MESCALERO, N.M. ? Several thousand people make the journey to this forested mountain paradise each year for Apache Sunrise Ceremonies and festivities held here on the Fourth of July. But this year was a little different.
Apaches from the White Mountain, San Carlos, Fort Sill, Jicarilla and Chiracahua bands whose homelands span the Southwest, Oklahoma and Texas came together in a show of unity to support their relatives who lost much in the recent Rodeo-Chediski fire.
As the several groups of Crown Dancers entered the ceremonial grounds after dark on the first day, an announcement was made that some members of the White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers from Whiteriver, Ariz. could not make it because of the fire emergency at home.
"I just broke down and cried when I saw them," said one Apache elder from Mescalero who asked that her name not be used. "After all our people have been through, it just broke my heart when I heard about the fire. I'm so glad to see them here."
The smaller group that showed up was welcomed warmly and with much respect as the Crown Dancers, who personify the Apache Mountain Spirits, danced around a large bonfire late into the night. They were accompanied by several groups of traditional singers and two other groups of local Crown Dancers.
In the "big tipi" off the main arena, several Apache girls celebrating their rites of passage into womanhood danced through the night to traditional songs that retold Apache creation stories and the history of their people.
Wearing beaded buckskin dresses specially made for the occasion, they were sprinkled with corn pollen and mentored by older Apache women who serve as godmothers and help instruct them in how to live respectful, healthy and productive lives.
While puberty ceremonies are held throughout the year in other locations, the Sunrise Ceremonies held at the main campgrounds during the Fourth of July are reserved years in advance by families preparing for their daughters' coming of age ceremonies.
At the colorful two-mile parade on July 6, a large crowd applauded and cheered for the White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers. Dozens of floats paid tribute to firefighters, veterans and Apache soldiers currently serving in the military.
San Carlos Apache Chairman Raymond Stanley from Arizona came to offer his support, followed by the Bylas Apache War Veterans and other groups of families who honored their relatives with songs and floats decorated in their honor.
A group of Navajo firefighters who had come from the Rodeo fire were also on hand and many people approached them to thank them for their efforts to save lives and land.
One firefighter said they were treated well in general, with the exception of a restaurant in Show Low, Ariz. that served them last when they showed up with several Anglo crews.
He said while the restaurant manager and staff made a point to thank all the Anglo firefighters, they ignored the Navajo firefighters and never said a word of thanks.
But in Apache territory on the Mescalero reservation, firefighters were held in high esteem by all who attended the festivities.
"We honor and thank you. We will never forget," read a placard held up by a family on the parade route.