July 28, 2006

Apache Girls Enter Womanhood

Coming of Age in Whiteriver, Arizona

Photos and text by
Mark R. Day

Every summer, one of the most sacred ceremonies of the Apache nation takes place in Whiteriver, Arizona. These ancient puberty rites for girls, based on the “Changing Wo-man” myth, are guided by a medicine man and celebrated with careful attention to detail.

Franciscan Father Eddie Fronske says that the Apaches are a prayerful people and that Christians should respect their rituals. Regrettably, he says, most churches frown upon them as pagan and discourage their members from attendance.

“Just look at the faces of the people,” said Fronske at a recent Sunrise Dance. “Rarely do you see such depth of religious devotion anywhere.”


Iris received eagle feather from Godmother, Audra Pinal.

Fronske, who has served as pastor of St. Francis Church in Whiteriver for the past seven years, has gained the trust of the tribe and often speaks out against racism that the Apaches experience in the surrounding community. He said that during a recent high school basketball game, the fans of a rival team chanted, “Hey, hey, we aren’t Apaches, Can’t you see, we pay taxes!”

The Ceremonies

Fronske recently invited a small group of guests to the coming-of-age ceremonies near White River. The events began on a Friday with a “dressing ceremony” at dusk. The family and friends of Inez and Iris Billy enter their campground in a procession, chanting songs to the beat of drums. The dressing, consisting of buckskin blouses, beads, mirrors and feathers, is done by the girls’ Godmother, Audra Pinal. The girls also receive decorated canes, symbols of health when they reach old age.

The Sunrise Dance begins early Saturday morning and lasts until noon. Medicine man Larold Pinal directs the ceremonies, assisting his wife Audra in giving instructions and advice. At one point, they help the girls lie prostrate on Mother Earth, a gesture similar to that of young men being ordained Catholic priests. An abundance of food and gifts are also offered to the young women in rows of baskets.


Inez and Iris pray with Godmother Audra Pinal.

Toward the end if the ceremony, tribal members bless the girls in the sign of the cross with holy pollen. Meanwhile, tribal members dance, sometimes in pairs of six people. The dance is a simple two step—as if walking in place—and moving six steps forward and six steps backward. Most often the women invite the men to dance. “The Apaches call it ‘massaging Mother Earth,’ said Fronske.

On Saturday evening, the girls join other young women who have been recently initiated into womanhood by standing in a row near a giant bonfire. As the drums and chants begin, a group of crown dancers, representing Mountain Spirits dance nearby. Soon the girls join the dance, imitating the gestures of the Mountain Spirits who will protect them from evil influences.

The ceremonies conclude on Sunday morning with additional rituals and dances. Apache elders say these ceremonies serve many functions—bringing clan relatives together, encouraging moral behavior and increasing self-esteem among young Apache women. The Apaches say, “Changing Woman never died and she will always live.”

For info on these ceremonies see: www.peabody.harvard.edu/maria/sunrisedance.html

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