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The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance has been working closely with Traditional Elders of the Mescalero Apache to build community support for Otero Mesa National Monument. This article highlights the Mescalero elders’ decision to formally back monument designation for the Otero Mesa region.

Mescalero group holds Otero Mesa sacred

Alamogordo Daily News
By Elva K. Osterreich, Associate News Editor

Officially advocating for Otero Mesa to become a national monument, a group of Mescalero elders are making their voices heard on behalf of the grasslands of southern Otero County.

The mission of the group is to preserve Otero Mesa and insure the history of the Mescalero Apache connection to the area is recognized.

“We envision Otero Mesa as a place for Apache youth programs that will educate and inspire them by the unique lifestyle of their ancestors,” says their mission statement.

Members of the group feel many from Mescalero have lost the connection with their past and would like to see the youth of the tribes become more involved in the history and legacy of the people.

“English is my second language. I was taught Apache first,” said Ted Rodriguez, who is head of the Traditional Elders Council and serves on various tribal committees. “We are retaining those traditional values, It is hard to see the young people not have these values.”

Otero Mesa served as a sanctuary of sorts for the ancient Native Americans, mostly of various Apache tribes, who moved through the grasslands.

“As far as I’m concerned that’s where our ancestors roamed,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of the Apaches here don’t realize we have that history.”

Rodriguez called it a place to lose track of the world, a paradise to be cherished and loved.

“Personal and world problems can take a back seat to the peacefulness that I feel,” he said. “I hope to work with young people in the schools, show them what their ancestors experienced. It is a personal thing I’m doing.”

Alfred LaPaz, another member of the group, has been on the tribal council and served in law enforcement. He is worried about the possibility of oil and gas drilling on the mesa.

“The state has few places left that can be used (by the oil and gas industry) and this could be the last on in the state that could be saved,” LaPaz said.

He said he wants to build up an interest amongst the Mescalero to get more involved in the traditional past.

“We need discussions about how our people roamed out there and live out there,” he said. “I feel the area is part of our people, like holy lands.”

If the federal government does make Otero Mesa into a National Monument, LaPaz would like to see the Mescalero play a part in whatever might happen there. He feels his people can share their culture and heritage with visitors.

The reservation schools have taken a step toward educating the students in traditional ways, LaPaz said.

“They started setting up programs where the elders are teaching the language to the youth,” he said. “I feel pride that people are wanting to show and teach our younger people. I think we are a step ahead.”

Otero Mesa is a beautiful piece of land, LaPaz said. He said he has seen a lot of animals out there, including birds, eagles and pronghorn.

Larry Shay also served on the tribal council and is the supervisor of the Mescalero Apache Arts program.

He said his people have lost their nomadic tendencies, but there is an underlaying knowledge that once the Apache had a much bigger land base than they do now.

“We hardly go here and there anymore,” he said. “But there is knowledge that the place was a place of refuge for my people culturally and traditionally.”

Shay said once the people moved with the climate, wintering on the Gulf of Mexico and moving north and south through Otero Mesa on their journeys. The nomadic lifestyle the Apache ancestors lived involved family groups, small bands as opposed to large ones.

“They thought it was a haven place for the people with plenty of vegetation and wildlife,” he said. “Apaches didn’t take it for granted didn’t deplete the resources.”

Shay and the others feel the resources should be protected. The water, vegetation and creatures that live there should be taken care of. He is in favor of managing the resources to the benefit of everybody.

As nomads, the people took only what they needed to survive.

“Still today the native people only take what they need,” Shay said.

The fourth member of the group is not an elder but is the head of the Mescalero Apache Dance Group. His position does not allow for his name to be shared.

“I’m a tribal member and traditional leader,” the dancer said. “Anything that has to do with Apache sites is important for the Apache people to be part of the circle. The ancestors have been there for many years.”

There are a number of archeological sites on Otero Mesa that are Apache towns or camps, the dancer said.

“A lot of our people didn’t know that existed,” he said. “These are deep roots for these people.”

The younger generation is getting stronger with the language and traditions, he said. The mesa is sacred like a church.

“You wouldn’t tear down a church and put up oil wells would you,” the dancer said. “Here are the roots of our heritage.”

Styve Homnick is the only member of the group who is not Apache. He has worked for and with the tribe for more than 40 years.

Homnick has found healing in southern New Mexico and Otero Mesa is a big part of that.

“Everything I have around me, wild flowers, animals, trees and grasses, truly healed me,” he said. “I love working in groups that have a passion to create happiness. Making Otero Mesa a national monument would bring a lot of happiness to people. To turn it into oil fields would be so sacrilegious.”

Homnick said the problem is a factor of oil and water. There is no way to get away with pulling oil from the land without polluting the water. Also, the oil available in Otero Mesa is “peanuts” he said but the water can serve the population of southern New Mexico for at least 100 years.

Original posting at http://www.alamogordonews.com/ci_17240835