Western New Mexico University hosted young people from the Mescalero Apache Tribe in May as part of a school field trip to harvest agave, or mescal, plants on site within the local Freeport McMoRan mines.
Traditionally a staple food of Mescalero Apache people, agave hearts also have spiritual meaning and are used in a rite of passage known as the sunrise ceremony, which marks Mescalero girls’ transformation into women. Preparation for the coming of age ceremony begins as much as a year in advance and includes harvesting mescal plants in peak season, the reason behind their visit to campus and the surrounding area.
Ahead of the harvest, the more than three dozen Mescalero Apache youth learned more about the scientific properties of the plant from WNMU botany professor Dr. Bill Norris. They were introduced to university student life with a stay in the residence halls and evening activities, heard from representatives of the Native American Student Association, and got the lay of the land with a campus tour.
“Traditional Apache religion was based on the belief in the supernatural and the power of nature. Nature explained everything in life for the Apache people,” according to the tribe’s website.
On the day of the harvest, the students and their teachers and mentors used a variety of tools to uproot and strip the leaves from the ripe plants. The young girls, poised to become women, were encouraged to take part in this process, as they will be the ones tossing the agave hearts into a pit, burying them, roasting them, and ultimately sharing this food with their community when they transition into womanhood.
Carrying on this belief and tapping into the power of nature, the girls will emulate the White Painted Woman, channeling the heroine’s virtue and strength, throughout their 12-day rite of passage.
This summer, the Mescalero girls and their loved ones will gather with prayer, songs, dances to express gratitude, renew strength and bring good fortune. In the meantime, WNMU cherishes the honor of participating in the preparation for this ritual with the “Mescalero,” the people who eat Mescal.