Mescalero Apache Pow Wow

by Sharon Cornet, Fall 2006

    While staying at the Inn of the Mountain Gods hotel and casino located on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation near Ruidoso, NM (in the Sacramento Mountains) my husband Bruce and I noticed a sign that announced that there would be a Pow Wow at 12PM on Saturday, September 2, 2006.  We decided we’d like to see this event and I chose to use that opportunity to do my study on a public space while we were there.  Bruce put his camera back in the van since we asked a young man who worked in the hotel if we’d be able to take pictures of the Pow Wow and he said, “No, I don’t think so.”   Upon walking around and looking at the many artisan booths in the front hallway of the hotel we met up with a Native American named Gervase (said GER-vuhs – last name withheld) who had paintings for sale.  We had spoken with him the night before as well.  We talked for a while and wound up buying one of Gervase’s paintings, and then he mentioned that he would be dancing the Gourd Dance in the Pow Wow, and invited us to go watch.  Bruce and I had planned on going anyway, so figured that watching Gervase dance would be an excellent idea.  I asked Gervase for permission to take notes on the dancing in the Pow Wow event and he said it wouldn’t be a problem at all.  He also mentioned that people commonly take pictures and Bruce’s eyes lit up, so he ran back to the van to get his camera.  By 11:45AM we went to find our seats in the Conference Center to await the dancing.

    The room was rather large, and empty, with only a handful of people entering and lifting chairs off of the stacks by the walls so they could place them around the room and sit on them.  Bruce grabbed two chairs for us and we put them alongside a couple of other people who had already positioned their chairs where they wanted them.  People seemed to automatically know that the chairs needed to be arranged in a circle around the perimeter of the room; they were coming to watch a dance as an audience, so naturally figured (at least we did) that the dancing would be in the middle of the room.   As I sat down on the padded metal chair I started to look around me, taking in the details of the room.  The carpet was ritzy looking even though it was a golden yellow with crossing sections in blue, as if invisible hallways or paths were running in the “four directions” (north, south, east, and west) within the room.  Very appropriate, I thought, for a Native American hotel.   I thought that the carpet looked expensive, and the fleur-de-lis type patterns on the yellow and blue sections set it off nicely.   The walls were beige, and there were 4 hanging lamps over the main quadrants of the room, along with a smattering of recessed lights in the cathedral ceilings.  Even though the amount of lights was plentiful, the ambiance was slightly dim and cozy.

    I looked at my watch and it was already noon, but people were still pouring in a few at a time, and a couple of men (who looked Apache) began setting 10 chairs into a circle in the middle of the room, slightly offset from the exact middle.  I thought that was odd because had it been me I would have placed the circle of chairs directly over the center of the overall carpet pattern, for a balanced look.  Perhaps they didn’t mind?  In the middle of this small circle they placed a large drum.  It looked to be about 2 - 3 feet in diameter, and about 18” high.  Over the drum was a dark red, white, and black blanket.  I wondered if it was there to muffle the sound of the drum or if it was for something else entirely.  People were chatting happily around me, all over the room.  Kids were playful and a couple little boys were making roaring noises as they crawled and ran around.  Chairs were being filled quickly now, and I counted approximately 120 people (averaged) in the front row of the audience.  A second back row of chairs was forming behind the perimeter of the front row – although it was more scattered and not in the shape of a closed circle.  A man, who Bruce called “the chief” (I did not know his tribal status, but I will refer to him as “the chief” from this point on because it sounds better than “the feathered man”) came in through the door behind us and sat down to our left, in the back row.  

    An Apache-looking man wearing civilian clothing (jeans, shirt) stood up and walked to the center of the room near the drum circle and announced that green chili and Apache fry bread was available at the side of the room.  My eyes grew wide since Bruce and I had planned on having that exact meal for lunch after the Pow Wow (down highway 70 at a special “fry bread” store).   I jumped up and paid the $12 for two bowls of chili, two fry breads, and a can of Sprite (for Bruce) and bottled water (for me).   Bruce put some honey and powdered sugar on this fry bread, but I took mine plain so that I could rip pieces off and dip them into the broth of the chili, which is like a soup with hamburger (the “fry bread” store uses chunks of pork instead), potatoes, and semi-hot green chiles.  This chili was thicker (less brothy) than I was used to, but it smelled excellent, and tasted delicious!  People lined up and paid for their food, taking it back with them to their seats to eat it.   By 12:30 people were nearly done eating but there were only 3 men sitting at the large drum in the center of the room.  Each of them was wearing a black baseball cap (unmatching), jeans, and short-sleeved shirts or long-sleeved shirts.  I wondered if the dress code for the dancers was different than for the drummers?   Kids started running around aimlessly and babies were crying.  I was eager for the dancing to begin soon. 

