A passion for people and places prompted Lynda Sánchez to join the Peace Corps as a young woman. She worked in Colombia and explored parts of Belize and Mexico’s Sierra Madre. Returning to Washington, D.C., where her father worked for the National Park Service, she participated in a program that helped people in the Latino district of the city. Sánchez later taught and became an archaeologist, a role that took her to Mesa Verde National Park to do research. She soon married and had a daughter, but then tragically lost her husband, a wildlife biologist, when the plane he and three others were using to count bighorn sheep in Canyonlands National Park crashed. Sánchez took her daughter to Texas to be with family, and later to Lincoln, N.M., where she again taught and worked on historic preservation efforts. There she remarried and was soon assisting historian Eve Ball, known for her writings on the Mescalero and Chiricahua Apaches. Sánchez and Ball became friends and co-writers. They coauthored Indeh: An Apache Odyssey with contributor Nora Henn. Sánchez also wrote Eve Ball, Woman Among Men: A Photo Essay. Her latest book is Apache Legends & Lore of Southern New Mexico: From the Sacred Mountain (see review). Earlier she wrote Fort Stanton, An Illustrated History: Legacy of Honor, Tradition of Healing after working for many years to preserve that New Mexico post. Sánchez recently spoke to Wild West about her work.
‘Our way of life, the West in general, so many of our values, what make us human—so many of these things are changing rapidly. It is so important for writers to preserve this story. It is historic preservation in a written form’
What brought you to New Mexico?
When my first husband was killed, I needed to make a decision for my daughter and myself—what to do, where to go. My dad was superintendent of Big Bend National Park in Texas. I stayed there for a short time to put my life back together. I am born and bred Southwest, and I wanted to stay here. I found Lincoln, N.M., its quiet beauty and incredible history, and have been here for 41 years.
When did you meet Eve Ball?
I met Eve at a meeting of the Lincoln County Historical Society. She was then about 80. When I found out she was writing about Apaches (one of my areas of interest) and needed an assistant because of her worsening eyesight, I thought, Wow, what an opportunity! I truly believe fate brought me to Lincoln County and to help Eve finish her signature work. That was quite a ride for 12 years, including driving her to places like Santa Fe, where she obtained the 1982 Saddleman Award [now Owen Wister Award] of the Western Writers of America. I got to meet and later know many of the finest old-timers in history and authorship dealing with our Western heritage.
What hurdles did you face following such an influential writer?
None. It was a gradual change in my life. No one can ever duplicate what Eve did—interviewing the old warriors and pioneers who actually lived the history we write about today—so I knew I had to find my own way if I wanted to become a writer. Of course, she was trained as an English teacher, so her grammar and technique were superior to mine, and that has always been a challenge for me.
What were the benefits?
The benefits were beyond belief. She was not only a mentor—a strict one, a taskmaster—but also like a grandmother to me. There were more than 50 years between us in age, but she was not an old grouch. She had a great sense of humor, and we hit it off from the beginning, traveling to many areas together in my 1977 Scout (“Lead Foot” Sánchez), and I met characters both writing-wise and as old timers who inspired me to continue the path and perhaps plow some of my own. However, I also had a full-time job teaching, so some of my own writing efforts and trails were postponed until I retired.
Does your work transcend Ball’s legacy?
I think my work compliments what Eve accomplished and continues a tradition of writing for which she is noted, and also criticized. It is not overly academic and dry yet is documented, and it reveals the raw courage, stubbornness and tragedy experienced by Apaches, Anglos and Hispanics who lived during that time. One has to hook the reader into loving history, and you don’t do that with a tome of 1,000 footnoted pages. While those are important, the shorter, more human story is what draws in the individual, and once that happens, they are with you for the duration.
How did your work in archaeology train you for your work as a writer?
Adventure and learning about the past in a hands-on manner has always been my motto, and archaeological training and living in Mexico, Belize and the Southwest and working on such sites made me appreciate the past beyond armchair travels. My Sierra Madre adventure was one of the most exciting.
What’s special about Apache Legends?
The handwritten account by Percy Bigmouth and sent to good friends for preservation in 1940s New Mexico. Apaches just did not do that. Furthermore, this book is a story of friendships, cultural bridges, and includes not only the legends and folktales but also a general history for the novice reader and short biographical sketches of the main individuals who networked to preserve stories being lost at a rapid rate. Eve Ball, Old Scout Bigmouth and his son, Percy, were among those five that included not just the warrior culture but their families and the softer side of a people pushed to the brink.
What is the root of your passion for historic preservation?
My father was the root of this passion, and living in historic Lincoln was the example that showed me how significant these places are to our own well-being and why they must be preserved. If we don’t start preserving the West, there won’t be much left to write about.
How do the stories of the West factor into your preservation ethic?
