My Chance Meeting with Medicine Woman Meredith Begay

The Texas Story Project.

Lane Rockford Orsak
Lane Rockford Orsak

In the winter of 1997, I was invited by three friends to go snow skiing in Ruidoso, New Mexico. I had never been skiing, nor had I been to Ruidoso, even though my family owned a house there, so we all decided to go for a short ski vacation.

On February 2, 1997 we departed Austin on an exhausting ten-hour drive through the Hill Country on Highway 71, West Texas cotton fields and oil fields, traveling through San Angelo, Big Spring, La Mesa, and Brownfield. Then on through the New Mexico oil patch arriving to Roswell, the infamous home of the alien spacecraft crash, and up the lovely Billy The Kid Scenic Byway to Ruidoso.

Ruidoso is a quaint little village of 9,000 residents at the base of the Sierra Blanca Mountain that sports a equestrian racetrack, a charming main street populated with fun shops, dining, a stunning performing arts center, golf courses, lakes, hiking trails, and a ski resort, Ski Apache on 463,000 acres of tribal lands owned and operated by the Mescalero Apache. That was a detail that my friends failed to mention. I had no idea that the area was home to the Apache Indians and that fact caused a rush of emotions and memories from my childhood.

As a kid, I grew up thrilled by the “Indian scenes” in the 1960s western movies, especially when the Indians encircled the Calvary preparing for an ambush high above, on the mesa. The strength and richly colored buckskin costumes, the feathers and beads, especially the bow and arrows, mesmerized me.

I was now standing on the land of the descendants of the infamous Chief Geronimo. My childhood was filled with fantasies about him and his strong and illusive “Indian Braves.” When I was about four-years-old I badly severed my little finger in the front yard playing “Cowboy and Indians” with a steak knife that had an antler handle, and no guard. Of course, I played the role of an Apache brave, with my blond hair, freckles, and hazel colored eyes, stabbing a soldier.

My happiest moment as a young boy was when my mother invited the Alabama-Coushatta tribe dancers on her television show in Houston (Kitirik on ABC: 1954-1971) and allowed me to accompany them. My grandmother meticulously assembled a costume, which included many silver bells sewn to black elastic around my ankles. When we danced, I felt like I was at home.

The next morning the gang rose early to ski and we made our way up the steep mountain road. As I stood in the line waiting to be fitted for my rental ski, with Led Zeppelin rock music blaring, I heard a young man speaking in Apache on the phone. I was surprised, because I had recently returned from living in Japan for three years and many of the sounds were similar to the Japanese language. I strained to hear him and he saw me and turned away. I felt really disappointed.

That evening we decided to go to the Inn of the Mountain Gods, a resort and casino owned by the Mascalero Apache, for dinner. Our server was a North Texas Caucasian woman. Later in the evening, I asked her if she was able to actually hear any Apache speaking their language. She bluntly replied, “Sure, let me get you one of them!” I was horrified. After a few minutes a very apprehensive young woman arrived with the server and I stood up to introduce myself, explaining that I was something of a linguist and had heard the Apache language spoken earlier and how wonderful it would be if she could speak some for me so I could truly hear the language spoken. She timidly said, “I don’t speak Apache.” I was horrified again. I apologized for interrupting her evening and sat down embarrassed.

After an additional few minutes, the server returned with another woman. I again explained my interest in hearing the language spoken and she kindly said, “Look, I don’t really speak Apache well, but my mother speaks all four dialects and she is a Medicine Woman on the reservation. I will call her and see if she will meet you. Call me tomorrow at 2 p.m. and I will let you know.” I was gobsmacked by her generosity and her willingness to take complete strangers to her mother’s home.

The next day, I skied down the mountain and called. To my amazement, her mother agreed to meet us and we were to meet her daughter, Shy, at the Inn of the Mountain Gods at 9:00 a.m. and she would take us to the reservation.

My journal notes after meeting Meredith Begay:

Thursday a.m. we went to the Inn of the Mountain Gods to meet Shy Begay.  We arrived first and then she arrived in a small red pickup truck. I got out of the truck and greeted her. For some reason, I didn’t get in with her. Felt a bit bad. We went through very green hills with little sign of commercialism or residents. After 20 minutes we reached the Mescalero Indian Reservation.

The first thing I noticed was the ‘Indian graffiti’ in places against the stark green hills and simple architecture: a sizeable elementary school, Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs Building, and small simple houses. No signs of tee pees or traditional Indian clothing.

We turned down a street and arrived at a simple white and blue home. At first glance, the home appeared to be little cared for. The porch was littered with old things and there seemed to be nothing in the way of landscaping or decoration. It was snowing lightly on and off and there was mud and water around the front porch steps. A white dog cautiously moved away from the door and I pet her – probably to feel connected to the household.

