Apache Sunrise Ceremony

Apache Sunrise ceremony: Celebration of puberty

Hello everyone!sunrise ceremony

After doing some research, I decided to write about a ceremony with a beautiful meaning and spirit: the Sunrise Ceremony also known as a coming of age ceremony within the Apache culture. As information about the ceremony is available online, I felt it was not disrespectful to discuss it here. It seems to me to be more like a ritual, a rite of passage celebrating the coming of age of a young woman. It nonetheless remains a trying ceremony physically as well as spiritually, a ceremony we will examine together.


What is the Sunrise ceremony? What does it entail?

The Apache Sunrise ceremony or na’ii’ees is an arduous 4 day ceremony that an Apache girl goes through after her first menstruation (the “moon cycle”). The ceremony takes place in the summer following the girl’s first menstruation (always begins on a Friday). For four days and four nights, the girls will dance and run into the four directions (symbolizing the four stages of life, beginning in the east). The girls also receives and gives gifts, being introduced to their ability to heal. For over 70 years, however, the Sunrise ceremony was not permitted to be practiced as it was banned by the US government (as were most of native spiritual practices and rituals). With the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, the Sunrise ceremony could openly be practiced on reservations again.

apache girl, sunrise ceremony

Mixture of cornmeal and clay being applied

The ceremony often involves months of preparation and teachings beforehand. Making the girl’s symbolic attire and building the lodge requires time and effort. The girl also has to undergo a physical and demanding regime to strengthen her physical endurance. Her family is also involved, as they provide the food and gifts to those in attendance.

Once the ceremony begins, the girl is guided by the medicine man and her sponsor (a godmother who is spiritually strong and a model of wisdom) through many “events or stages”. This includes hours of dancing (increasing as the days go by) oftentimes in tandem with a partner she chooses. Running is also part of the ceremony with the girl running to the four directions. Overall, it is an intense physical ceremony for the girl. However, it is interspersed with massages from the girl’s sponsor to “mold her” into Changing woman or White Painted Woman (see below). It is also a spiritually intense ceremony, involving numerous hours of singing, chanting and praying.

girl being massaged, sunrise ceremony

Girl being massaged by her godmother during day 2

Finally, as you see from the pictures above and below, the girl is covered (let’s face it is more than a sprinkle) with a mixture of clay and corn meal that she cannot wash off for the four days (a test in mental strength right there!). During the last day of the ceremony, she blesses her people with pollen as well as gets in touch with her healing powers by healing those who seek her touch and blessing.

apche sunrise ceremony

What does the Sunrise ceremony re-enacts?

The Sunrise ceremony re-enacts the legend of White Painted Woman who survived the great flood in an abalone shell and gave birth to 2 sons after being impregnated first by the sun then by the rain. Her sons go on killing the Owl Man Giant who terrorized the tribe. At their return, White Painted Woman let out a cry of triumph and delight, often re-created by the girl’s godmother within the ceremony. Following her sons’ success, White Painted Woman established a puberty rite to be given to all daughters born to her people. When she becomes old, White Painted Woman walks toward east until she meets her younger self, merging into her younger self thus becoming young again and forever repeating the cycle.

A girl who goes through the ceremony of transition into womanhood is believed to be provided with special blessings. It is not for the faint of heart and is taken seriously by the young girl and her family. It involves a lot of preparation and a financial commitment on the part of the girl’s family (in modern days, families often combine so that the ceremony can be performed for more than one girl, reducing financial costs). The selection of a godmother also involves specific steps. Indeed, the godmother is not given any warning as to when she will be asked and is asked in the hours preceding the sunrise. An eagle feather and a turquoise stone are often brought and given in appreciation.

sunrise ceremony

The purpose of the Apache Sunrise ceremony

As one can see, the Sunrise ceremony is an intense one on many levels. Through the re-enactment of the story of White Painted Woman, it helps the young girl connect with her spiritual heritage, oftentimes for the first time. Through White Painted Woman, the girl surmounts her weaknesses and discovers her ability to heal and gets to know her spiritual sacredness and power. The young girl also learns what it means to become a woman. This is done first through the presence of menstruation and with her increase physical strength. I don’t know about you but it seems to me that the young girls going through this ceremony are strong and certainly demonstrate endurance through the training beforehand and the ceremony itself. I would compare it to the Sundance process including the years of preparation and the actual days of dancing.

