Critical Analysis of Ethnography (about the Mescalero Apache)

by Sharon Cornet, September 17, 2006

Bibliographic Reference: Farrer, Claire R. 1991. Living Life’s Circle: Mescalero Apache Cosmovision. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press


This ethnography of the Mescalero Apache at the Mescalero Apache Reservation in the Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico was based on the original 1930’s field workings of Morris Opler.  Ethnoastronomy and archaeoastronomy are covered in an interdisciplinary fashion and are the basis for this partial ethnography, rather than a focus on everyday-life scenario.  Being taught in the same fashion that Mescalero children are taught (to observe and recognize patterns – a slow process filled with errors that need correction and updating daily), Dr. Farrer, although not ignoring the harsher aspects of life on the reservation – such as alcoholism, socioeconomic issues, etc. – presents the ethnoastronomical underpinnings that permeate and indeed create the foundation for all other religious and philosophical systems among the Mescalero peoples.  Bernard Second (and his relatives) is the Mescalero fictive family that began and remained the guiding hand in the instruction and formulation of this ethnography.  The process of observation and understanding took many years, and all writings were overseen by Bernard prior to Tribal Council approval for publication.  Bernard’s insistence for Dr. Ferrar understanding the Apachean ethnoastronomy was dependent on understanding dances, the girls’ puberty ceremonial, religion, and ones place in the world and universe.

Outline of Chapters

I.   Mescalero Apache dancing, singing, rituals, and basic concepts for their cosmovision are based on the ethnoastronomical aspects of the tribe.  Celestial timing is what the singers and dancers rely on to perform the rituals properly.  The base metaphor serves as a symbolic representation for all life.  The symbol is shown as .

II.   The Mescalero cosmovision includes the number 4, which is based on the 4 directions, the Creation myth of all-that-is being made in 4 days, and the stories that were handed down orally, although are now written.  The base metaphor is a visual symbol of a cross in a circle, representing the universe and the natural world.  Contained within it are the known rules for performing rituals that exemplify the quartered circle.

III.   Two major puzzles that Dr. Farrer had to figure out over time were the timing of the ceremonial, and how singers moved in their positions within dances.  Both timing and movement puzzles were solved via ethnoastronomy and the symbol of the base metaphor.  Absolutely everything for the Mescalero peoples stems the natural world and universe and how it operates.

IV.   Spheres of social activity are synonymous with the base metaphor, the quartered circle.  All things have 4 parts including tribal meetings, the use of sound and silence, formal speeches, and basket-making and designs.  Sunwise movement is “proper” movement, whereas anti-sunwise movement represents chaos.  The base metaphor can be altered to produce a 4-pointed star, and other symbolic representations for both ritual and material culture.

V.   Ritual clowns and clowning, such as Libaye’ in the Mountain God Dance, serve as a symbol of the paradox of life.  Also referred to as a Trickster, clowning represents the chiasm or border-crossing, which signifies disorder and chaos (like the “butterfly effect”), but is also the potent creative force.  Libaye’ is the boy (among all men), and although is first among dancers, his place is to dance last in line.

VI.   The girls’ puberty ceremonial presents the dance with the strongest tie to the base metaphor and religious philosophy of Mescalero cosmovision.  Singers are involved for 4 days and 4 nights, as well as the dancers, and hundreds of Apache participants who “come home” from off the reservation.  The singers (especially the Head Singer) orchestrate the ceremony in a fashion parallel to the orchestration of how life is constructed.

VII.   Confronting death as a part of life is included in the base metaphor.  Carrie, the infant of Dr. Farrer’s fictive family, died of crib death and affected the family, and Dr. Ferrar, very deeply, leaving a scar that still holds its mark to this day.  The chiasm and base metaphor is used within Mescalero (and the Dr. herself) to help cope with the issue of death.  The old and the young are considered closest to the crossing (chiasm) between the Worlds.

VIII.   Living Life’s Circle is encapsulated within the base metaphor of the quartered circle.  Apaches were once nomadic and found it hard to stay in one place on the reservation, especially not being an agricultural people.  No permanency was applied to their structures, and so the base metaphor is a symbol that is entirely portable, and serves as a powerful mnemonic that incorporates past, present, and future.  It holds within it layers of meaning, culture, social aspects, the universe itself, morality and rules for living and being, and it is the geometrical model of “the same thing” everywhere, since it permeates all facets of life.  It is the epitome of life, the 4 seasons, the 4 directions, solstices and equinoxes; it represents circularity, repeating patterns, order, and most of all harmony.


