Apaches vs Americans: Wrestling for Food

This is the draft script for part two of my planned podcast series. For more information on that project, please see my previous post.

Episode 2: They Were Hungry

dog canyonCadete, chief of the Mescalero Apaches, and about five hundred of his people backed their way into Dog Canyon. It was October 1862. A regiment of California Volunteers fought them into that gorge that led all the way from the high Sierra Blanca Mountains, down to the white sand deserts of southern New Mexico. Following General Carleton’s orders, the military had been chasing the Mescaleros for some time. “All Indian men of that tribe are to be killed whenever and wherever you can find them,” he commanded.[1] The Apaches were fighting back though, as they had always done. From crevices and behind boulders, they defended themselves as well as the canyon would allow. They used bows and arrows mostly. They had guns too, but little ammunition. However, they were growing weary of the fight. They were hungry.

Big Mouth was about nine years old when the Californians attacked Dog Canyon. He said, “Our people were hungry and almost naked. The soldiers killed the deer… not for food, but just because they liked to kill. Meanwhile, we starved and froze.”[2] The United States was using hunger as a weapon to subdue the Mescalero Apaches, and it worked. They surrendered. Cadete pleaded with Carleton to treat the Mescaleros with respect. They had fought a good fight and at least deserved humane handling, he thought. “You have driven us from our last stronghold, and we have no more heart. Do with us as may seem good to you, but do not forget we are men and braves.”[3] Carleton’s subsequent order; take the Mescaleros to the new Bosque Redondo reservation adjacent to Fort Sumner, his pet project. The relocation would open New Mexico land for Manifest Destiny expansion, which Carleton endorsed, and, he would have the opportunity to take on a civilization project, to show that he knew how to handle “the Indian problem.”Big Mouth

Recollections of the Native experience at Bosque Redondo keep coming back to food. “That place at Fort Sumner was what is now called a concentration camp,” Big Mouth explained. “There was nothing there for us except misery and hunger.”[4] Carleton claimed he would create a reservation with a self-supporting food system based on agrarianism. But, the forced farming did not work because of poor land, foul water, and insatiable insects. It was fine with Carleton – just a minor setback. The government would have to feed the captives for the time being. He expected the next year to be better.

Early Spanish explorers named the Mescaleros after the mescal, or agave cactus, that was their staple food, especially during the summer harvests. They also gathered yucca fruit, juniper and sumac berries, nuts, seeds, and hunted wild game before their capture. Agave, though, was most important to them. Mescalero women harvested the roots of the plant with heavy tools while men stood guard. Then they steamed the hearts in fire pits dug into the earth for half a day or more until they were tender and syrupy. Drying any leftovers for eating or trading later allowed for future sustenance and created an economic instrument well after the harvest. Even the fibers of the plant were valuable as thread for weaving. But, agave did not grow on the plains. agaveThe Apache’s captivity at Bosque Redondo separated them from their native foodways and they were getting hungrier.

By late spring 1863, it was clear that the government rations of flour, coffee, and bacon were not coming in fast enough. The Mescaleros were given permission to go out on a hunt to supplement their provisions – a forty-eight hour leave. Ninety warriors and fifteen women went out onto the plains – the warriors only armed with bows and arrows. They spread out in a line more than half a mile wide and combed the prairie, eventually encountering an antelope heard. The ends of the line swooped around and encircled the animals resulting in eighty-seven kills.[5]

Although in a limited scope, Mescaleros were able to use food as leverage against the U.S., as Americans had done to them while pursuing them into Dog Canyon less than a year earlier. Mescaleros seized upon an opportunity to feed themselves in a way that closely aligned with their traditional lifestyle. While these occasional hunting parties only softened the captivity experience, they also reconnected the people to their culture and granted them some agency during the internment experience.

[1] Lawrence C Kelly, Navajo Roundup: Selected Correspondence of Kit Carson’s Expedition against the Navajo, 1863-1865 (Boulder, Colo.: Pruett Pub. Co., 1970), 11.

[2] Eve Ball, Nora Henn, and Lynda Sánchez, Indeh, an Apache Odyssey (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1980), 201.

[3] John Carey Cremony, Life among the Apaches (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 201.

[4] Ball, Henn, and Sánchez, Indeh, an Apache Odyssey, 202.

[5] Cremony, Life among the Apaches, 203–205.


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Kaveh Mowahed

I am a graduate student, a docent, a radio host, and a laborer. I wear many hats and I am informed by all of them. My goal is to contribute to my community's wellbeing through education.

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