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The Songs of the Land
Modern-day Apache Joe Saenz teaches ancient lessons


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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   January 2009

The Songs of the Land

Modern-day Apache Joe Saenz teaches ancient lessons in the wilderness and at the annual Red Paint Powwow, Jan. 16-18.

By Peggy Platonos

His answering machine message includes several phrases in the Apache language, and one of those phrases seems to sum up the ancient philosophy that Joe Saenz teaches and embodies: "Guzuhoo dal." Pronounced "goo-zoo-hoo dahl," it translates as: "Good things to all."

Joe Saenz
Wilderness outfitter Joe Saenz.
(Photo by Dr. Pam Smith.)

The Apache philosophy of life is thoroughly holistic, Saenz says. "The essence of our belief is that the land was made for us. It isn't land that we found. It was made for us. And therefore, we must take care of it."

Saenz shares that philosophy by taking small groups into the heart of Apache country with his Wolf Horse Outfitters business and, each January, as founder and president of the Red Paint Powwow in Silver City. The sixth annual powwow and Indian market will be held Jan. 16-18 at the WNMU Intramural Gym.

Taking care of the land, Saenz says, involves preserving the harmonious balance of all components of it. "The balance of the animals, the plants, the people, fire, water, earth, all of that. We see how those elements come together and make such simple things as grass," he explains. "The Apache philosophy is a very land- and spirituality-oriented existence. We were put here to care for this land. With that perspective, you have to see things differently."

In traditional Apache life, spirituality permeates every aspect of life. "It's not separate," Saenz says. "It's not a matter of religion. Spirituality is simply the way to define our relationship with the earth and with our creator. Ceremonies are meant to celebrate all aspects of life. Spiritually, we try to connect. To us, it's an everyday thing. Even lighting a fire involves some sort of relationship with the earth."

Human beings, in the Apache view, are part of the entire cycle of life. Not separate from it. Not somehow above it. "Bears, cougars, wolves, deer, elk are all an integral part of the cycle, too. Each has its place," Saenz says. "If I eat elk or deer meat, then I put myself in the food chain. I cannot be surprised or offended if some animal wants to eat me. Apache fathers teach their children how animals are, so we can protect ourselves by being careful. We don't go killing everything in order to keep safe."

When the actions of animals conflict with the needs of humans, the Apache view is that some way needs to be found to respect both. Saenz points to the modern-day conflict between ranchers and wolves: "The wolf is just an animal trying to survive. It has a place in the cycle of life. But it's not a matter of up with the wolves and down with the ranchers. There has to be a balance."

Joe Saenz grew up on the Tewa reservation in Isleta, Texas. The Tewa are a Pueblo tribe, but the reservation included members of a number of different tribes. Saenz himself is a Warm Springs Apache, which is one of the four bands of Chiricahua Apaches.

After attending the University of Texas at El Paso, he left the Tewa reservation and worked at a wide variety of jobs ranging from construction worker, firefighter and cowboy to audio consultant, education liaison and office-equipment salesman. But his heart belonged to the wilderness that was his heritage.

"Of all the work I tried, all the careers I started, I kept coming back to guiding in the wilderness," Saenz says. He started out by sub-contracting to licensed outfitters with established businesses and served as a guide in wilderness areas from Alaska to Mexico. Now in his late forties, he is a fully licensed and insured outfitter and guide, operating out of Wolf Horse Camp, the six acres he calls home in the Arenas Valley — right in the heart of the ancient Chiricahua territory.

He calls his business "a Native American guide service catering to small groups and specializing in customized trips with minimal equipment and minimal impact." The minimal impact is on the land. One would guess that the impact on clients is not at all minimal, because Saenz makes these wilderness trips educational on all levels.

"They offer me an opportunity to, I don't want to say 'preach,' but advocate for the Apache philosophy of existence on earth," Saenz says. The trips also give him an opportunity to teach wilderness survival and camping skills that respect the land and require minimal equipment.

"I carry light equipment, with maybe one cast-iron skillet. I make simple, nutritious meals, cooking Apache-style. I encourage people to sleep under the stars and discourage them from sleeping in tents," Saenz explains.

