A LONG TIME AGO, this happened at sunrise, each girl sprinting toward the new day. Years pass. Traditions change. Fourth of July heat already shimmers off the tallest pines of the Sacramentos, in southern New Mexico, when three Mescalero Apache girls wearing beaded buckskin dresses take their places before a towering tepee. These old ways abide: Medicine men and women meet with each girl, offering advice, sprinkling cattail pollen, bestowing blessings. Apache songs rise around them. Drums mark time. Just 13 years old, each girl stares forward, nervously intent. After four days of helping their families set up elaborate encampments of tents, tepees, and open-air kitchens, they must now demonstrate honor, power, and generosity before a throng of tribespeople and strangers alike. Their teenage years beckon, yet they have chosen to become like the mothers, grannies, and aunties around them, the metaphorical mountains of their community: Apache women, keepers of the tribe.

They stare across the Mescalero fairgrounds’ packed dirt at a woven basket filled with medicine—sage, eagle feathers, clay. At a signal, the girls dash toward it. Their dresses’ long fringes fly. Dangling metal cones jingle. They loop around the basket and return to catch their breath. Receive more prayers. Hear more blessings. Four times they run. Four times they are blessed.

The feast portion of their puberty rite has begun. For the next four days, they will wear these hot and heavy dresses, try their hand at traditional tasks, and endure an all-night ritual open only to fellow Mescalero. In doing so, they stake a claim to a tribal tradition that was banned for nearly a century and declare their allegiance to the Apache way.

A few hours later, still fighting nerves, one of the girls, Feather Smith, says in a barely audible voice, “I think this will teach me to be independent and not depend on other people.” She looks toward her adoptive mother, Willymae Smith-McNeal, who does not smile but slowly nods.

SHE IS BUT A WISP, THIS FEATHER, seemingly as fragile as the fawn-colored kitten she cradles, itself a piece of cottonwood fluff. Her parents were too young and not at all in love. When the call came, Smith-McNeal drove four hours north from Mescalero to Zia Pueblo, where the baby’s mother lived. She bundled her son’s nine-month-old daughter in her arms, brought her home, adopted her, and raised her Mescalero. A psychologist who helps her people untangle their addictions, Smith-McNeal thinks that, in some ways, Feather raised her.

“My three older daughters, I was so impatient,” she says. “This one, she’s real sensitive to me. She’s always watching. I learned how to keep my mouth shut and my eyes open for her. I don’t want to hurt her.”

Feather Smith and Zelda Yazza, her medicine woman.Above: Feather Smith and Zelda Yazza, her medicine woman.

Already jangled by the large audience, the demands of the ceremony, and her medicine woman’s caution to avoid expressing emotions, Feather reveals only a sliver of herself. She loves math and science. She dreams of becoming a veterinarian. Beneath her buckskin, painted and beaded with geometric symbols, she hides a belt to which she added craft-store bling. Her favorite activity of the rite, she says, is blessing her tribespeople, who consider her to be in a holy realm, a place of transition. In her private tepee, she whispers prayers and sprinkles pollen gathered from water plants. “That stuff is like gold,” Smith-McNeal says, alluding to the difficulty of gathering each speck.

Her other daughters went through their own ceremonies years ago. The commitment is immense. Each family shoulders 12 days of rites, beginning with the four-day setup, followed by the four-day feast, and then the four-day takedown. A team of cooks prepares round-the-clock food. Someone must cut enough wood and tend the fires. Men fell tall pines, strip their lower branches, and heave them into the big tepee, along with smaller ones for each girl, then cover a long arbor with oak branches to protect the fry-bread cooking pits. The families line up medicine men and women, plus drummers, singers, and Apache Crown Dancers. For a year, they gather traditional herbs and foods, each in their appropriate season. Sumac berries, agave hearts, sotol stalks, piñon nuts, yucca fruit. They butcher a cow. If their family doesn’t have an heirloom dress, they collect deer hides and then create new ones with intricate beaded designs. They purchase Pendleton blankets, camping gear, tools, and housewares to thank their helpers. They wrap small packages of goodies for every elder they encounter.

The cost can rise to $20,000. Some families prepare years in advance. Some skip it. Tribal officials don’t keep a tally, but they say that enough take on the rite to keep it going steadily. They can hold it any time of year, but the four July feast days are the only time that the public can catch this rare glimpse into a centuries-old Apache rite rendered with modern tribal spirit. A cherished community event, it draws hundreds with its dances, greased-pole climbs, a rodeo, and a parade so popular that people set up picnics along US 70 hours before it starts. Visitors come from distant states, as well as nearby Alamogordo, Ruidoso, and Cloudcroft. Other tribes’ members drop in. Mescalero camp out, their tepees ringing the fairgrounds; others must leave by midnight.

