Apache Puberty Rite

By: Rico Leffanta

Although most Southwestern Indian groups believe they emerged from the center of the earth, Apaches believe N'dee ("The People") began when "Changing Woman" (Is dzán naadleeshe') was washed ashore and emerged from a sea shell.

"NA-IH-ES", the Apache puberty rite popularly called the "Sunrise Ceremony", dramatizes this creation story and, in the process, the girl becomes Is dzán naadleeshe' with Changing Woman's power to heal the sick and restore goodness among N'dee.

Like thespians around the world, Apaches know "To be Is dzán naadleeshe' act like Is dzán naadleeshe'!" so selection of the abalone shell is just as important as selection of eagle feathers and the diiyin who will direct every aspect of the ceremony (Diiyin is popularly translated as 'medicine man' by Christians who don't believe women can receive power from God (it seems Christian women can only receive power from the Devil, or dark side, so Christian women can become witches, but not Catholic priestesses, nor Mormon bishopesses, etc.); the correct translation is "one who has power").

These choices are not acts of reason, but inspiration, i.e., the diiyin will determine the most propitious time and place to hold the ceremony. If the skies open up and dump seven inches of rain onto the dance ground, churning the land into a river of mud, the Sunrise Ceremony isn't "rained out"; it becomes a sacred test of the girl's belief, her ability to withstand hardship, and to maintain control of her own destiny.

The only "set" for this ceremony is the Gowa'a, four poles lashed together, each aligned to one of the four sacred directions and decorated with appropriate symbols and/or artifacts. Their sacred purpose is indicated with eagle feathers strung above the entrance to the East. This recreates the time and place where Is dzán naadleeshe' became a woman.

It is said that one morning Is dzán naadleeshe' sat cross-legged in front of her gowa'a, praying with arms outstretched to the sun, bending low to touch Mother Earth on the North side, then on the South side, a challenging movement not taught in aerobics classes!

Because she was naked (At that time, there were no critics to censure our Creator's work, nor envious people demanding she must conceal her charms with fashions of their choosing, or be confined) eventually a red beam of light from the sun shot between her legs, penetrating her and causing menses (her first period).

Thus primed, 4-shortly thereafter she became pregnant and gave birth to Naye' nazgháné; ("Slayer -of -Monsters") and, 4-shortly thereafter, became pregnant and gave birth to Túbasdeschine ("Born-of-Water-Old-Man"), who made the world habitable for N'dee.

There is no question Is dzán naadleeshe' was one tough lady!

Women today just don't have the hide to rock back and forth on bare earth, so today, a tarp is usually spread on the ground with soft blankets piled on top and covered with a deer hide to which an eagle feather tied to a turquoise stone has been affixed.

In front of the blankets will be one large basketful of blessings (táts'aa' - the Apache "burden basket" favoured by museums around the world) in the form of goodies the diiyin will eventually pour over the girl's head, a small basket of cigarettes for blowing smoke to the spirit world, and a basket of a good-medicine pollen mixture N'dee will use to bless the Ga'an ("Crowndancers") and the girl during the ceremony. Stretching East in a neat line from the baskets will be boxes of food, soda pop, and snacks. People who attend the ceremony without an invitation should have the courtesy to contribute a watermelon, case of soda pop, etc. to this line of goodies.

The girl will always face East, so her family will always be on her right (South) and her sponsor(s) will always be on her left (North).

The diiyin and singers will be standing directly behind her, covering their mouths as they sing so malevolent spirits can't sneak in to create mischief whilst the singers mouths are open.

As a sacred ceremony, it is improper for anyone to get between the girl and the sun or to block the stream of sunbeams, so traditional Apaches and guests never go on the east side, where white people invariably go with their 50-yard-line attitude that it is best to be in the dead center to see all the action.

Until recently, photography was forbidden - and it is likely to be banned again because so many white people stick a tripod and camera/video camera on the east side. They would, I'm sure, be upset if some tourist stuck a video camera on a tripod in the middle of the altar inside their church during a ceremony, but because the Ceremony isn't being held in their church, they think it is OK to desecrate someone else's sacred ceremony.

Apache Ga-an (called "Devil Dancers" by Christians, otherwise known as "Crowndancers") invariably arrive to purify the site.

Ga-an are impersonators of Mountain Spirits who, like disciples of Christ, are charged with using instruction and guidance to banish evil.