He teaches how to choose a camp site and set up camp; how to keep food fresh; how to make a fire ring or fire pit; how to select the right kind of wood to burn; how to build an efficient fire according to the purpose of the fire, whether for warmth, for cooking, or for drying; how to make sure the fire doesn't get away from you.

He also teaches what not to burn. "There's a disturbing trend for people to try to burn trash instead of packing it out. And you find fire pits full of aluminum foil, plastic and metals. It shows a real ignorance of how fire deals with these types of things," Saenz says. And an ignorance of proper packing materials for wilderness camping.

Apaches are taught to leave the land better than they found it, and that's what Saenz aims to teach his clients, too. He describes his style of camping as "minimalist" and says, "People realize, once we get out there, that we don't need as much as they thought."

Saenz will guide hikes and backpacking trips as well as trail rides, mostly in the Gila wilderness. And he'll take people out at any time of year and in virtually any type of weather. "I've gone out in the middle of a snowstorm, and had storms follow us into the wilderness," he reports. Storms, after all, are a natural part of the life cycle, too.

Wilderness trips are not the only place Saenz teaches about Apache history, culture and philosophy of life. He is in increasing demand as a speaker for groups like the Nature Conservancy. "Native Americans were the first environmentalists, and the Apache philosophy fits with the philosophy of conservation and preservation," Saenz points out.

Perhaps the most visible forum in which Joe Saenz makes Apache culture accessible to the general public, however, is the annual Red Paint Powwow he has initiated in Silver City. This year's powwow is the sixth. The first took place in 2004, and was the culmination of a lot of effort by Saenz. "I kicked on doors to get this going and worked for five years to put the first one on," he says.

That first powwow differed from the ones that followed, Saenz recalls. "We ran it as a show, hiring all the dancers and drummers. It got dancers hooked on Silver City, and Silver City hooked on the powwow. After that, we made it a competition."

Saenz does not do all the organizing himself. "I get lots of help," he says. Much of that help comes from the Red Paint Intertribal Council/Powwow Committee. Prize money is raised from local businesses, organizations and individuals. Among the biggest sponsors are Western New Mexico University (where the powwow is held), the Town of Silver City, the Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway, the Forest Service/Gila National Forest, the Black Range RC&D and Wal-Mart.

The Red Paint Powwow attracts dancers and drummers from all over the country: Alaska, the Dakotas, California, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and, of course, New Mexico. "Always that aspect of pride in native people has fostered a sense of competition," Saenz says. "Some powwows in the summer feature races, rodeos, even beauty contests. Here, we're more interested in the cultural: the dancing and drumming."

A powwow traditionally is a social gathering. "Red Paint" comes from a translation of the name the Warm Springs Apaches call themselves: "Chi Henne" (pronounced "chee hee-neh"), which means "the People of the Red Paint." The red pigment in the clay found around the Warm Springs area was traditionally used as paint in ceremonies by the local Chiricahua band, Saenz says.

"The Black Range and Silver City area is the area of origin for the Chiricahua, a sacred place," he explains. "I always believed that Silver City would be a great venue for native arts, native performers, native events. This is the heart of the Chiricahua territory. People needed to hear the songs. We feel this land needed the songs and dances to be brought back."

This year's Red Paint Powwow will feature an Indian Market all three days. The dance and drumming competitions will take place Saturday and Sunday, when we will all be able to hear the heart of the Chiricahua nation beating strong.

For information about Joe Saenz's Wolf Horse Outfitters, see www.wolfhorseoutfitters.com or call 534-1379.


Red Paint Powwow, Jan. 16-18: Admission on Friday is free. Admission on Saturday and Sunday: $8 for adults, $5 for seniors, university students and children under 12. The powwow starts each day at 9 a.m. at the WNMU Intramural Gym. Friday: Indian Market, Performers and Demonstrations. Saturday: Indian Market, Gourd Dancing 11 a.m. & 5:30 p.m., Grand Entries 1 p.m. & 7:30 p.m., Closing 11 p.m. Sunday: Indian Market, Gourd Dancing 11 a.m., Grand Entries 1 p.m., Award & Closing 6 p.m. For more information, see www.redpaintpowwow.net



Peggy Platonos is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor
who lives in the Mimbres Valley.

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