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Because of the additional attendance, the demand for generosity spikes. There are more mouths to feed, plus two “throws”—events during which each family tosses a pickup truck’s worth of toys, food, candy, beach balls, and even chickens, goats, and pigs to the crowd.

The combination of people coming together to help the families and the families sharing what they can mimics a historical practice that helped this once nomadic tribe survive dangerous times. And it need not be an expensive proposition, says Pascal Enjady, a Mescalero council member who served as cultural officer during the 2018 rite. “My grandmother said that you can do a ceremony like this with coffee and fry bread. It’s all about respect to the young lady.”

PEOPLE HAVE DIFFERENT WAYS OF TELLING the story of White Painted Woman, Enjady says, and it’s not his place to endorse or condemn anyone else’s version. “At Mescalero, we’re respectful of everyone and how they learned. The stories are lengthy. It takes years for it all to sink in.” We’re sitting on the concrete bleachers on the fairgrounds’ northern edge during a lull in the action beyond us. Enjady gazes into the distance and remembers the story he heard: “A long time ago, the tribe was having a difficult time. This lady came from the east, wearing white buckskin clothes. The people were glad to see her. She signifies the pureness of our young ladies. On her dress, there was turquoise and abalone—those represent certain things to us.”

In most versions, she rises from water. She carries the Sun’s child, Killer of Enemies, and then Rain’s child, Son of Water. Some say the sons must kill a monster to protect the tribe. Some have a coyote story for her. When she is old, White Painted Woman walks toward the rising sun and there meets her younger self and is born anew.

“These stories are told to children in winter—whenever snow is on the ground,” Enjady says. “Anywhere snow is on the reservation, even a little patch on White Mountain, you can tell stories.”

Amaya Elizabeth DolanAbove: Amaya Elizabeth Dolan.

Important symbols to the tribe— water, colors, stones, patterns—are reflected in ceremonial clothing, on tepees, and within the basket the girls run to. It takes years for it all to sink in. The girls have been listening, working with their medicine women, preparing to meet White Painted Woman and embody her spirit. In the old days, the ceremony meant that each girl could take a husband and start a family. The tribe’s strength came from numbers then. It’s different now. “My daughter is going through this in two weeks,” Enjady says. “What I explain to her is that this isn’t about herself, but the strength of our people. She’s representing the larger part of the tribe to be strong.”

Other cultures have similar rites. The Navajo kinaaldá. The Jewish bar and bat mitzvahs. The Mexican quinceañera. Despite the anachronisms they may pose in a Wi-Fi world, their ancient meanings bear purpose today. “These girls will play Xbox next week,” Enjady says. “They go to school. They live in the present day, but with the mentality of being as respectful, as humble, and as generous as they can be on behalf of their people. We’re showing our daughters how to look out for our people, how to take care of our people.”

It takes years.

THIRTEEN IS HOPE AND FEAR wrapped in unremitting self-consciousness. It’s when children can stumble and never recover. Jacqueline Dolan Wren banks on Apache traditions to guide her daughter Amaya Elizabeth Dolan. Jacqueline’s father was black. Her Mescalero mother brought her up on the reservation, and she identifies as Apache. Amaya’s father is also black, but, with a quarter Mescalero blood, she meets the tribal threshold for the rite. I gather with them at a picnic table next to the family’s open-air kitchen, where dinner preparations have turned into a whirl. Amaya sits primly in her beaded dress while her mother takes a long, luxurious breath at the chance to relax. Jacqueline explains how she worked at the tribe’s Inn of the Mountain Gods casino to make enough money for the ceremony while the rest of the family lived a two-hour drive away in El Paso.

Amaya has navigated her blended identity and geography, with weekdays in the city but weekends on the rez, listening, her mother says, “to stories from the elders and learning by being with her Mescalero people.” She has also tested herself physically for the ceremonial runs, including the final one, on the fifth morning, when the girls won’t loop back to the tepee but keep running, into the forest and the mountains for as far and as long as they can.

“I told my friends about this, but they didn’t really understand,” Amaya says. “It took a long time to get ready.”

Her mother laughs at that. “We stored everything at my other daughter’s house, plus two sheds,” she says. “We’ve been collecting canned goods, buying pots and pans, shopping the sales. My husband didn’t understand. ‘Why are you buying all this Kool-Aid?’ And then he saw this today and got it.”

Amaya, as quiet as Feather, indulges a dream of becoming a photographer. Her emerald eyes and placid demeanor already seem to absorb everything around her. “I was really nervous to do this,” she says, “but after the first run, it got easier. My mom inspired me.”

