Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 15 Number 3
May 1976

A Study in Educational Anthropology:

Betty Lou Dubois

A Phi Beta Kappa member and Fulbright Scholar, Betty Lou Dubois received her Ph.D. in Linguistics and Language Pedagogy at the University of New Mexico in 1972. Since then, she has been Assistant Professor of Speech at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, where she teaches ESL, linguistics, and language methodology courses. Her current research interests include ESL methodology and materials production, women's sociolinguistics, the English of minorities, and English language arts for the elementary school. Of particular interest to readers of the JAIE are a current study of the ethnography of communication of the Mescalero in the early American period (1846-1880) and a case study of English bidialectalism of a four-year-old Native American New Mexican, which was read in September 1975 to the International Seminar on Child Language, London. The study was partially funded by a grant from the New Mexico State-Committee for the American Revolution Bicentennial.


History. The Mescalero Apache are today a relatively large tribe of Native Americans--in 1970 there were approximately 1,200 Mescalero on the reservation--who constitute one of the branches of the Apachean group, which also includes the Western Apache, the Lipan, the Kiowa Apache, the Jicarilla Apache, the Chiricahua Apache, and the Navajo. It is generally accepted that Apachean tribes were relative latecomers to the American Southwest, having arrived some 1,500 years ago. The Mescalero get the name by which they are now known from their traditional food staple, the mescal. Hearts of these plants were dug and steamed for a day or two in great pits hollowed into the earth. The historic range of the Mescalero had its focus in the sacred Sierra Blanca in central New Mexico and extended somewhat north, west to the Rio Grande, east to the plains, and south to the Mexican border of today.

Written history of the Mescalero begins around 1540, with the Spanish conquest of northern New Spain, and accounts of early Spanish exploration, missionizing, and settlement contain references to indios vaqueros, teluges, querechos, and faraones, various names by which the Mescalero were known to Spaniards. Neither the latter nor their Mexican successors succeeded in bending the Mescalero to their will. Indeed, troubles in Mexico assured that Mexican control decreased steadily through the last of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th.

In 1846, as a last result of the hostilities between Mexico and the United States, Mexican territory north of the Rio Grande (a part of which forms present-day New Mexico) came under military control of the federal government. In 1850, the civilian territorial governor of New Mexico was given the task of supervising Indian affairs. Thus began the tragic history of American efforts to "pacify" the Mescalero. After a period of bloody skirmishing, broken promises, and mutual incomprehensibility, the Mescalero were exiled in 1862 to the inhospitable Bosque Redondo in the northwest of the state. The forcible addition of Navajo exiles to the pitifully inadequate territory in 1863, immortalized in Navajo memory as the Long Walk, rendered the Mescalero plight desperate. Slowly they began to leave surreptitiously, and on the night of November 3, 1865, all those remaining, with the exception of nine aged and infirm, left the Bosque Redondo. As it became safe to do so, the Mescalero reappeared in their traditional range, and from the 1880s onward, they have been relatively secure in the heart of their original territory, which is now, however, greatly reduced in extent.

An unbiased reading of written history of the Mescalero makes clear just how grievously they have suffered through their contact with the West, both in the Spanish-Mexican period and the subsequent American one. Nevertheless, the Mescalero have succeeded in maintaining their tribal identity and now are attacking their own problems, managing their own economic destiny, exploiting their own natural resources, with a success that can only be admired, given the obstacles they have faced.

Although they have had conspicuous successes, the Mescalero cannot be said yet to have solved all their problems; in this they are similar to most other minority groups. One problem which still besets them and which itself is part of the solution of other problems is the education of their young. A measure of the distance which they still must travel is that in 1973-74, there were only 27 Mescalero in active pursuit of post-secondary education, including both university and higher vocational education. If the Mescalero are to contribute significantly to the public school education of their children, for example, they need a larger number than this in teacher training alone. No such overriding educational problem will yield to a single-cause analysis; no claim is made that the present one will. However, it is evident that the problem ought to be attacked in the public schools, preferably in the early years, and that one of its components is most certainly cultural differences between the Mescalero and the personnel of the schools which presently attempt to serve them.

