Rites of Passage: North American Indian Rites

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When Arnold van Gennep wrote about rites of passage, he commented that rarely do physical and social puberty converge. However, this rare convergence may occur as it is ritually performed by the Mescalero Apache in 'Isánáklésh Gotal. In this example the physiological changes in a girl as she reaches menarche are marked and accompanied by a change in social status. The meaning of this ceremony is embedded in the ritual transformation of the pubescent girl as she moves through the door of adolescence from one state of mind or spiritual being into the transformative state in which she incorporates the deity into herself and becomes 'Isánáklésh. If the ceremony is successful, she leaves behind the ways of childhood, and emerges as a responsible young Apache woman, able to carry on the Apache traditions and to bestow the gift of life.

In this ritual sequence, the tripartite schema of separation, transition, and incorporation that van Gennep identified as features of rites of passage collapses into one ceremony. Initially, the young girl is separated from her family and her usual daily activities to live in her own private tipi at the ceremonial site specifically constructed for her ceremony. In the preliminal rites of this stage of separation, she is without social status, no longer a child but not yet a woman.

During the process of ritual transformation she is in transition. In this state of liminality, the rites are designed to inscribe in her the traditional Apache knowledge and wisdom as she changes from girl to deity and then into a transformed female. After this stage, she is incorporated back into the community with a new social status. The postliminal rites involve using her new power by blessing those in the community who so request it. She is also allowed time to reflect back on the ceremony and the powerful changes she has just undergone.

Each of these stages is accompanied by sacred songs, which generate diye, power. They are used to distort the present time and return the participants to mythological time, when the deities were present on earth. They then bring time forward to the present by reenacting the myth, which becomes ceremony with its designated sacred rituals. Through song, the young girl is transformed into the deity and finally into a new Apache woman. This complex system is nourished through the rituals that are composed of symbols as the smallest component of the ceremony. The sacred meaning of ceremonies that have persisted over time is transferred to the Apache through these sacred symbols of power, which are used to distinguish ritual reality from everyday life. Without such symbols, the primary participants could not enter into the state of ritual, and thus be properly prepared for ceremonial transformation.

In Mescalero Apache cosmology, 'Isánáklésh is described as one of the five divine deities present at the time of creation. In those first days, she appeared with the lower ½ of her face painted with white earth clay and her body completely covered with yellow cattail pollen; she wore a necklace of abalone shell as she watched over all things growing on earth. Using her sacred power, diye, she ripened trees, plants, the flowers of the fields, fruits, and medicinal herbs. Her compassion and creative wisdom as healer provided information from the beginning of time about the animals, plants, and people in order to aid those who suffered from disease, injury, or distress. Before this time, healing knowledge did not exist. This myth or sacred narrative is critical for understanding the young woman's initiation ceremony and the religious values of Mescalero Apache, since 'Isánáklésh was the first young woman to receive this ceremony. The myth was given to the Apache people by 'Isánáklésh herself, and it is important because it provides the framework for the ceremony that is practiced today. In addition, if one reflects upon the myth, one begins to see the religious, intellectual, and aesthetic climate in which the ceremony takes its beginning and how these beginnings continue to influence the community today.

'Isánáklésh, the Apache female deity as a young pubescent girl, was given the first ceremony of initiation into womanhood by her parents, First Man and First Woman. She ran vigorously, danced vigorously, and thought deeply about how beautiful the ceremony was. She commented that it should be given as a gift to all Apache girls. This is the same female initiation ceremony that is celebrated today on the Mescalero Apache reservation. The ceremony serves to acknowledge the power of women, to teach young girls what they need to know to be good Apaches, and to restore 'Isánáklésh to her youth. When she begins to feel old, she has only to walk toward the young initiate as she runs to the east during her ceremony, and 'Isánáklésh will again be renewed in one of the religious transformations that occur during the ceremony.

The decision to have a ceremony for a young pubescent girl requires that she begin spiritual, physical and psychological preparations well in advance of her menarche. Inquiries are made about the past illnesses of the young girl, and the parents are asked about any traumas that have taken place that might affect the state of mind or the body of the girl. During the first morning, the medicine people pray so that the young girl can live without the past affecting her future. The teachings and symbols that are used in the young girl's instruction vary to some degree for each initiate, but the overall purpose of such instruction, as well as the ceremonial structure itself, is to convince the adolescent that she will undergo good and positive changes and live a good long life if she participates fully in the ceremony.

Today some of the girls require more convincing than others. Those who have been instructed from a very young age about the importance of the ceremony for a good healthy life and have been influenced continually by female kin, begin to anticipate their ceremony. Female kin begin to discuss the importance of the ceremony as they prepare for the feast at the time of a girl's first menstruation. Long before this, many prepubescent girls have observed and quietly listened as older girls are prepared for their ceremonies.