Tending the ceremonial fire.Above: Tending the ceremonial fire. 

In the bleachers, people chat or read as one drum group packs up and another prepares to move in. Some families bring camp chairs and sunshades and perch on the edge of the dance circle. Eventually, a social dance begins, one that welcomes everyone. The elders love it. They get up from their seats, lock arms to form lines like wings, and step in a slow rhythm, women facing one way, men the other. Amaya and Feather leave their camps to take part. They honor their people by joining the group, their dresses a proclamation that the old ways matter.

THE APACHE PEOPLE WERE SKILLED HUNTERS and legendary warriors who roamed across the Southwest and northern Mexico, setting up and tearing down communal camps of tepees and wickiups. After the United States’ Indian Wars attempted to wipe every Apache band off the map, President Grant created the Mescalero Apache Reservation in 1873. At first, only 400 Mescalero called the place home, and it was a home with ill-defined and often movable borders that carried strict conditions. They had to put their children in U.S. schools, speak English, and give up religious ceremonies like the puberty rite. Some Apache bands fought on until 1886, including fabled warriors Geronimo and Victorio, as well as Victorio’s sister, Lozen, a hallowed woman among her people.

Today’s reservation encompasses 463,000 acres of mountains, forests, and springs south of Ruidoso. The massive, 11,981-foot peak of Sierra Blanca, “White Mountain,” is the most important of the tribe’s four sacred peaks. (Guadalupe, Three Sisters, and Obscura are the others.) Over the years, Chiricahua and Lipan bands joined the Mescalero. More than 3,000 now live on the reservation, which counts the casino and resort, a ski area, lumber enterprise, and guided hunts among its industries.

The decades-long push for assimilation left scars—poverty, addictions, crime—that the Apache strive to heal. Smith-McNeal sees them in her psychology practice. Her cousin Zelda Yazza sees them in these ceremonies. Yazza, Feather’s medicine woman, calls herself “a person of the tepee.” On this, the fourth morning of the feast, she and Feather skip the big parade. Instead they sit under a sunshade, whittling sotol stalks into prayer sticks bundled with yucca twine for the coming all-night ritual in the ceremonial tepee.

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I park amid the US 70 hubbub but hike through the parade crowd and up to the fairgrounds, which are nearly deserted in the morning chill. Yazza invites me to join her and Feather, along with two of Feather’s cousins. Amid the sounds of their knives against the tough sotol—and Feather’s occasional sighs of dismay at her beginner skills—Yazza seems to expand into the void, telling stories to the ducklings gathered around her.

To participate in or even just witness an event so steeped in history has the power to profoundly alter her people’s vision of themselves. “Sometimes you don’t realize how strong your people were in life,” she says. “The girls who have this ceremony, they change in this short period of time. It changes their perception of what life is.”

During the ceremony, no matter how hot it gets, they can’t remove the heavy dress. They shouldn’t laugh. Water can’t touch them. Only on the 12th day will they bathe with yucca soap, don regular clothes, and return home. “They have to be serious,” Yazza says. “We look for girls with strong hearts, good minds. They’re going to be leading our people. They’ll be taking over for us.”

In the distance, Yazza hears an old Apache song and walks across the grounds to ask the singer, Freddie Kaydahzinne, to come sing for them. Most days he leads the Mescalero Apache Cultural Center and Museum, and after he joins the group, his grasp of tribal lore pours forth. He sings one song in the Apache language, then explains its meaning, perhaps to me but mostly to Feather. Then he sings another, and another—songs about clouds, about the Chiricahua Apaches’ 19th-century incarceration in Oklahoma, about people who ache for a homeland.

Feather continues whittling, but her hands are more often still, her eyes fixed upon Kaydahzinne, her ears soaking in his stories.

Tonight, the girls will dance until dawn as the medicine people sing even more songs—of mountains, rivers, ants, and rocks. Each girl has chosen a song to be her own, and they will sing those, too. “Then,” Yazza says, “in times of dire need, sorrow, or life in celebration, that song will come to her. It will help her. If they always remember their traditional roots, then we as an Apache people will not cease to exist.”

After one song, Yazza recalls her mother telling her that when the U.S. government finally relented in the 1970s and permitted the puberty rite again, 16 girls stepped into the tepee. “Can you imagine how big the encampment was?” she says, laughing. “God, that would have been a sight to see.”

Medicine men deliver prayers while cooks prep a meal.Above: Medicine men deliver prayers.