It is easy to identify children of traditional Apaches because, like Christ and Santa Claus, the Ga-an "know when you've been bad or good", so the Ga-an need only stop or stare at anyone with a guilty conscience and that kid will take off running like a jack rabbit with a coyote at its heels!

As everyone will witness, when the clown targets evil, its a 4-Ga-an conclusion evil will retreat, just as missionaries do when they see the Ga-an in action!

Although "Everything must be done exactly as it has always been done", Ga-an dancing with evergreen boughs is rarely seen anymore because 20th century Apache skin does not deflect pine needle punctures like 19th century Apache skin!

Also, to the horror of Christians and government agents everywhere who insist the required "camp dress" is now "traditional", the girl dancing in this photo is just wearing buckskin, exposing bare arms and who-knows-what-else to view!

As a sacred ceremony, I don't think its proper to reveal all to non-traditional Apaches. There are several books and papers purporting to reveal all the secrets of NA-IH-ES and Apache medicine, none of which I would recommend. Some of them quote sources of information who are not Apache, and others quote Apaches who have no real knowledge, or tell people just what they want to hear.

Why do Catholics cross themselves? Non-Catholics around the world have been to the movies and "know" Catholics cross themselves to ward off vampires and other malevolent spirits.

Catholics were outraged to find "their" cross was a sacred symbol to Native Americans, but found it better to kill them as heretics than to discover what the cross meant to a Native American. So, it seems to me, if you really want to know the secret rites and rituals, go to the source and apprentice yourself to an expert. A mushroom in one hand brings delight, in another hand, it kills, and always bear in mind that diiyin are people, and as such, they have good days when everything goes exactly as planned, and they have bad days when nothing seems to work and the limits of their power are truly tested.

The purpose of these pages is simply to reveal that, in Apache eyes, having a period doesn't make a girl into a woman. She must satisfy herself, tribal elders, the community, and the spirit world that she has earned the right to be recognized as a woman!

To a modern Apache girl, earning that right is not a bed of roses! She will be busy throughout the four holy days (and nights!), unable to wash herself, scratch herself (except with the anointed stick) or drink (except through the anointed tube).

She won't be able to stop when she wants a break, sit when she is tired nor enjoy many other "freedoms" today's youngsters take for granted.

The girl can count on the support of a friend who previously completed her own Sunrise Ceremony.

She can also count on her sponsor and all the tribal women- especially the elderly! - keeping a keen eye on her, looking for the slightest flaw in her "performance", and each one will take delight in being the first to notice it! If her hands are not held exactly right, if her posture slumps one little bit, or her head is tilted, or her cane doesn't strike the ground exactly right, or the bells don't tinkle loud enough, or for almost every conceivable reason the girl may be criticized - or remembered forever after - for not doing something exactly right!

So this ceremony is not only a reminder of history, clan, traditions, etc., nor just a test of physical stamina and discipline, it is also a critical test of the girl's social skills.

In the days of Geronimo, Apaches were in control of their lives and at home in their environment, so it was relatively easy to hold NA-IH-ES as required.

Today, legislation controlling eagle feathers and other endangered species (plants and animals) makes planning a ceremony an expensive, time-consuming bureaucratic nightmare!

Congress has made it abundantly clear that "Freedom of religion" does not extend to Native Americans!

In fact, many ceremonies - including the Apache puberty rite for boys, are prohibited by law. Diiyin are prohibited from designating the place for a ceremony because now there are laws governing public assembly, EPA, etc., laws which - in some abstruse way - do not apply to Evangelists who want to hold a revival on the Reservation!

For this reason, many NA-IH-ES ceremonies are held at the "Old Fairgrounds" where Christians and the BIA can observe and list the names of "sinners" and "miscreants" clearly unsuitable for employment, and complain about the noise of drums and singing wafting up and down the river, and echoing off the cliffs.

Nothing irritates a Christian more than seeing other people enjoying life, especially when those people are spending money the churches need in tithes! After Caesar has been paid and everything settled to government satisfaction, the four-day ceremony begins with a sweat bath in the morning, after which the girl's accoutrements are fashioned and the sponsor(s) sends a gift of prepared food to the girl's camp.

