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Na he' ii e's
A sacred journey into womanhood


Story and photos by PAMELA WILLIAMS

The signs posted on the Yavapai-Apache Reservation read 'Sunrise Ceremony - This Weekend.' As I weave my truck around the cardboard structures, I search for signs of activity. Somewhere, the family who invited me to this occasion one month before, as a photographer, have set up camp. Putting away my white-man instincts of following written signs only, I pull over and look for smoke; a campfire. Ah-ha, follow the road past the cornfields and to the river.

Na he' ii e's is an Apache word for Sunrise Ceremony. The term comes from the reenactment of the creation story; the first woman's lifespan. First woman, Is cha na gle' se', came to Sedona in a log after being flooded out of the fourth world. Through her lifespan she bears a child, becomes old and then turns young again before leaving the earth.

This reenactment type of ritual is performed when a girl reaches the age of womanhood. It is a practice most common to the Apaches on the San Carlos and White Mountain Reservations in Arizona, and the Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico. The Tonto Apache of the Verde Valley desire to bring it back into their culture as well. Today the San Carlos Apache will teach them the old ways.

By the time I arrive at the camp, it is nearly dusk. A large fire flickers beneath four pots of boiling meat and one large pot of coffee. Near the rear of the camp, a wickiup has been built by the initiate. It is framed with 32 branches and has willow greens for fill. This is a metaphor for the womb; 32 represents the mother's ribs.

A second camp exists across the way. This one is for the godparents. As I sit by the fire with camera and notebook in hand, an elderly woman who has traveled from San Carlos, near Tucson, sits beside me. She is the young girl's advisor, and is in charge of showing her how to perform the four-day ritual and what each act symbolizes.

Following each step in detail is a crucial part of the tradition. The woman explains that earlier in the day she bathed the young woman in the spring water from Montezuma Well. This will be her last bath until the four days of ceremony are over.
She also explains that tomorrow morning, before the sun comes up, 16 loaves of bread must be made over the fire; four of four types. The girl has been taught to bake each of them in a precise manner by her godmother. They will be delivered to the camp of the medicine man and of the godparents before the first signs of sunlight. I thank her for the information, snap a few pictures and leave in preparation of the next day.

Friday Morning

The next day I wake before dawn. I proudly arrive at the camp by 4 a.m., only to find everyone else has been up for at least an hour.
The bread had already been delivered and now breakfast was being served. The day progressed with more guests and food arriving. Before long, the table became lined with cakes, cookies, and doughnuts from guests, interspersed with pots of beans, beef and homemade breads by the camp's head-cook.

A dressing ceremony is scheduled for 9 a.m. and starts at 10 a.m. The medicine man and his attendants are to conduct the ceremony. With them they bring a piece of rawhide, an abalone shell, a feather for the girl's hair and a necklace, which has a straw and scratcher attached to it. These things along with a cane with two eagle feathers attached, are placed before the girl on a blanket, in the wickiup.
Only family are allowed within.
The old woman motions for me to enter, but I am told not to take photographs. Songs of prayer are made before the godmother steps in to dress the girl. She attaches the stone on her forehead and then circles around her four times, clockwise. This ritual is repeated with every offering.

From this point on, the girl will not be able touch herself. If she needs her hair pulled back, the attendant or godmother must do so. If she perspires, a handkerchief is used to wipe her face. Her lips must not touch a cup of water; it must be sipped through the straw. And if she has an itch, the stick is used to scratch it. These things are done in honor of Tu'baa chis chin'e, 'daughter made of water', daughter of Is cha na gle' se', first woman.
The day is completed with food exchanges between the two camps along with dancing and drumming. By evening the girl will have danced to 32 songs, each representing the story of creation - a genesis of sorts.

Saturday morning

The day once more begins early. Upon my rather late arrival, the girl and her attendant are already in the field standing before the hide given earlier by the medicine man. They are donned in deer-hide dresses prepared by the godmother along with matching moccasins. A heavy-beaded necklace, also created by the godmother, lays upon the initiates chests.

The dresses are heavy and warm and the girls are already perspiring despite the cool morning air. The girl and her attendant must dance to 64 songs today. They have started early and will dance deep into the evening.
By late afternoon, the young girl is exhausted. Her godmother steps in and allows her to kneel on the hide. Her palms face toward the sun and she begins to sway to the drums pounding.

The motion represents the stage in creation when the daughter tries to entice the sun into a mating ritual. It is also done in reverence to the sun.
When finished, the girl lays down upon her stomach. She is then massaged by the godmother. This represents the churning of 'woman of water,' into form. The girl is also patted four times on the mouth. This represents the breath of life and that the initiate will be of careful speech.

The old lady whispers to me that this is something every teenager should go through. I laugh. The girl is then lifted up from the ground and begins to dance once again.
After the fourth song, the godmother takes the cane the girl has continued to carry and dance with throughout the ceremony, and places it at the end of the field.
The music stops and the girl runs around the cane as people from the crowd chase after her. This is done four times. It is to signify that the girl will be of good health into old age. The people who run after her will also receive a blessing.
My son joins in the activity with the other young children. I'm too tired to run and figure this is surely a sign that I will not be of good health into old age.
As the day draws to a close, and the guests and families have taken a break from the activities, more dancing ensues. This time it is led by the mountain spirit crown dancers. These four dancers led by a clown, bring blessings to the people.
This is an important part of the ceremony. Before their arrival, a tepee is constructed of four logs in the middle of the field. In some traditions the logs are each of a different tree. This time they are all Cottonwood.
Four evergreens have also been planted in the four directions. Each symbol holds great meaning. As the night comes to a close, the young girl metaphorically been transformed into an elderly Is cha na gle' se'.

The last day of dancing

The girl and the singers begin the day beneath the tepee-styled framework in the field. A white strip is painted beneath their eyes. More songs are sung as the crown dancers come again to perform.
A yellow pollen called Ho'dni din, is painted on the dancers in a cross-like fashion by guests and attendants; this gives blessings to them before they proceed.
Once the dancers are blessed, a whitewash mix is then created out of ash, water, and herbs. The crown dancers use the mix to paint the girl's head and face. It is equal to the ashen mixture Na ye'nis whan'e, first woman's grandson, blew over his grandmother to make her young again.
The godfather paints the girl as well. The two of them, led by the crown dancers, begin to move around the crowd, showering the encircled throng with the painted mixture.
White speckles sprinkle clothing and eyeglasses as elders hold out their hands in appreciation for the blessing. The young giggle at the sight. I ambiguously step in too, covering my camera lense as I await.
The ceremonial dancing is finished with the group falling in line behind the troupe of dancers. Guests circle about the four evergreens while plucking a piece off each tree upon passing.
The girl has now changed back to a young woman. Her cycles of rebirth are finished and she is transformed.

Finishing the ritual

It is Monday and most of the guests have gone home.
Early in the morning, the godmother comes to the camp to perform the undressing ceremony. The yellow rawhide dress, the four drums, burden basket, prayer feathers and all accessories are placed on a blanket and blessed.
Before departure, the girl promises to visit her godparents as often as possible in San Carlos. There she will continue to learn the ancient traditions of the Apache and bring them back to her people. It is then understood that the journey into womanhood that she has undergone is not only about a responsibility to herself but also to her people and their children. An act that surpasses a mere point in time.
Editors note: In an agreement with the Yavapai-Apache Nation, photographs of the Spirit Mountain Crown Dancers will not be published.

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