By dawn on the fifth day, after dancing all night, the girls will bear clay paint on their faces, do three short runs, and then the long, fourth one. It demonstrates inner fortitude, Yazza says, and a willingness to go to any length for the sake of their people. One of the cousins leans across the pile of sotol shavings, smiles at that wisp of a girl, and whispers, “Run, Feather, run.”

THE BIGGEST CROWD OF THE FOUR DAYS awaits the final night’s festivities, but then the emcee comes on the loudspeaker to announce that the event has been postponed by one day. An honored tribeswoman has passed. The Mescalero will show their respect quietly and alone. The music stops. Most of us head to our cars. The decision adds another day to the girls’ lives in costumed ritual, another day for men to tend the fires,  another day for each family’s cook to feed the crowd.

“Throughout this whole thing,” Amaya’s cook, Cecelia LaPaz, says the next evening, “I’ve prayed to give us strength to get through. And it’s been a blessing. Everybody helped. The greatest thing, honestly, is when you walk out and see a long line of people wanting to eat your food.”

Following suppers of beans, turkey, corn, sweet potatoes, and watermelon, Crown Dancers enter the dance circle. Black hoods shield their faces. Paint covers their torsos. Each carries two staffs topped by stylized crowns. They make an eerie hoo-loo-loo sound each time they indicate one of the four directions or approach a person to deliver a blessing. Three teams of four dancers and one koshare, the young clown, represent each girl. Soon the girls will enter the big tepee, but before that happens, they slip away from the fairgrounds. A few of us spy their exit and tail them to a clearing south of the encampments.

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Twilight teases the mountain beyond as they sit in chairs, facing singers, drummers, and Crown Dancers, who approach and retreat, approach and retreat, ululu’ing their blessings to the girls. Behind them, three rows of Mescalero women stand tall, their spines like arrows—an army of women in fringed shawls. They shift their feet to the rhythm, the fringes sway, and an undeniable sense of their combined power rises as the mountain darkens against an inky sky.

Finally, the girls and their elders melt into the tepee, disappearing within its walls. A bonfire fed by entire tree trunks roars in the middle of the dance circle. Crown Dancers trace patterns around it. On the rim, all the Apache women and all the Apache daughters form a circle that slowly revolves. They are a planet unto themselves, these women. Step by step, they release their prayers to the Earth, and the prayers go on all night long.

By the time I return the next morning, men are pulling down the evergreen limbs shielding the tepee. On its floor, the girls sit with their medicine people, their arms and faces painted, their eyes on the sunrise. The songs continue. It’s time. I join the families and spectators as we cluster along both sides of the running path. From the mouth of the tepee, the girls run to the medicine basket and back; the fourth time, they fly into the forested mountains beyond. Amaya and Feather vanish for so long that I feel pangs of worry for them, for their youth, for the size of this first task, and, especially, for all that can go wrong between 13 and the world. But as the sun rises higher, they do lope back, eyes glazed, faces flushed, moccasins thudding out a steadfast rhythm.

Cooks prep a meal.Above: Cooks prep a meal.

Amaya’s father, DeMarco Wren, watches with a blend of pride and gratitude. “Look around,” he says. “Black, white, Native: Everyone is working together. I hope this teaches Amaya how to be a stronger woman, that sometimes she has to endure things to accomplish a bigger goal, and that she can depend on family—on this extended family.”

Another throw of gifts will follow, another feast will appear, and four more days of private rites will occur, but what stays embedded in my memory is the soul of those women who had coiled around their tribe the night before, praying with their feet, here in their sacred homeland. It has taken years, and it will take more years to win back all that was stripped away—their ceremonies, their language, their land. But now, more voices will join them, each one young and strong. Together, they call to the past to preserve and protect them and, on this day especially, to empower these girls, treasured vessels of their people’s future.

Story Sidebar

The Mescalero Apache Tribal Ceremonial & Rodeo is every July 4–7 on the fairgrounds in Mescalero, off US 70.

Admission is $7 for adults, $3 for children. Activities usually begin around 10 a.m., with daily entertainment from noon to 4 p.m.; a free dinner is served around 5:30 p.m. Should you wish to contribute, the cooks generally welcome donations of breakfast pastries and fresh fruit. You can also purchase food from vendors who whip up barbecued meats, mutton sandwiches, snow cones, and fresh-squeezed lemonade. Native artists sell their work, including high-caliber Apache beaded jewelry. Cash is preferred.

No alcohol is allowed. Bring an umbrella for shade, plus a lawn chair, if the backless bleachers don’t appeal to you. (They do provide a great bird’s-eye view.) Be respectful and obey any announcements restricting photography. Always ask permission to take close-up pictures of people. Many tribal members will happily answer other questions about the meanings of the ceremonial events.