HAVING RETURNED TO HIS ANCESTRAL lands almost 30 years ago, Joe Saenz shows people southwest New Mexico as his ancestors experienced it. Representing the Chiricahua Apache, who he believes are the original inhabitants of the Gila Wilderness, Saenz spearheads the movement to bring respect to his tribe. He organizes the Red Paint Powwow, held at Western New Mexico University October 4–6, and teaches a new Chiricahua Apache Studies course offered at the college. Since 1998, Saenz has guided trips in the Gila and Aldo Leopold wildernesses as Wolfhorse Outfitters, where he shares traditional methods of connecting to the land. 

I SPEAK FROM MY BAND, the Warm Springs Apaches. In cultural matters, I can speak for most of the Chiricahua Apaches. Nde is the standard Apache reference. For us here, it’s Chis nde, the “Mountain Apaches.” We have a history of being activists and leaders.

I was born in my traditional country and grew up in Ysleta, east of El Paso, Texas. That reservation there is where our family tried to settle first. Before then, all Apaches were either in prison, run off, or in hiding, which is why we’re so unaccounted for.

I’ve been guiding pretty much all my adult life. What I thought was just for fun has taken me across the continent. I worked for a lot of other outfitters as I developed my philosophy. Through that process, I’ve found myself more and more reliant on the traditional ways. That’s what seemed balanced, normal, and successful.

My immersion into this place as an outfitter also pushed the interest in reestablishing our presence here. As Apaches and as Chiricahua Apaches, we believe we were created here. I learned more, and as I became more confident, I’ve started speaking out about the history I learned as a child, which is different than what America was taught. We’re the ancient ones. We were created here and gifted the responsibility to protect it.

On my trips, I infuse what we call Apache lifeways and cultural history of botany, wildlife, and ecology. These were practices taught by family, and elders. The majority of outfitters go make a permanent spot with tents and gear and cooking. Then they ride out of those areas. I move around a lot, never staying in the same camp two nights. With the water situation in the wilderness, you can’t go into some areas with a lot of stock, a lot of people. With less horses, I can go into areas that are not commonly traveled. If I make a firepit, I dismantle it. My horses are trained to stand still so they don’t break up the ground. I scatter the manure. It’s about not leaving an impact on the land.

Read more: Whether you plan to pitch a tent in the wilderness or bed down in a homey casita, these are some of the best spots to stay when visiting the Gila Wilderness.