The energy around me accelerated as we entered the house with greetings and salutations and negotiating the seating arrangements. When I saw Meredith Begay I felt totally comfortable…she smiled a warm and inviting smile and held me hand in hers for a long time looking deep into my eyes and decided to hug her. She seemed ok with that. We offered a large basket of fruit and fresh flowers. I then met her husband who struck me as a man who had worked for years and had never experienced dining with sterling silver forks and crystal glasses. He had a friendly welcoming smile that revealed his missing teeth.

Meredith sat down and I began instantly to explain to her why we had come. How we met Shy, my desire to hear the Apache language spoken, and the fact that I studied history at the University of Texas and had always loved Indians as a child.

Meredith wore a sky blue warm-up suit that somehow looked elegant with her long gray-black hair and turquoise jewelry. Her husband sat beside her and the visual contrast was immense. He was thin and wore a cap, jeans, and a checkered cotton shirt. He looked very “Southwestern”. Meredith was very full-figured, yet appeared very comfortable in her body. She mentioned that she had been cleaning up the house, that her grandson had visited last evening and had pulled all the books out. There was a light feeling.

Meredith first began by explaining the Apache Creation Story:

In the beginning four forces came together. The colors were red, yellow, black, and white. Everything was dark. The earth was covered in water. Some animals came onto the land. People lived in caves and were afraid to come out because of the giant creatures. When the lightning came, they ran out to collect food. The humans and the small creatures decided to have a council with the large creatures. They would play a game – a fight to the death. The humans won and that is what separated man from the animals. Man could no longer communicate with them. It separated day from night. At the beginning of the conference, the rabbit sacrificed it’s fat – you see it on the ridge every morning.

She then spoke of the flood at Blue Mountain. It was warned that a great flood would cover the earth. Some of the people didn’t listen. The water began to rise. Rivers and lakes overflowed and the water rose higher and higher forcing the people up the mountain. When they reached the top, the flood trapped them without food. Then dancing over the water came four dancers carrying baskets of food. The most important of which was yucca, mescal, mesquite, and sumac. One dancer carried a basket full of berries. The food saved the people on Blue Mountain. That is why the Apache continue to celebrate this day with the four dancers. The cross on the chest represents the morning star.

As she spoke clearly and simply, her husband occasionally interjected comments saying tell them this or that. He got up and went to another room and returned with photo albums. One album had pictures of the Blue Mountain Dancers Ceremony. The other documented the girls coming of age ceremony. Meredith explained the ceremony. They construct a ceremonial teepee. The girl dresses in a traditional buckskin dress. She must stay alone for four days in the teepee. She must run at full speed. This tradition comes from the “White Painted Lady” story. I asked her to speak in Apache, to tell a story. She chose the White Painted Lady story. It is about a woman who arrives to a village in a canoe unconscious. The tribe adopts her and brings her to the village and cares for her. Eventually, she begins to heal and walk. Finally she is able to run – the village runs with her and everyone is happy.

By this point, my mind is full – my heart is full and I am totally happy to be in this medicine women’s home. I began to look above her head and noticed a photograph of Geronimo, the most famous Apache warrior. I commented on the photo and she explained that her grandfather was Geronimo’s sharp shooter. Her husband stood and went to the bookshelf and removed a book with a picture a picture of Geronimo in front of a train boxcar with a group of men on their way to federal prison in Florida.

There was also a magnificent photograph of a chief with a full feather headdress and bone beaded chest cover. I asked about the photo and she said, “Oh, that is my other grandfather…he was the last war chief of the Lipan tribe. His father was Chief Magoosh – *Willie Magoosh.

 Historical Footnote: [* Chief Magoosh (1830-1900) was born into a band that traditionally inhabited the area around San Antonio, Texas. As a young boy, he witnessed the Battle of the Alamo. In 1850, however, a severe smallpox epidemic caused Magoosh’s band to flee the San Antonio area. One group went to Mexico and settled near Zaragosa, Coahuila. A second group led by Magoosh sought refuge with the Mescalero Apaches in New Mexico. When the Mescaleros were placed on a reservation in the 1870’s, Magoosh and his followers formed the core group of Lipan Apaches living on the Mescalero reservation. His descendants still live at Mescalero.]

Meredith spoke in Apache to her husband and he disappeared for a moment and returned with the very headdress being worn by the chief in the photograph. It was the strangest feeling holding the last Lipan war Chiefs headdress – full of eagle feathers and beads. Then the chest piece with real bones, and the buckskins he wore.

She spoke of a relative that fought at the Alamo in Texas and survived and how he felt sorry for the Americans. She showed me a photo of her uncle who was sent to school and was a P.O.W. in World War II in a Japanese concentration camp.

Next we asked how she became a medicine woman. She exclaimed that it was something that one was offered – the person was observed closely- their reactions and responses…are they calm? She said that there are around 20 medicine people on the reservation.

She speaks all four dialects of Apache. She illustrated the differences using the word ‘outside’. There was a remarkable difference.