Educational Needs

It is a truism nowadays to suggest that cultural differences lie at the base of educational difficulties. The real question is how to state the nature of the cultural differences in order to bridge them. It is crucial to avoid over generalization, both in assuming that each individual is a complete representation of his culture, and in assuming that no cultural diversity exists among groups of Native Americans. That is, we cannot assume some overall "Indian culture," for there is probably as much cultural diversity, certainly more linguistic diversity, manifested in the Native American groups of New Mexico alone as in the nations of Western Europe. How may particular groups be studied and findings applied to solve educational problems?

Susan U. Philips has given us a model study of one possible solution in "Participant Structures and Communicative Competence: Warm Springs Children in Community and Classroom" (see Reference 1). Ms. Philips spent a period of time on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon sufficient to observe classroom and reservation communicative situations and pinpoint sources of potential conflict from Warm Springs Native American children. Unfortunately, few of us are trained to do anthropological fieldwork, and fewer still dispose of the time required to do on-site study. On the other hand, there is a data bank available to all of us in the ethnographical works of anthropologists, which educators have up to now largely neglected. The present study shows how such information can be used to illuminate Mescalero culture practices and where conflicts with mainstream educational procedures might be anticipated.


Before the presentation of that information, a few preliminary remarks must be made. As Grenville Goodwin points out (see Reference 2), Apacheans are probably the least studied of Native Americans, and the Mescalero appear to be less studied than the others. Although each of the Apachean divisions forms a distinct group, the seven nevertheless share certain traits, hence the overall classification Apachean. Gaps in information on the Mescalero can be supplied by that on other groups: the Chiricahua, the most closely related to the Mescalero, and the Western Apache. (See references for breakdown of information sources.)

Mescalero Sex Roles

It is clear that the Mescalero, as well as the Chiricahua and Western Apache, had well-defined sex roles, with content different from those of other cultures, as is to be expected. Attention to sex role differentiation begins prenatally among the Western Apache; cradle decorations reflect the sex of the occupant. Among the Mescalero, some sex role attributes are those English speakers have come to expect: men are warriors, hunters; women prepare food, care for children, gather vegetables. Yet there are surprises. Women accompanied men on buffalo hunts to dress meat and skins, a few of the daring ones taking a more active part in the hunt. Women could participate fully in rabbit surrounds; men accompanied women on mescal-gathering expeditions. Although traditionally the Mescalero did not lay permanent claim to particular plots of land and owned but little property, housing--whether the Apache wickiup or the tipi imported from the plains--was exclusively the province of women. The ideal residence pattern was matrilocal, and a typical extended family consisted of a grandmother and grandfather, their unmarried children, and the nuclear families of their married daughters. When a marriage was contracted, the bride and her sisters would raise a new wickiup or tipi in the vicinity of the parents' own dwelling, where the couple would take up residence.

What is startling to those who study Mescalero life is the high, protected, secure traditional status of women, related, no doubt, to the system of matrilocal residence. Although women were never tribal leaders and although men held nominal authority over both the nuclear and the extended family, women could speak their opinions freely and were heard, and it was not uncommon for actual family power to be in the hands of women. The Mescalero had no formal priesthood, contact with the supernatural being made by the shaman, i.e., an individual through and to whom divine power is revealed. Women were shamans on a par with men, and, surprisingly, were allowed to organize and supervise the tribe's one instance of organized ceremonial activity, the girls' puberty rite. Although no woman could be chief of the peyote ritual, women could and did attend the rites. In short, the traditional status of Mescalero women was much higher than in other social groups of the time, although there is evidence for its decline as an inadvertent consequence of American attempts to impose western political organization on the Mescalero.

Political Organization

The Mescalero traditional society gives an outstanding example of democracy in practice. It is generally acknowledged that at no time before the period of American influence was there a single leader for the entire people, although there certainly existed a feeling of tribal consciousness and unity. The political unit was the small band, which usually took its name from the leader, occasionally from a geographical site. Band organization was quite flexible, leadership nonhereditary. The Mescalero word for leader is glossed he who speaks, which indicates that the leader's most important attribute was ability to persuade, to compel by force of rhetoric and reasoning rather than by virtue of his office. As long as a leader was able to convince his followers of the wisdom of his policies, so long he kept his position. When conflict arose, another leader might come forth, or the band might simply dissolve, its members going to other bands of their choice.

