Apache Sunrise ceremony: Celebration of puberty
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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