It’s not only story but also a way of life. Our way of life, the West in general, so many of our values, what make us human—so many of these things are changing rapidly. It is so important for writers to preserve this story. It is historic preservation in a written form. I’ve been fortunate that I do both. I work on place, as well as a story, a history, a concept.
Why focus on preserving Fort Stanton?
The governor of New Mexico appointed me to the Fort Stanton Commission, and we were assigned to find a way to save or preserve the fort. I knew the general story, but it was a love affair from the beginning, resulting in my book Fort Stanton. Once I saw the potential and learned the history, it was a no-brainer this place needed to be saved and not developed into a subdivision, as was proposed by some people who should have known better.
What other projects have you worked on or supported?
In addition to smaller projects, the project I loved the most—and for which I was a volunteer for about 10 years—was the restoration of the St. Joseph Apache Mission at Mescalero. That in turn inspired me and helped me learn more about Apaches.
What risks do you see to other historic places in the West?
I unfortunately see too many people with little regard for the past who wish to pave over or subdivide the lands, the historic sites and some of the landmark structures that represent who we became, especially in the West. We absolutely must leave a legacy for our children, who are so tied up in knots over high tech that they do not see the past as being important. So, there are many risks, and some successes that do give me hope.
What motivated you to raise awareness about improper artifact excavation, as modeled on such reality TV shows like National Geographic’s Diggers?
People enjoy watching this type of show, as they like to see what the diggers find. However, these programs are faked, and the history is usually at least half wrong. I also believe this encourages people to go out and dig indiscriminately. People love to discover. It is exciting to find a pot, an old pistol or a site where the ancients lived. I worked at Mesa Verde and in the land of the Maya. We were finding things. We were recording things. We didn’t just dig and take the item out of context. That is what these shows don’t really talk about. They just dig, giggle and at the end they have all of these artifacts out on the table and now the historical society or private landowner can have them. It is giving the wrong impression. It is sloppy. When younger people see that, they think they can go out on public or Indian lands and do the same. For example, once these digger programs were broadcast, people who loved the Oregon Trail found a lot of “pot-hunting holes”—places, and even graves, that had been dug up. By engaging in those activities, the “diggers” destroy what they really want to protect.
I’m not against the discovery part. It is the looting and the unintended consequences I despise. National Geographic is presenting an image contrary to the research they have backed for years.
How can an average person participate in preservation efforts?
Make sure your children are involved in history and understand their own hometown and its legacy. Volunteer for a museum or historical society, as they are desperate for help. If you work full time, at least take your children on weekend trips to parks, and historical sites—without their video games and iPads! Be role models in that manner. And, of course, there is always the donation route and a great need for money, because historic preservation is expensive.
As a teacher how did you encourage your students to appreciate history?
When I taught history, I asked my students to set aside time with one of their family members, preferably an older person, and get their story down. We put the best stories on file with the Lincoln County Historical Society, as 100 years ago from now those will be interesting and important. I got some really good stuff, including material about the Mexican Revolution and Apaches. That is another way I helped preserve the past. It wasn’t just my writing but passing on the ideas of preserving your family, your home, your community.
You encouraged the study of archaeology in the classroom?
I co-authored “Capture the Past for New Mexico’s Future” (with Linda Hart and Karl Laumbach), a curriculum for students from kindergarten to college that involved teacher training at weeklong workshops in Las Vegas, Silver City and Ruidoso, N.M. We taught the concepts of archaeology and incorporated it into language arts, science, math history and art. We also encouraged teachers and students to capture stories using the concepts of archaeological discovery and documentation. I was amazed at the results, and the enthusiasm of the children was stunning.
Can you share an example of how you’ve managed to inspire a younger person?
I enjoy presenting programs along with the book signings. At Alamogordo Public Library I had a group of folks that included a 12-year-old lady named Robin. I was surprised to see such a young face in the audience, so I watched her as I talked. She had come that day with her grandmother (who bought the book for her). I related the Apache story of how “old brown turkey got the white markings on his tail feathers.” It is a whimsical folk tale included in the book, and I had a turkey feather with me as show-and-tell.
As I finished up the story, the girl’s eyes were really watching that feather. So I walked over to her and her grandmother and asked, “Would you like to have this feather?” She nodded, and so she walked out of the room with the feather and book in hand and a smile on her face. I thought that was the end of my visit with her. However, after I completed the book signing, I noticed she was standing shyly by, and when everyone had gone, she came up to me and asked, “Could you please tell me how to become a writer? Could you help me?”
Now, that really grabbed me emotionally. Standing up, I gave her a hug and said you must work really hard in school, learn your English and history, travel and read. Have many experiences in your life that are adventurous, and don’t end up like your peers—texting and never talking to people. I gave her my card and suggested she give me a call whenever she wished to tell me how she was doing. That young lady made my day for a week!