Child Rearing Practices

The ethnographers whose work forms the basis of the present study are struck by the evident Apachean love for their children, although there is almost no public display of affection. An idea expressed among the Western Apache characterizes their attitude well: they have no conception of the "bad child" or the "naughty child," but believe that the child does as well as he knows. Undesirable aspects of his behavior come from ignorance rather than from evil motives. Among the Chiricahua, advice and guidance are freely given, but the response which is evidence of internalization is preferably elicited from the child, not verbalized to him.

Agents of social control are ultimately seen to be impersonal-external rather than personal-internal. A child models his behavior on examples set for him by adults and older siblings, but where his behavior does not measure to community standards, he is not exhorted to do something "for mommy." Rather, his compliance may be sought by telling him that Big Owl will bite him, or that Clown will carry him off in a basket. Among the Chiricahua, a crying child might be silenced by putting a basket on his head, or by pouring a cup of water slowly over it. Among the Mescalero, as well as in the other two groups, there were traditionally no schools as we know them, but two kinds of instruction were given young children. Parents gave specific directions for acceptable social behaviors. For some matters, the father would instruct his sons, the mother her daughters. The Mescalero also made use of tribal lore for didactic purposes. Around the winter campfires, grandfathers would tell tales from the Coyote cycle to children of both sexes not only for enjoyment but also for the moral precepts they contained. As puberty approached, children assumed greater responsibility for the performance of everyday tasks, and at the period of physical maturation, girls were the center of the important girls' puberty rite. Although boys did not benefit from such elaborate ceremonial instruction, they too had some specific teaching on the rights and responsibilities of adulthood.

Among the Western Apache, stages of child development are acknowledged. The baby sits up at six months, crawls at nine to eleven months, walks at around a year. A few make syllables around eight months; nearly all talk by two years. Like their English-speaking counterparts, some families attempt to teach a baby to walk, and one informant believes the children are taught to talk by members of their families. By age seven, children grow somewhat aloof, are no longer treated as infants. Their individuality is respected by adults, who do not encroach upon it. They are not made to feel incompetent through limitations of age or experience. Physical punishment is one means of behavior control, but ridicule is used beginning at age eight or nine. Beyond 15 or so, physical punishment is no longer used except on girls, and ridicule is the principal method of correction for all youth.


Study of ethnographic works on the Mescalero, supplemented by those on the Chiricahua and Western Apache, indicates the following characteristics, which may differ from expectations in the classroom:

1. Fully developed concepts of sex roles, with content different from those of the mainstream middle class, in particular, higher status of women.

2. Strong tradition of personal freedom and democracy, beginning at an early age.

3. Acceptance of leadership on the basis of the leader's personal ability, rather than on his status alone.

4. External, impersonal agents for social control.

5. Teaching by precept and by indirection (the telling of tribal tales for educative purposes).

6. Learning by observation, imitation, and early acceptance of responsibility.


1. Courtney B. Cazden, et at., Functions of Language in the Classroom, New York: Teachers College Press, 1972, pp. 370-394.

2. Grenville Goodwin, The Social Organization of the Western Apache, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

Also Cited:

Harry Basehart, "Mescalero Apache Subsistence Patterns and Socio-Political Organization," in David Agee Horr, Ed., Apache Indians, Vol, XII,, New York, Garland Publishing Co., 1974, pp. 9-178.

Keith H. Basso and Morris E. Opler, Eds., Apachean Culture History and Ethnology: "Mescalero Apache Band Organization and Leadership," Anthropological Papers, No. 21, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1971, pp. 35-51.

Morris Opler, "Lipian and Mescalero Apache in Texas," in David Agee Horr, Ed., Apache Indians, Vol. X, New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1974, pp. 199-369; and Apache Odyssey, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. Also, An Apache Life-Way, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1941.

Charles L. Sonnischen, The Mescalero Apaches, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.

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