Whenever a ceremony is held, prepubescent girls will gather at the tipi to observe the initiate. It is clear that some of these girls gather around because they are interested to know what to expect when their feast occurs. Many times mothers or other women say to these little girls, "Go on up toward the front where you can see and hear everything better." And then the girls begin slowly to make their way through the crowd of people to the front of the ceremonial tipi. Young girls observing an initiate dancing in the sacred tipi will often remark: "I can hardly wait for my feast. My mother is preparing many special things for my ceremony. But I am a little scared."

At this young age, the initiates are considered to be soft and moldable; they are still capable of being conditioned and influenced by female kin. Some girls, it is said, are easier to convince about the importance of participating than are others. Some need to be awakened to their female identity; others, on the other hand, need to be calmed down and taught to be more feminine within the ritual design of the ceremony. Two concepts are at work here: One is awakening the initiate to the world around her and to her abilities, and the other is carefully calming down the unrestrained nature of adolescence. Both concepts, as well as the teachings that strengthen the concept of self, which is central to the transformative process, are nurtured and encouraged in the everyday activities of young Apache girls. Through the many life cycle ceremonies that mark the main transition periods of Apache life, these same rituals and symbols are engaged again and again.

Many women who experienced the ceremony themselves strongly urge their daughters and granddaughters to continue the tradition. Because of the elevated status of older women, a grandmother's wishes are taken seriously. Great efforts are made to share expenses and labor so that a family's final decision whether or not to hold a ceremony will be based primarily on family and kin support rather than on economic criteria. A ceremony represents an opportunity to demonstrate reciprocity with relatives. The family may also receive support from nonrelatives, usually friends who are concerned with the well-being of the young girl and her family.

In some families, preparations for the ceremony begin very early in a young girl's life. She is slowly and carefully guided away from her special childhood of minimal responsibilities. In a family where female kin have watched over her from the time of her birth, in adolescence she is suddenly placed in a demanding learning environment. Menarche signals a psychological as well as a physiological marker that the young girl is taught to recognize. Suddenly her life changes dramatically.

Today a girl's first menstruation is sometimes celebrated in the old way with a private feast, dahindah, which is usually attended only by family and close friends. The small ceremony includes pollen blessings for the young girls, songs, and a dinner for select relatives and friends. According to tradition, it is at this smaller rite that the family selects a gutaal chanter, singer, and a nade 'kleshn female sponsor. It is here also that they announce and set the time for the girl's feast, when she will symbolically run out of childhood and into womanhood. Although it is not the central ceremony, this rite is sacred, and for its duration the girl is referred to as 'Isánáklésh. She is sung over by a singer who emphasizes to her the importance of this intimate religious celebration, the gift of long life from 'Isánáklésh to a young changing woman.

This family gathering encourages the girl to begin her preparations for the rigorous physical, mental, and spiritual challenges that she will face during the more elaborate celebration. Young girls sometimes are reluctant to agree to participate in the ceremony. Whether it is shyness or fear of being the center of attention, girls may be hesitant to comply with their family's wishes. But in a traditional family, a girl's participation is expected and she is prepared carefully for this event long in advance. Once she accepts her role as an initiate, the demanding preparations begin. Her female relatives view the ceremony as a joyous religious occasion and put forth every effort to make the feast a special and solemn ceremony.

Nearly all girls had this ceremony in earlier times. The women must have recognized how difficult it was for young girls to live to a wise old age. Life was hard for women who were always on the move, gathering food resources, preparing and storing them, raising children, and attending to the ill and the elderly.

Today dahindah is usually given in families that are most traditional. Families that do not celebrate dahindah will announce the girl's feast in another way. The announcement itself enters the family into an obligation to hold the ceremony. In announcing the feast they are acknowledging 'Isánáklésh Gotal, and therefore they must adhere to the ceremony as it is set out in the myth and by tradition. To not follow through after making the announcement is to misuse sacred power and to risk danger.

As soon as possible after a girl's first menstruation, if she did not have a dahindah, her family should choose a gutaal. They approach the gutaal and ask: "We are here requesting your help to sing for our daughter." If he decides they are the "right family," meaning they are people who follow or respect the Apache traditional ways, he usually agrees. The family then offers the gutaal feathers, cigarettes, shells, and pollen as gifts in confirmation of the agreement. Then, in the family's presence, the gutaal prays that he will be in a good frame of mind for the ceremony, so that it will go well for all concerned. He prays for a clear mind and the strength to perform the rituals according to sacred tradition. The gutaal is responsible for assuring that everyone involved carries out his or her specific ritual roles in a sacred manner and according to tradition.