    I looked down at my jottings and decided to write a couple things when I heard drumming begin, and to my left some Apache dancers (in regular clothes, or homemade Indian clothing, some wearing moccasins and some wearing sneakers) busted in the door and made verbal roaring sounds.  I looked forward and realized that the drummers in the center circle were not drumming at all but their heads were down and eyes shut (were they praying?).  My eyes flipped around to where the sound was coming from.  In a few chairs lined up in front of the main (front) double-doors were three men with their own drums, which they were hitting in unison.  The beat, beat, beat was exciting, and yet soothing.  The drummers were singing in their native tongue to the beat.   My eyes then reverted back to the dancers, who were moving their feet to the beat, with their bodies going in up and down motions, almost like jumping but not quite.  They wore different kinds of feathered hats, and some of the men and boys held spears in their hands, raising and lowering them purposefully.  My thoughts turned to Gervase, and I looked for him, but did not see him among the dancers.  I remembered he had told us that the Gourd Dance is a prayer, and that it is a dance for the veterans who fought and have served our country.  I wondered if the dance we were witnessing was this dance at all since I didn’t see Gervase there yet.  I noticed that there were four kids dancing in the group, and a woman, a teenage girl, a single man, and a teenage boy.  The girls’ dresses were kind of pioneer style, but with a length that was just below the knee, and one little girl had on black tennis shoes along with her dress.  The kids in the group tended to congregate together while the adults and teens danced separately.  I looked at the audience, and about 50% of the people watching appeared to be Caucasian.  The rest were either Mexican, Indian, or some other mix or racial/ethnic background.  The drumming slowed to a stop and the dancers ceased moving momentarily.  The audience clapped with vigor.

    Almost right away the drummers began drumming again.  The dancers began looking defensively around and the drums sounded like gun soundings, loud and sharp and booming.  Then the gun-mimicking turned to regular drum beats and the dancers began skipping and jumping happily… were these nonverbal movements signifying travel without fear of war?   Soon the drums turned to gunshots again, and the dancers once again pointed their rifles and spears and looked all around cautiously.   Two young girls moved into the dance circle, near the outside, not far from the perimeter (see map: zone 3).  In their hands each one held a knife, and made stabbing motions while they stepped sideways.  Again, the drumming slowed and stopped before picking back up again as a new dance.

    A man who was one of the drummers (who also sang) announced that this next song/dance was the Apache War Dance.  This was, he said, “in honor of our forefathers… our people continue to be strong, and it is for the armed services, and for the freedom of Americans.”  A pause… then drumming, drumming, drumming… rhythmically.   Single hits over and over and over again.   A man dancing (see map: zone 2) circles all around, pointing a gun, while a teenage boy dances similarly.  Apache parents, who were also sitting in the audience, let their little children into the dance (with or without them).  These little ones would run back to their parents’ sides between songs.  The drumming slowed, but didn’t quite stop… was this a new dance?  A single drum was pounding softly, then loud, and the dance begins again.  This lasts for several minutes and I notice that about 200 people are in the room, total.  There are people at the front entrance, standing by the door.  People are standing in other areas (especially near corners of the room) as well.   Kids who are dancing are grouping together; little clusters of girls.  An itsy bitsy girl swings back and forth in dancing motions.  A 7-8 yr old girl moves forward several steps, and then back several steps, while holding a knife in her hand.  The boys stay apart from each other, even the youngest, who looks about 4 yrs old.  It is 12:45PM, the dance ends, and people clap joyously.

    A new dance.  There are 4 singers, and 3 drums now near the front entrance.  They are all still sitting in the chairs there, all lined up together.  There are 12 dancers of all ages, both genders, mostly the same ones who have danced previously.  If you count the little ones who are attempting to dance (mostly just walking around) there are 15 dancers total.  I watch as the dancers skip, and then I look around and notice that Gervase is sitting in the row behind me and to my left, next to “the chief” who is dressed up in full garb with tons of feathers.  I wonder what part they will play in the dancing, since neither of them have danced yet.