The Sunrise ceremony, in a beautiful and organic way helps the young girl enter womanhood, experience hard work, heal others and even in the face of hard work and physical exhaustion, to present herself in a dignified and pleasant way. It is a ceremony of giving and receiving for both the girl and the community. It brings people, families and tribes together, providing a sense of unity. Just a beautiful ceremony with a strong meaning.

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28 thoughts on “Apache Sunrise Ceremony

  1. Anthony

    Love the post, thanks for sharing!
    Being of Chinese origin but having been born in the UK, I am fascinated by different cultures particularly when it comes to traditional healing methods.
    I’m glad I came across this post 🙂
    Keep up the good work!

  2. Julie

    Very interesting. I am originally from Northern Canada and lived very closely with the First Nations people from there growing up. Reading this reminded me of my childhood friends who were First Nations and the stories they would tell us about their culture. Thanks for researching this and writing about it. Great article!

  3. Steven Schmidt

    “Rite of passage” seems to be a thread that exists in most cultures which celebrates the move from child to adulthood.
    Some pacific cultures have a hair cutting ceremony, some western cultures have a big party. 🙂 In one way or another, it is a symbol of coming of age.
    Most north american tribes have some form of celebration as you have mentioned above and most have a spiritual significance as the spirit moves also into a new age as well. Native Hawaiians and New Zealand Maori also have a similar rituals.

    Great piece. Thank you.

    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Steven
      you are right coming of age ceremonies certainly exist within many cultures. The hair cutting or even hair growing is part of different nations. It’s nice to learn that spiritual ceremonies also take place in New Zealand 🙂

  4. Cat

    Wow, that is a fascinating ceremony! Great article too. I especially loved reading about the different things they actually do, the running and dancing and getting massages (at least they get some reprieve!). I can’t imagine being covered in that corn starch and clay mixture for a minute, let alone 4 days!! :/ Certainly a test of character that builds character and has a lot of deeper meaning to it. Wonderful, thank you for sharing!


    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Cat!
      I cannot imagine being covered in that mixture as well! Especially when doing physical work. A true test of strength and endurance

  5. Claire

    This is fascinating, Emily. I love learning about other cultures and their rituals.
    It’s beautiful that a girls’ passing into womanhood is celebrated in such an elaborate way.

    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Claire
      I find it beautiful too that the girls’ coming of age is celebrated in such a way. Such a deep meaning behind it

  6. Jerry Haugen

    I’m wondering if native people use sounds as a part of traditional healing. I understand there are drum ceremonies, singing, chanting and so on, but are any of these activities focused on dealing with individual health issues?

    1. Emily Post author

      hi Jerry
      yes drumming and singing are a very important part of the native way of life. Some ceremonies, like the yuwipi ceremony, are specifically for healing. Healing with prayers, a medicine man. Songs are also prayers

  7. S Bryant

    Many Indian ceremonies, including the Coming-of-Age Ceremony, were banned in 1883 by the U.S. as a violation of the Code of Indian Offences. When John Collier became Indian Commissioner from 1933 to 1945, under the Indian Reorganization Act, many of these ceremonies were brought back. This ceremony was brought back long before AIRFA of 1978.

    1. Emily Post author

      Yes indeed all ceremonies were banned under the Indian Act and punishable by jail or even death. So sad that the traditions of the ancestors were seen as evil and as something others were afraid of.

  8. tyler

    I’m an Apache of the San Carlos tribe. My cousin had her dance this past weekend and i was there dancing with the basket and i heard what the medicine man was talking.

    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Tyler
      thanks for sharing your experience with us! I really hope the ceremony went well for your cousin and for yourself 🙂

    1. Emily Post author

      that’s a very wide question. In this article, there is one Apache tradition discussed. But I am not sure which traditions you are referring to. Sometimes, some ceremonial or traditional info is also not to be shared publicly

  9. Marlon Goldsmith

    Quick question, what is your last name? I am doing an essay report and I must cite the author of the article. I know your first name is Emily (as it shows) but I feel that is not professional enough to put just the name “Emily.”

  10. Bloom

    I was wondering what sort of things happen on the last day of the ceremony? Is it any different to the rest of the days, or are all the days different? I was just wondering because the last day was so close to woman hood.

    1. Emily Post author

      The 4 days are quite intense to begin with, a mental, emotional and physical test. The goal is to make it through the 4 days. I don’t think there is any more “test” at the end no. But as I wrote “During the last day of the ceremony, she blesses her people with pollen as well as gets in touch with her healing powers by healing those who seek her touch and blessing”.


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