The family and relatives then begin to gather the ceremonial objects that will be placed in the special ceremonial basket. Expeditions are planned to the countryside in order to collect the pollen. One must wade in the river's edges for the white and red earth clays, and galena is usually gathered. The initiate is expected to participate in the gathering. She accompanies the older women and is instructed in the method of selecting and gathering the needed materials. Trips to collect yucca usually take longer, and other materials are gathered yearly when the season is right.

Extended kin and friends are asked to assist in the detailed preparation. Thus the preparations engender female bonds of solidarity and spirituality as all unite to give support to the initiate and her immediate family in planning for a successful ceremony. The family must also select a nade 'kleshn, a female sponsor, who will assume the responsibility of preparing their daughter for the ceremony. This woman will play an important role in the immediate preparation and in the actual ceremonial process. She will be like a mother and mentor to the initiate. Once selected, the family engages in appropriate gift giving to the nade 'kleshn just like for the initiate's singer. In this way, the ritual relationship is established and affirmed. This motherdaughter relationship will endure through the lifetime of the initiate.

Usually the nade 'kleshn is a woman who is well versed in the traditional ways and is respected in the community because she has lived her life in an exemplary manner. In one case, when the initiate's family arrived at the house of the woman whom they had chosen, the morning star was still bright in the sky. Timing here is important, as the morning star is to be the guide for the initiate's future. The family brings pollen to the woman and makes the request of her to be nade 'kleshn for their daughter. A woman must never refuse such a request; to do so would be considered a refusal of 'Isánáklésh. In this way, the ritual familial relationship is established and affirmed.

The nade 'kleshn begins to instruct the young girl as soon as the family has selected and engaged her. The instruction centers on this basic message to the initiate: "So far your life has been simple and easy. You have had very little responsibility. Now I need to prepare you for what to expect as a woman." The basic instruction includes how the girl is to deal with her first menstruation and her subsequent monthly periods. The nade 'kleshn teaches her about hygiene, as well as about pregnancy and childbirth.

Much is expected from a young woman who has a feast. Her preparation focuses on her future responsibilities to her people, to her self, and to her country. Self-worth is emphasized; the girl learns to understand that her life has a greater purpose. Her people need her in order that their culture can continue, because now she is a carrier of those traditions. This religious, cultural, and historical training instills in the adolescent a strong conviction of self and cultural esteem. It empowers her to comprehend and value the uniqueness of her Apache heritage, and thereby alleviate many problems of identity that most teenagers experience. The nade 'kleshn teaches and differentiates among the girl's future roles: her roles as wife, as mother, as a member of the Apache culture, and as an Apache woman. She deals with the problems and advantages of living in two cultures, the American and the Apache, and learns how to respect both. In addition, the nade 'kleshn emphasizes the girl's responsibilities as a member of both cultures. She relates all her instruction to the actual upcoming ceremony. It is through the experience of being cared for by the nade 'kleshn and her female relatives that the initiate will learn the value of caring for others.

In having the sensation of being cared for by others, she learns and experiences the good feelings such care generates. She then will extend such caring to others in the future. The nade 'kleshn emphasizes the importance of education, in the ways of the Apache culture as well as the dominant society's educational system. Both types are important in order to be a successful woman and member of the tribe. Great attention is paid to the structural details of the ritual activity, symbols, Apache philosophy, aesthetics, and their corresponding meanings. The nade 'kleshn explains to the initiate how to understand and incorporate the important cultural elements that she will now be charged to maintain and live by. After her ceremony she will be in a position to one day guide another young girl in her own feast preparations and ceremony.

The instruction also includes certain restrictions. The young girl learns a series of taboos, some related to food, water, and rain. She must avoid looking at a rainbow because of the power that this natural phenomenon generates. During the ceremony, she is also instructed on other specific restrictions: She must not smile or act in a lazy or tired manner, or display a negative attitude. She must not scratch herself with her fingernails but must use the designated scratching stick created for such purposes. During the ceremony she cannot drink water directly but must use a special drinking tube when she wants water. She is told to be careful with her words, how she speaks, and how she acts among the people. If she follows this advice, she will never be put in a position of shame, and she will always be respected.

The nade 'kleshn reviews the entire ceremony with the initiate so that the girl will be well prepared and know what is happening and what it means. She explains how she will be washed, bathed, and fed, about the songs, and how she must run towards the east and dance vigorously. She will be blessed in the manner in which she must bless others. She will be taught her part in starting the ceremonial fire, and she will be given knowledge of the symbolism that is used throughout the ceremony.

The girl learns the importance of generosity through the example of her family, who must provide large quantities of food and other materials for the guests for four days. In the early 1990s a single private feast cost nearly $10,000. Some families begin saving for their daughter's feast at her birth. The fact that families continue to hold ceremonies for their daughters illustrates how much they value and depend on women to carry the culture and people into the next generations. By reenacting the origins of Mescalero culture, the ceremony continually ensures cultural continuity into the future.


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