    Another announcement welcoming folks to “come dance with us.”  No one comes at first (I certainly wasn’t going to, mostly because I was taking notes, although I would have done so had I been asked by someone), but then other Apaches (from the audience area) in full garb finally start stepping forward to dance.  The drummers/singers stand and walk slowly while continuing to drum and sing.  I notice for the first time that all the drummers and dancers are moving in a clockwise motion around the inner drum circle.  No one in any of the dances was moving in any other direction, in fact.  “The chief” then stood up, moved forward, and entered the dance.  His costume had feathers all over the back, front, and in his headdress.  The feathers ranged (from the inner part to the outer part) from green, white, red, orange, and had yellow at the tips.  Many people were now joining in, including young Apache girls who wore beautiful dresses that had coiled metal (in the shape of cones) that hung like tassels from off of the dress bottoms and tops.  Some of the girls wore beaded moccasins.  Most of the audience (kids and adults) that danced (besides Apaches) were white.  Very few non-Caucasian people danced with the natives.  Some folks danced well and others just kind of walked sideways, clockwise, with the rest of the people.  Some people were more “jumpy” in their dance style.  The drummers quit drumming once they went around the circle one full time.   That was the end of the dance, I thought, but then the singers immediately sang without the drums, and then finally began drumming again.  Everyone started moving around the circle again (see map: zones 2 & 3).  Less people were participating now and there were breaks in the circle of dancers.  I noticed that some of the Apache girl dancers wore the color pink with butterflies on their scarves and dresses (was the pink color due to expected U.S. social norms for female dress or was it an Apache influence?). 

    Another announcement by one of the men was that, “If you are asked to dance and you refuse you have to pay them $5!”  The audience laughed.  The drummers/singers stood in one place this time, and did not move around the circle.  People started gathering in pairs, except “the chief” who had a woman on each side of him.  Lucky him!  As the dance continued to the beat of the drums, people entered and I noticed that men and women tended to pair up, but sometimes a child would be with them, or two females would dance together, however there were no men who danced together.  The drumming stopped, and then started again… was it the same dance?  People who were dancing were arm in arm, but were facing opposite ways.  For example, if the direction of one person is facing north (N), and another one is facing south (S), then there were patterns like this:  NSN  NNN  NS  SS  NNSNS.  There appeared to be no gender bias ultimately within their dance groupings.  Sometimes people faced opposite ways, and sometimes not.  Perhaps the dance rules were loose?  Within the dance circle (see map: zones 2 & 3) these small groups of people were moving either forward and backward (perhaps 10’ – 20’ at a time) towards and away from the center of the circle, or else they were skewed and moving kind of sideways within the circle.  I wasn’t sure if this pattern was purposeful or accidental, or if there was special meaning behind it, or if it was all just based on personal desire with no rules about it at all.  There was a boy and a girl with a mother, and the mom was holding a baby in her arms while dancing.  Forward and back they all went together.  Everyone in the dance by this point was Apache.  After a bit the announcer said, “Thank you for coming out… come back tomorrow!”  It was 1:07PM, but this was hardly the end of the Pow Wow.

