Identification. "Mescalero" is from the Spanish: -ero, "people of," and mescale, "agave" (the century plant). They were so named for their reliance on the huge roasted and preserved root of the plant they used as their primary carbohydrate source. Apache is not an aboriginal Southern Athapaskan word. The term seems to have been applied by outsiders to groups of non-Puebloan hunters and gatherers/foragers who entered the Southwest at least a couple of centuries, if not several centuries, prior to the mid-sixteenth-century arrival of the Spanish conquistadores-explorers. Some few Contemporary Mescalero aver that the word Apache could have come from ' abesh' z hi, a term referring to those who came from above (to the north of) the Black Rock place, which is thought today to be around Yellowstone. The Mescalero refer to themselves as "Ndé" (The People). Often they will also include a band name or a location name to further qualify their identity, as in "Dzithinahndé" (Mountain Ridge Band People) or "Ch' laandé" (Antelope Band People).
Location. Since May 27, 1873, and the establishment of their reservation by executive order of President U. S. Grant, the Mescalero Apache have lived in south-central New Mexico between 33°00′ and 33°23′ N and 105°18′ and l05°56′ W. At the time of Spanish contact, they ranged between southern Colorado and central Chihuahua, Mexico and from central Texas to the Gila River in New Mexico. Today their reservation encompasses approximately 720 square miles and varies in elevation from 3,400 feet to slightly more than 12,000 feet. Terrain is mountainous with some high desert plateaus. There is a summer rainy season and heavy snowfall most winters in the higher elevations. Temperatures rarely exceed 85° F in summer, and winter temperatures below freezing are common.
Demography. The Mescalero Apache Tribe includes Chiricahuas and Lipans. Tribal figures cite slightly more than 2,500 (official designation) enrolled members in 1988. There is no breakdown available on relative numbers of Mescalero to Chiricahua, but popular belief maintains there are approximately equal numbers of those two groups, with perhaps two dozen or so Lipan. There were 468 enrolled Mescalero when the reservation was established in 1873. Between 1903 and 1905 the remnants of the Lipan, said to be just a few wagonloads of people (about 40), joined their Mescalero "cousins," and in 1912 several hundred Chiricahua, or Fort Sill Apache, moved to Mescalero after their imprisonment in Alabama, Florida, and Oklahoma. Population estimates for the period from the mid-sixteenth century until 1873 are difficult to interpret, since often they were inflated for various strategic or political reasons. Because the Apache were not sedentary, they were difficult to count accurately; for example, a Spanish governor, Ugarte, boasted in 1790 that he had secured peace with 3,000 Apache, including Mescalero. It seems plausible to estimate that the group we call Mescalero today probably never numbered more than 6,500-7,000, even when considering all the bands scattered over a very large area.
Linguistic Affiliation. Mescalero Apache is one of the Southern Athapaskan languages. It is mutually intelligible to speakers of other Apachean languages and Navajo and is related to Athapaskan languages in Alaska, western parts of Canada, and the northern California and Oregon coast.