As the sun sets, bikee'ilzéé ("Dressing Her") begins; the diiyin sets out the girl's accoutrements (feathers, shell, pick stick, drinking tube, scarf, buckskin, and cane) and gives her instructions and guidance whilst her sponsor affixes the accoutrements.

Prayers are proffered, the sun sets, and the girl begins her dance into history.

Before sunrise of the second day of the ceremony, the diiyin and both camps are busy preparing for the l-o-n-g day and night they face, because all must be ready when the girl begins dancing at sunrise.

This part of the ceremony is called bildeenilkéé translated as "All alone she dances"

In fact, she invariably begins dancing with an experienced friend, i.e., one who has already experienced her own NA-IH-ES. It is not unusual to find the girl dancing by herself on the third morning of the ceremony simply because everyone else ran out of steam during the previous day - or night!

The diiyiin usually stands behind the girls, leading the singers in gohzhoosih ("Songs of harmony" i.e., beauty, goodness, etc.), groups of 4 songs (chants) which Apaches believe were originally sung by Is dzán naadleeshe'.

No one seems the least concerned that songs composed and sung by "Changing Woman" are now sung by men (I have never seen a woman singing with the singers. Apache men tell me that is because Apache women can't sing; Apache women say it is because men do the singing).

What is certain, is the girl must dance to each of the songs, and must dance to the complete satisfaction of all who attend the ceremony.

Opthamologists would cringe at the mere thought of a girl, head held high, eyes fixed on the rising sun, dancing hour after hour after hour staring into the sun, but she has no respite!

She can't run off to the toilet when her bladder wants to go. She can't sit down where she is, never mind sitting under the shade of a tree! She can't squat to give her legs a rest; she must stand straight and tall, dance correctly to every beat, ensuring her cone bells jangle with the required vigor, knowing critical eyes are watching every move she makes, looking for any hint of an expression which might reveal fatigue, dehydration, or any other sign of weakness.

The more she dances, the higher the sun rises, and the hotter she gets under her heavy buckskin and campdress. Sometimes her friend will use a beautiful handkerchief to wipe the salty sweat dripping into her eyes. Invariably the eyes of that friend will register that concern, the compassion, and empathy for the girl's personal struggle to continue dancing with honour.

After a few hours of watching the girl dance under the hot sun (or pouring rain) non-Apaches usually comment, "Even if I was born an Apache, you would never get me to do that!" - especially after the friend is relieved from "duty" by the Sponsor, and the Sponsor doesn't offer empathy, but demands renewed performance to the required standard!

After the requisite songs have been sung, the girl gets to "sit". Some girls sit crosslegged, but most girls will kneel (which makes it more challenging to be penetrated by a shooting red sunbeam, but satisfies modern morality). Either way is most uncomfortable because niztah ("sitting") recreates that moment in time when Is dzán naadleeshe' was penetrated by a sunbeam. During the requisite groups of four songs (chants), the girl must hold her hands in an acceptable way at an acceptable height swaying from North to South in an acceptable manner.

The girl is likely to be frequently corrected by the Diiyin, her sponsor, or any number of women during this stage of the ceremony.

You won't find this movement in any exercise routine because it is very physically challenging, especially after a few repetitions!

Niztah is the most photographed part of this ceremony, possibly due to the variety of expressions which flit across the girl's face, often ranging from agony to ecstasy.

All eyes are riveted on the girl as she sways back and forth, but the most interesting eyes are those of pre-pubescent girls questioning their own ability to do Niztah!

It is difficult for me to chose the "best" niztah photograph. The University of Arizona Press chose this one for the cover of "ARIZONA: The Land and The People" because they liked the expression on Jerilyn Gloshay's face; I like it because if ever there was to be a photograph of holy hands, Jerilyn's beautiful hands - open to the light of heaven - would be my choice. Clearly the hands of an healer, not an handmaiden!

I took many photographs of Tonita Hill, who must be the only girl in Apache history who could consistently sway from touching Mother Earth on the North to touching Mother Earth on the South; it doesn't seem humanly possible to bend so low, song after song.

I have one photo of Tammy Thomas the tabloids would probably pay a pretty penny for because in that photo, Tammy looks exactly like Sophia Loren instead of a young Apache girl.

But no matter how wonderful their performance, how magnificent their dress, nor how inspirational the moment may be, the memory which endures is the look in their eyes, that honest expression of a glorious world we all believe must exist.

