The town of Ruidoso is virtually surrounded by the reservation of the Mescalero Apaches. We've both been coming here since we were kids in Texas and living here part time for nearly three years, but we've never done more than drive through the reservation on the way to someplace else.
We finally fixed that on Saturday when we accepted the tribe's public invitation to its annual Ceremonial and Rodeo.
There aren't many opportunities for outsiders to observe life on the reservation. Gawkers aren't welcome and even just driving through tribal lands is discouraged on anything other than Highway 70 or the road that leads past the Inn of the Mountain Gods, the tribe's hotel-casino.
But the ceremonial is a multi-day event over the July 4 holiday weekend in which the people gather for a big communal celebration and seem proud to put some of their culture on display for any visitors who might want to come and watch.
The Mescalero seem to have had better luck than some other tribes when Indians across the west were being forced onto reservations. They were granted much of what they considered their ancestral territory, including Sierra Blanca or White Mountain.
The 12,000-foot peak, highest ground in southern New Mexico, is said to be held sacred by the tribe, which now runs a popular ski resort near the top. The gondolas operate year round, and we ride up now and then for the eye-popping views of the Tularosa basin, including distant White Sands and the scorched badlands to the west known locally as the malpais.
The Apache ceremonial arena and the separate rodeo grounds are located near the village of Mescalero, a cluster of buildings comprised of the tribal offices, a general store, a school, a couple of churches and some social services agencies.
Most of the 5,000 residents, including some from other tribes, live in housing hidden along the roads that snake through the forests and meadows miles away from the village. The Mescalero invited Lipan and Chiricahua Apaches, plains Indians who endured forced relocation to Oklahoma and Texas, to join them in the mountains a century or so ago.
We entered the grounds, passed by a small area of vendor stalls and refreshment stands, and took seats in the grandstand. On the right hand side of the grounds was a tall structure like a teepee, except that instead of hide or canvas it was covered with green-leafed branches. A small fire smoldered inside. The announcer said it played an important part in the festivities but didn't explain what it was.
Nearby were rows of small square enclosures for storage or cooking, also specially prepared for the occasion, framed with poles and covered with branches.
Half a dozen men sat under an awning and chanted to a steady beat of rawhide drums, a sound familiar to anyone who's watched western movies. In the dusty arena, some couples locked arms and did a rhythmic stamping two-step which the announcer told us was "social dancing."
Later there were "gourd dances," which looked much the same except that the men and women danced in separate lines, men in front. A few of the dancers wore traditional Apache dress, but most were in ordinary western clothing and boots, accessorized in some cases with eagle feathers, shawls and jewelry. A few white people danced too. I presumed they worked for agencies or tribal businesses and were asked to dance as a sign of appreciation or friendship.
I have no photo to show you because as you'll see on the ticket below we were asked firmly not to make recordings of any kind. This was a private event intended for the eyes and ears of those who took the trouble to come in person.
The announcer let us know that a principal purpose of the ceremonial was as a coming of age celebration for five girls, whose families would now be serving lunch. Everyone was welcome to eat, no charge.
We queued up with a couple of hundred others at one of several food lines, staffed by taciturn round-faced ladies who looked like the cooks. There was fried flatbread covered in beans topped with cheese, lettuce and tomatoes and a slice of melon, all as tasty as it could be without a trace of salt or any other spice.
At the end of the line, a young girl dressed exactly like the one in the photo above handed me a cup of lemonade.
"Your costume is very beautiful," I said. She looked down at her moccasins and waited for me to move along.