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Apache Mescal Roast at Guadalupe Mountains

mescal
Zelda Yazza, left, distributed roasted agave at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in May 2015. The Guadalupes were an historic homeland for the Mescalero Apache, and members of the tribe have returned to the mountains in recent years to conduct mescal roasts. Such roasts were at the center of Mescalero life in West Texas.

The agave is one of the most recognizable of West Texas plants, with its thick, blue-green leaves and towering blooms.

For Natives peoples, the agave, or mescal, was a foundation of survival. Earthen ovens used to bake agave hearts have been found across West Texas, many dating back thousands of years.

For one tribe, the mescal roast was so central to its culture that the Spanish named the Mescalero Apache after the plant.

“Mescal is a main food source for our people,” Zelda Yazza, a Mescalero medicine woman, said, “so our people used it with all their meals, morning, noon and night. They ate it with nuts, meat – deer meat, elk meat, buffalo, turkeys, quail.”

Since 2013, the Mescalero Apache have held annual mescal roasts at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The roast is part of a coming-of-age ceremony for Apache maidens, and it connects the tribe with one of its most sacred places.

The Guadalupe Mountains were one of the last strongholds of the Apache people – and one of the last strongholds of Native American resistance in the 19th century. The U.S. Calvary expelled the Mescalero from the Guadalupes in the 1870s. Now, the tribal home is 100 miles to the north, at the Mescalero Reservation near Ruidoso, New Mexico.

But each spring, the Mescalero return for a mescal roast at the foot of Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan.

Mescalero and park employees harvest dozens of agaves from a nearby ranch. They dig a pit, line the bottom with heated rocks, place the mescal hearts inside and cover them with wet beargrass and burlap sacks. Then, they close the pit.

Four days later, the roasted mescal is removed from the pit, while medicine women chant prayers and blessings.

The Guadalupes are one of four sacred mountains to the Mescalero people. According to tradition, the Mescalero gathered at the summit of El Capitan – the Mescalero world translates as “the Nose” – during a great flood that submerged the world.

“This is one of the few locations that was left,” Yazza said, “and so our people stayed there. And then the Gahe [or mountain spirit] dancers came from above, and they brought all the food to us. The Indian bananas were the first food. The second food is the mescal that is baked here, and then also all the nuts and berries.”

Later, White-Painted Woman, the Creator's daughter, taught the tribe ceremonies at the Guadalupes. It's said that White-Painted Woman can be seen in the mountains' white limestone.

At the annual roast, visitors taste the baked mescal – it's sweet and juicy. The Apache girls must prepare and cure the food.

The mescal's fibrous fruit is cleaned, squeezed into a pulp, mixed with fruits or nuts and allowed to dry in the sun for about six weeks. It can then be stored for 15 years or more.

U.S. officials suppressed the Apache puberty ritual and the mescal roast for years. For a parent, the choice to participate now is a serious one. The ceremony includes a feast at Mescalero, and the total cost of the ritual can top $20,000.

Josephine Hurbina said she began saving for the ceremony when her daughter entered preschool.

“I'm a single mother, working at WalMart,” Hurbina said, “so it just about drained my savings. But to see her in her buckskin, fully beaded, able to wear her eagle feathers, in her traditional regalia, is going to be worth every penny. All my savings went to this – but it's going to be worth it, to see my only daughter participating in her culture.”

In the annual mescal roast, the Mescalero are returning to their homeland after 140 years. And they're reconnecting with a plant that stood at the center of life in West Texas for thousands of years.