    The Gourd Dance was next.  People were listening but many walked out, and others walked in.  The announcer, Fred, mentioned there would be drumming in the afternoon, and he talked about the Apache War Dance, which is done on special occasions and at ceremonies.  Social dancing occurs from 12AM – 6AM (a long time, you work up a good appetite and eat fry bread).   On the 4th of July there are sacred dances to the Apache people and you can only see them at these particular ceremonies.   There are two versions of the Gourd Dance (Comanche and Kiowa).  The gourd dancers become encircled, and they used to surround their enemies like that.  The drumbeat is like hearing cannons and guns (in the Comanche dance).  The Kiowa say that the red wolf passed the (gourd?) dance to them.  The wolf was dancing and singing and gave the song to the people and called it the gourd dance, and the dancers are to holler like the wolf does.  Plains Indians call it the “round dance” or the “friendship dance.”  The songs are stories.  Fred invited people to join in the dance if they chose to.  There were two groups of 4-5 each next, and a single dancer (a woman) was holding feathers as she danced.  A pause… then three men drummed on the large drum in the middle of the circle (see map: zone 1).  “The chief” came forward in the dance.  Another friend who was sitting by Gervase started dancing.  The drums became louder and louder, and then went soft.  I noticed this pattern kept repeating.  Soft, soft, louder, louder, louder, LOUD, LOUDER, LOUDER, L-O-U-D-E-R! soft, soft.  A fourth drummer comes, and the drumming stops and then starts again.  They seem to know what they are doing, although I was having a hard time determining whether a song was finished or not at these short pauses.  Vocals start again, yelling and singing, moving in decibels equal to the drumming, from soft to loud, very loud, and back to soft again.  I noticed that one single hard pound of the stick on the drum by a particular individual seemed to mark when the rest of the drummers would stop pounding so hard and go to soft hits.  The male “leader” of the drumming wore a maroon and black cap on his head.  These drum beats were just like a heartbeat… in the same rhythm.   Six people are now drumming in the inner circle (one is a boy).  A girl who is dancing goes by me.  She is wearing a shawl that says “Miss Mescalero XXVIII 2006-07, Ernestia Garcia”.  Evidently she is proud of that fact.  Now there are 7 drummers/singers but suddenly everyone stops dancing!   Why?  Just singing and drumming ensues.  Then I heard a new sound… maracas… made out of gourds!  Gourds with beans or seeds in them, and people came from around and behind to dance now.  One man standing there was holding a feathered wing and shaking one of the gourd maracas.  Gervase was dancing too.  The drumming became extremely LOUD, and I loved it because it reminded me of thunder.  Gervase was now dancing closer to the center (see map: zone 2).  He wore regular clothes but had veteran type regalia all over it (a U.S. flag, a patch that said NAM (for Vietnam), medals he’d earned while serving in the military, etc.).   Men were wearing caps (3), and cowboy hats (5 – first ones I’d seen all day).  There were some women dancing too, and “the chief” as well.  There were now 7 men, 2 boys, plus the drummers/singers all beating in unison on the large drum in the inner circle area (see map: zone 1).  Most of the males were dancing in groups, located in the inner area (see map: zone 2), and a few in the outer area (see map: zone 3), but the women were all standing at the perimeter of the circle (see map: zone 4).  I questioned whether all the men in the dance were veterans, and if the more decorated ones were closest to the center?  The drumming got louder… then a pause…. Then soft drumming continues.

    Gervase sees me while he’s dancing and he nods and smiles and moves his hand forward once in a nonverbal motion to let me know that he knows that I’m watching him.   There is a woman who is wearing a feather in her hair that is hanging down, but “the chief’s” costume has feathers that go out and up.  His headdress is straight, but one of the parts of the costume is sliding sideways a bit and hanging funny.   He taps a cane as he dances.  It’s now 1:42PM and I noticed that the left side of the room seems to be pretty well cleared out, especially on the first row.  The right side of the room is full, however.  I figured that the right side was more full because it is closest to the door and people were coming in and out and could sit or stand there more easily without having to walk all the way around to the empty seats on the opposite side of the room.   All of the dancers now congregate to the other side of the room and cluster together.  A lone woman stands at the perimeter (see map: zone 4).  There are other women in the group and everyone is now moving clockwise.  Thoughts of my friend Derrel (whom I used to work with) came to mind since he is also part Indian like me (Cherokee), and it was here on this Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation many years ago that he was given his name, Summer Hawk.  It was “Hawk” who also gave me my native name Two Hawks Woman (in Sioux it is called Wanblee Gleska, meaning “spotted eagle”).  I think about Hawk, and our names at this place, and how through him I have a tie to this particular rez (reservation) and these particular people.  I look back at Gervase, our newfound friend.  It would be the next day after the Pow Wow that he would give Bruce and I one of the prints of his paintings that we loved (we bought one of this other paintings prior to that).   I feel good here, and I love the drums!   I listen intently and relax into the beats.   They slow, and end.  A change of pace comes over the room and the people scatter, some still shaking their gourds, singing, and take new positions in the circle.  The drums become LOUD, then begin again softly.  One last multi-drum moment in a different beat occurs before the drums all become silenced.  The war dance is next, but it’s now 2PM and I’m tired and feel that its time to go.  Bruce and I meet Gervase outside by his artist booth later and thank him.  The Pow Wow was just excellent.  A fantastic experience!

(Note: Map and Pow Wow pictures removed to ensure privacy and anonymity of dancers)


(c) Sharon Cornet 2006


Published with Permission. 
If you are interested in Gervase's artwork you can contact him at


Back to Articles