After hours of strenuous movement, niztah ends, and the girl can look forward to a massage.

That sounds great, but niztii ("lying") isn't some grand adventure in lomilomi land! As can be seen in this photo, the massage is placing a moccasined foot where it can do some good, i.e.stepping on strained/sore muscles to make the girl fit for her next physical challenge.

People usually think the girl must be grateful for an opportunity to lay down, but if you look closely at this photo, you will see Gail Case is straining to keep her head up high in the required position.

Try that for a minute or two, then imagine yourself doing it through the required groups of 4 songs/chants with someone stomping all over your body!

After her "refreshing" massage, the girl gets to race against time.

Gishshizhaahá bidaa leedilyee ("Cane set out she runs around it")

requires the girl to dance, then run around a cane and back to her position so fast no one can catch her.

Each time she succeeds, the diiyin doesn't reward her by moving the cane closer and making it easier for the fatigued girl; the diiyin - oviously using inspiration as a guide - moves the cane further and further East, so she can run further and faster! After four times of running around the cane to the East, she gets to run around the cane to the South, West, and North.

Those who grow weary of chasing her may stop to rest, but the girl must continue to outrun their replacements!

I well remember the Apache runner, Heidi Quesada's NA-IH ES because Heidi ran around the cane so fast she was back in position before the dust hit the ground!

When Heidi ran to the West, she was back in postion before anyone else reached the cane!

After outrunning everyone and continuing to dance under the hot, desert sun, the girl faces what many girls describe as the most frightening part of the ceremony:

kéni naayiziid ("Candy, it is poured").

Not many people are willing to risk a camera by trying to take a photo of the "burden basketful of blessings" being dumped over the girl's head.

The instant the diiyin turns over the burden basket, hands appear from every conceivable direction to snatch the blessings (usually in the form of coins, candy, gum, etc.).

Some girls are clearly terrified by the sudden sea of hands thrust in their direction!

Not surprisingly, Apaches are not accustomed to being mobbed! - or being among so many outstretched hands in such a small area.

And, as if she wasn't hot enough, being completely enveloped by hot, sweaty bodies usually leaves the girl gasping for fresh air. But that air will be filled with dust caused by people rushing to grab every bit of food from the long line of blessings which once stretched East to her cane.

But, as every Apache knows, time continues to pass and her circumstance will change.

So in no time at all, she is back in position, dancing, whilst cigarettes and pollen are distributed for the next stage, baana'ildih ("Blessing her").

By this stage of the ceremony, the girl is well on her way to becoming an Is dzán naadleeshe' impersonator, i.e., a temporary recipient of Changing Woman's power.
If the girl is considered to have great power, or comes from a large family, or has some standing in the community, her trial is just beginning.

She must continue dancing whilst everyone queues up to bless her, then her sponsor, then the diiyin and finally, the eagle feather on the buckskin, a ritual blessing which sometimes seems to last for ever !!!! - especially when many people attend the Ceremony!

First she will be blessed by the Diiyin, who will sprinkle an handful of pollen-based good-medicine over her head, as can be seen in this photo of Apache Diiyin Bert Hinton blessing a girl.

Then prayers are offered whilst sprinkling the power over the sponsor. Then prayers are offered whilst sprinking power over the diiyin. Then prayers are offered whilst sprinking power over the eagle feather.

Some people find more to pray about than others, so sometimes it appears the line doesn't move at all, yet the girl must continue dancing, healing, keeping the power flowing.

Behind the Diiyin will be singers or other people of power, then usually men, followed by women, and in between the sick in mind and body seeking the healing touch of Is dzán naadleeshe'.

Much has been written about NA-IH-ES healing, but most of it differs from what I have actually observed, e.g., the girl DOES hold a sick baby (and lifts it up high above her head), and the girl WILL touch and massage a patient's body when directed to do so by the Diiyin. The fact that, after hours of activity under the desert sun, having the strength to lift anyone is quite an accomplishment!

Similar to most healing ceremonies, when the power is there, it is evident and everyone feels better for being there.

After blessings are finished, everyone but the clean-up crew return to their camps for more singing, dancing, and preparation for the night ceremony. The clean-up crew remove all the rubbish,unload and pile up all the firewood, then lay out the site so people can navigate - and dance - safely in the black of night.

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