Giving voice to the Apaches

‘Stories’ gains acceptance by Mescaleros

Albuquerque journalist and nonfiction writer Sherry Robinson describes her book, “Apache Voices: Their Stories of Survival as Told to Eve Ball,” as not a narrative but a collection of stories.

Robinson found these stories amid the letters and papers of Eve Ball, a Midwestern-born Texas school teacher, who upon retirement in the 1940s, built a home between Ruidoso, N.M., and the Mescalero Apache reservation.

Apaches walking into Ruidoso would send children to her door for water. She brought out full pitchers and ice. “It began to dawn on her that she had history right in front of her on her own lawn,” says Robinson.

Ball set a table and engaged travelers in conversation. “Eve’s relationship with the Mescalero was quite different than the usual relationship between Indian people and white people, because there’s usually an anthropologist or historian among them, who maintains some kind of objective distance.”

Ball didn’t even pretend to do that. She befriended people.

Many of her friends were elderly, and she realized that when they died, both historical information and a unique historical point of view would perish. White soldiers with hopes for promotion and reputations to protect had written most Apache history. The people themselves had never told their stories.

Worse, they were not passing them to their children, who attended modern schools in the 1940s and 1950s, and were losing their language and culture.

Ball became passionate about seeing that Apache young people and their children had a chance to learn their history. Over several decades, she interviewed 57 Mescalero elders, including a nephew of Geronimo, writing down what they told her word for word in Gregg shorthand.

No publisher would touch the two books she produced. Finally, oral history came into vogue in the late 1970s, and her “In the Days of Victorio: Recollections of a Warm Springs Apache” and “Indeh: An Odyssey of the Apaches” went into print. They’re still available through the Internet.

Robinson learned of Ball while on an archaeological trip to southeastern New Mexico. She intended to write about Chief Victorio’s sister, the warrior and medicine woman Lozen.

The tour’s leader suggested she read Ball’s books and visit Brigham Young University, where Ball had sent her papers before her death in 1984.

Investigating the archives, Robinson discovered many unpublished oral histories among Ball’s files. These included the story of one of Geronimo’s wives, Francesca.

Captured in a Mexican raid, she and three other women planned an escape to Apache strongholds. On the way, a jaguar attacked Francesca, dragging her several hundred yards. She beat it off with her knife and shouted for her companions.

“What’s amazing to me is that this woman could keep her presence of mind enough to even think what to do,” says Robinson.

She began combing Ball’s letters, spurred by a lifelong love of Native American culture and history.

“Having access to the letters was incredibly valuable. You get what she was trying to accomplish with her work.”

Realizing the importance of the unpublished material, Robinson changed the focus of her topic form Lozen to Apache oral history. She spent a week studying 17 boxes of Ball archives, which no one had organized, and Xeroxing anything with any mention of Apaches.

By the end of the week, she wasn’t sure exactly what she’d collected. “I didn’t know whether I would come up with something that would make an interesting magazine article or if there was a book in here.”

Either way, she was hooked on her subject. She came home and started keyboarding, entering masses of information into computer files. “But none of it seemed particularly tied together.”

Determined to finish the project whatever it became, she kept typing. “I’m pretty tenacious when I start something. I guess that’s a quality I share with Eve Ball herself.“

A year later, she finally realized she had a book. Then she had to verify the information in it, reconciling conflicting oral versions of events, and finding dates that had slipped the minds of elderly people.

She also had to contend with Ball’s handwriting. As the author grew older, her sight failed, and she wrote in large letters with felt-tip pens. “It was hard trying to figure out what the stuff was.”

Finally with loops and curves deciphered, and historical time lines and contexts in hand, Robinson began to write.

“I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote,” she laughs, describing the struggle to edit and piece together Ball’s words from 60-year-old notes.

In addition, Robinson had to consider Ball’s attitudes and biases. “Eve was actually pretty objective, I think, despite her many friendships with Apache people, but there were times when she wasn’t.”

In those cases, Robinson had to analyze the material, override Ball’s judgment, and hope she was doing the right thing.

“I was trying to be as faithful as I could. Eve was trying to be as faithful as she could to the people who had spoken to her. I think between the two of us, we managed to do all of those things.”

Five years after she began examining Ball’s papers, Robinson had “Apache Voices: Their Stories of Survival as Told to Eve Ball” in hand, published by the University of New Mexico Press.

The book evidently pleases the Mescalero Apache people. They have it in their library and schools.

From Arts & Entertainment, February 2008.