    The author of this ethnography book is Dr. Claire R. “Ginger” Farrer.  She works at the Department of Anthropology at CSU (California State University) in Chico, CA.  Besides this book, she has also written/co-written: Thunder Rides a Black Horse: Mescalero Apache and the Mythic Present, by Dr. Claire R. Farrer; Earth & Sky: Visions of the Cosmos in Native American Folklore, Edited by Ray A. Williamson & Claire R. Farrer; and Women and Folklore: Images and GenresEdited by Claire R. Farrer.  Dr. Farrer has also been involved in the production and/or writing of encyclopedia articles, journal articles, monographs, poetry, film, video, tape, and photography.   She has also been involved in producing magazine and newspaper articles, reviews, and has done extensive field research in anthropological topics.

    Dr. Farrer was born on December 26, 1936 in New York, NY.  She got married, raised a family, and was involved in building a day care center, as well as being actively involved in the community before graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1970.  She taught 6th grade before entering the University of Texas at Austin in 1971 to achieve her MA (in 1974) for anthropology and folklore, and her PhD in 1977.   She worked in Washington, D.C. from 1975-77 and became an assistant professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.  She finally moved on in 1985 to California to teach as an associate professor, and currently teaches as a Professor of Anthropology at CSU in Chico.  She has won awards such as Outstanding Professor (1993-94), and was selected as Master Teacher in 1999-2001.


     The research focus of Dr. Farrer was that of ethnoastronomy, also what she calls “blue” archaeoastronomy, which deals in observable celestial phenomena (as opposed to “green” Old World megalithic, or “brown” which are dug out New World sites).  Ethnoastronomy, unlike archaeo-related astronomy studies, are about living peoples (typically non-Western) and the timing of rituals to celestial movements.  Dr. Farrer’s preferred term “living the sky” refers to how she describes, “… the ways in which the sky forms templates for life as seen from particular cultures,” and, “… its design for living.  At Mescalero, much of that design for living is made manifest during the annual public girls’ puberty ceremonial.”  The base metaphor, composed of the quartered circle symbol , symbolizes the 4 directions, the 4 seasons, the universe, and the Apache’s place in it.  It covers timing of celestial events and dancing, rituals, singing, and everyday life actions.   Dr. Farrer found correlations with the chiasm (where the lines cross, and where Worlds cross) and change, the creative force in the universe within the base metaphor.  These facets of Mescalero life, cosmovision, and celestial-based ceremonials are imbedded within the culture of the Mescalero peoples.  Basket-weaving, tribal council set-up, and even how children ride their tricycles (clockwise/”sunwise”) stems from this life-view.

     Dr. Farrer worked alongside Bernard Second at the Mescalero reservation in a participant observational mode between February 1975 and November 1988 (Bernard died in 1988).  She lived on the reservation full-time for one year 1974-75.  Bernard “dreamed” of Dr. Farrer coming to him although he didn’t expect her to be a woman – and struggled with that for a while – even though he was accepting of Dr. Farrer ultimately as the person he felt was meant to do the job of working and sharing his knowledge. 

     The setting of the area of study was at the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation (allocated to the Mescalero (Apaches) in 1873), located in the Sacramento Mountains in south-central New Mexico.  The reservation is located at about 6,500 feet above sea level, so gets quite cold in the winter, and cool on summer evenings.  The highest point is Sierra Blanca at around 12,000 feet.  Pinon trees, pines, cottonwoods, aspen, and juniper trees are prevalent in the area.  To the east of the mountains lie the flat plains and “dust bowl” area of dry New Mexico, Oklahoma, and the panhandle of Texas.  To the west is a valley, and other sets of mountains, and White Sands Missile Range.  About a 15-minute drive west of the Tribal center (town) of Mescalero, NM, and off the reservation, is a little town called Tularosa, which lies north of Alamogordo.  East of Mescalero, and the Inn of the Mountain Gods hotel and casino, is the little mountain city of Ruidoso, NM.

     The methodology used for Dr. Farrer’s research included some full-time and part-time work (which together extended over many years time) for participant observation.  She helped with babysitting, cooking meals, contributed to different celebrations, and photographed, wrote extensive field notes, and otherwise recorded Apachean life, including family and Tribal events.  Her time spent with the Mescalero was a reciprocal relationship.  She did her dissertation on the Mescalero as well.  Her approach, throughout her research, was one of great respect and honoring of the Mescalero peoples, and of her mentor, Bernard Second, while documenting and listening (she was told over and over to “pay attention”) and observing social behaviors, cultural inter-play, free-play of children, and tribal rituals.  The body of her work has added a vast insight of knowledge to the ethnoastronomy and archaeoastronomy sub-fields of anthropology.

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(c) Sharon Cornet 2006

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