once slandered as “evil practices” and banned in 1883 by the U.S. as a violation of The Code of Indian Offenses.
When the Apaches were allowed to resume their rites, it was on the condition that they be held on American Independence Day. Moving the date, according to Mescalero Apache President Danny Breuninger, risks the loss of this important history.
“Our puberty rites are a key salvation in regaining and remembering our ceremonies, and all of the things that make us Apache people,” Breuninger explained.
Each family receives a $1,500 stipend to defray expenses—which can run into the five figures to pay for food and drinks, supplies, dancers, singers, gifts and other helpers—and a cow from the herd the tribe manages, with an option to purchase a second cow at cost.
The tribe’s security detail, overseen by Amador Martinez IV, facilitates a safe and hassle-free public participation.
But it is the Groundsman who does much of the work. The puberty rites take place in an environment that must be built and disassembled according to traditional strictures. Marc Brusuelas, who learned the ropes from his father, graciously explained the process to ICTMN.
Once you’re engaged as Groundsman, what happens next?
Preparing the ground to accept the poles for the Big Tipi, which are harvested from the mountains and blessed by the medicine men; each of the four main poles has a special name. Then we’ll cut the other eight poles and make sure they’re transported to the grounds safely. We’re out there around 4, 4:30 that first morning.
Then we raise the poles, it’s always fun to see that.
What about building the family’s camp?
We gather all the oak brush to cover the walls of the arbor. Then the medicine man and woman bless the grounds—that takes about 30 minutes. We cook and eat breakfast with the family and discuss how the kitchen arbor will be laid out. The cook makes those decisions with input from the medicine lady.
You also collect and restock the wood for the fires?
For the cook fires and fry bread fires, the cooks want us to split the firewood into smaller pieces; it gets hotter faster, and heats the grease up to the temperature they need it. We typically get dry oak for that.
All the wood for the Big Tipi’s fire, which can never go out, must be hand-chopped. We call it “grandma wood” because it burns gray, but it’s really oak as well.
For the Crown Dancers’ fire, the big bonfire in the center of the arena, we use logs of dry pine. It’s usually real sappy and ignites easier and faster, almost like kerosene. It’ll just burn and burn.
Maintaining the whole of the Big Tipi is your special responsibility too. What’s involved with that?
Changing out the cattails [which make the floor of the Big Tipi look more appealing, and keep the dust down as the girls dance] every day, bringing in fresh granny wood. If we get rain, we have to cover the fire.
This year we had to lower the canvas out of respect for the loss of the medicine man [Yumin Baca, 35, who walked on unexpectedly after Day One], get the flaps draped down as a sign of mourning—like flying a flag at half-mast.
We helped with starting the fire in the Big Tipi; all the other fires start from that fire. We’ll take a shovel full of coals, and spread the fires that way.
As for the bonfire, the clowns will run through the camps, run through the arbor; that’s our signal that it’s time to light the big bonfire.
Those three long sticks by the fire, what are they for?
Fry bread sticks used for turning the loaves in the oil, stirring sticks for the big pots, and sticks to poke the fire to move the coals around. All of these are typically oak.
What other kinds of tasks do you take on?
The ladies in the camp—when they need muscle, they call on us to move the pots in and out of the fire. Also, since no women are allowed in the dancers’ tipi, they’ll need a male to get the dishes out of the tipi or take them water, bring them snacks.
How are you compensated?
In our tradition we’re not supposed to pay for ritual services, not in currency. Usually we’ll receive something functional, depending on what the family can do and what they want to offer. They might gift the groundsman with a horse or a tipi—these things hold more meaning, versus money.
The reward is the closeness it brings, not just with the families but with everyone we work with.
When is your job here finished?
Everything we’ve built has to come down; everything goes back to the mountain, in our tradition the poles “go home.”
Once that’s done and the family doesn’t need any more help, they’ll give the payment out, and you’re free to go home.
We’re here to the last man standing, to help at the very end.
It’s an incredible amount of labor. Why do you do it?
It’s an honor to help the family when they come and ask you. You’re helping their daughter be guided in her life, spirituality and prayers. In helping to guide her, you become part of that family.
Editor’s Note: Mescalero Apache Vice President Gabe Aguilar welcomed and accommodated ICTMN’s visit to the tribe’s annual puberty rites and was explicit about what could and could not be presented. ICTMN was provided with written rules about what could be photographed and shared with readers. Consequently there are no images of the Big Tipi or Crown Dancers. Readers will have to attend the 2017 rites to experience those wonders for themselves.