I expressed my concerns about death and the fear that I carried. She smiled lovingly and explained that life and death was separated by a river | a curtain. That when you are dead, you go to the other side. There is no pain. The Apache don’t believe in re-incarnation, heaven, or hell. The Apache religion believes in prayer. One should always pray for guidance. Dreams are to instruct us – guide us. She expressed when an Apache grows old, very old, and can no longer see or hear they are like a ripe fruit and there is no sadness when death comes.

It struck me as interesting that she chose to use a fruit to describe the elderly. My culture has never painted an image that is natural or attractive. At one point, her husband said that we couldn’t understand how they live because it was the opposite of how we live. They put nature in front of everything…we put money before nature.

Also on the wall were two photos of Middle Eastern men with something written in Arabic. Ahmad asked her and we learned that she was a Behi. Meredith said that it was the only religion that she could relate to. That the Behi religion most resembled old Apache religion – very strict! She referred several times to Catholicism and their attempt to convert the indians. The Catholics used the Painted Lady story to try and convert them – saying that the lady was like the Virgin Mary. She didn’t seem happy about the attempt to convert Indians to western religion.

She explained that Indians receive their names later – the council gives them a name. One of her grandsons is named Eagle Whistling, and the other is Blue Feather.

She said the world was born in water and will end in fire. When the lava rock meets the white sands, the dog speaks back to man, and when the mule gives birth.

She spoke about the Apache seasonal migration from New Mexico in the summer and Chihuahua, Mexico in the winter. The hunters never killed animals until it’s time. She said the meat would be bitter. They have an expression “because the deer drink their own urine”.

The most sacred plant to the Apache is the Yucca fruit. She explained that they could no longer harvest the plant in abundance due to ranch properties posting NO TRESPASSING signs.

She explained how the Mescalero name was given to this band of Apaches. They ate mescal plants, “the artichoke heart”. She said the plants meat is like a stringy yam. The cooking process is hard work. A large pit is dug and lined with rocks. They make fires that heat the stones until they are black-red. The mescal hearts are wrapped in leaves and grass, and covered with dirt and left to smolder for several days.

Darrel asked her about his dream and vision that he had on Mammoth Mountain. She said we shouldn’t fear dreams. It was a way to receive the God’s energy or knowledge (too much) little by little, so we begin to understand more.

She said that men could have more than one wife, however if a woman had extra-marital relations would cut a piece of her nose off. The men’s job was to hunt and protect and the women did the domestic chores. The old men and young boys cared for the children.

I asked her about the Anastazi Indians and why they disappeared. She said that they left to the south and went around the world and populated what is today’s China. She mentioned that the earth was different and there were regular land routes.

She said that her medicine was more than just using the right physical plants, without the right sacred words – the medicine meant nothing. She was going to tell me the coyote story in Apache, but her daughter and she said that it would snow too much if she told that one!

She told me that an old Apache custom, when entering someone’s home, you could not remain standing – you enter and immediately squat down by the door. The only person that can stand tall is the medicine man.

Shy’s father is a Navajo Indian. He said he worked for Lockhead Corporation in California. Meredith gave him an ultimatum to return, or she would divorce him. They poke fun at one another and seem to laugh about it. One day he spoke about being the “head of the family”, and she reminded him that without the neck – he was nothing!

It was evident that she was well respected in the community. I asked her if she owned the land she lived on. She said yes. It was her father’s father who built the old adobe house still on the property. The cattle are communal. The Apache were not as concerned about ownership.

She expressed her concern about the younger generations not speaking the Apache language. Her grandson could read and write, but he could not speak the language. Meredith volunteers to teach at the elementary school. In no time we had conversed for two hours.

Her grandfather who rode with Geronimo was ordered (by Geronimo) to kill the two Indians accompanying Lieutenant Gatewood to sign the peace treaty. Her grandfather put a gun to Geronimo and refused saying that the two were his relatives and he would not kill them – the treaty was signed.

She also mentioned the tradition of a mother-in-law could not speak to a son-in-law and must cover herself with a cloth over her head. A father-in-law must communicate in third person. The daughter lived with the husband’s family.

The older Apache boys have a ceremony to initiate them into manhood. The ceremony lasts two days and requires them to stand facing a Douglas Fur tree all night without rest.

-End Journal Notes-

Years later, at a dinner party, I met a Mescalero Apache Medicine Man, Bear Eagle, and his wife, Jane Froelich. I told them about my meeting on the reservation and they said that they knew Meredith Begay well and recently learned that she had cancer. I was tremendously saddened by the news.

It is amazing that this family allowed complete strangers into their home. I went with the idea that I would have a chance to hear a native language spoken and was given the gift of their sacred cultural rituals. All without ever asking us a single personal question: What do you do? Who are you? What do you want?  What will you do with this information? The Begay family graciously and lovingly accepted us into their home, a sacred gift that I will always treasure. Thank you Shy and Meredith Begay for trusting me and guiding me on this heart path.

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