I stood watching the sun climb above the Sacramento Mountains. It was July 4 a couple years ago, too early for fireworks. I was in Mescalero for the maiden’s coming of age ceremony, also known as the Maiden’s Puberty Sunrise Ceremony. While this is called a sunrise ceremony, it doesn’t necessarily begin at sunrise. It starts when the Mescalero holy men say it’s time.
The four-day ceremony is a solemn, serious time when a girl child ends her girlhood and enters womanhood. Some events, like the one I’m watching this morning, are public. Others are private, for the young women and their sponsors alone. There’s also a rodeo and, at night, pow-wows and traditional dances. You’re welcome, even if you’re not Native American, but you must always conduct yourself with the proper respect. I’m a writer, but I couldn’t take notes. Cameras are not allowed. One woman told me, “What you take away from here, you take away in your heart.” That’s good advice. For more than just this Mescalero ceremony.
After the holy men bless a number of pine logs stripped of branches, they begin to chant. They are joined by a group of women wrapped in blankets and shawls and who contribute to the chant at appropriate times. Meanwhile, a group of men muscle each 30-foot-long log until it stands on end, holding it upright, while one man lashes the logs together at the top, forming a tepee. It’s arduous work.
When the men complete work on the ceremonial teepee, which includes laying a bed of reeds for a floor, creating sides from leafy branches of oak, and forming an east-facing entrance, the ceremony begins in earnest.
Three young women arrive, each wearing a white doe-skin dress decorated with intricate bead and quill work. In the hair of each girl are ribbons, the colors of which, I note, match the colors in the blankets and shawls of the women chanters. I wonder about the connection.
The ceremony this morning is simple. The girls run toward a basket. They run toward the east and return to the tepee where they started. The basket is moved closer and they run again, and again. The holy men lay each girl on her back, her face with sacred corn pollen. This is a re-enactment of the White Painted Woman or Changing Woman myth. This public ceremony ends with the girl’s receiving gifts from her people, but also their families share gifts with all participants. That morning, even I was welcomed and given a small gift of food.
At the end of the ceremony everyone is also invited to dine with the participants. There’s fry bread, stew, corn chowder, and other traditional dishes. Again I’m included. Everyone is Mescalero this morning.
For the rest of the day and the three following, the girls are subjected to rituals and recitations, praying and dancing throughout most of the nights as they demonstrate they have mastered the knowledge of Mescalero womanhood, their capacity to hear, and the strength and endurance that goes with being a woman.
What impressed me most about this simple, yet profound, ceremony was the time and energy invested by the tribe. You’d had to be there to appreciate that: felling and shaving logs, cutting enough oak branches to complete not only the lodge but an expansive arbor where families live during the ceremony, gathering all the other materials, along with the expense of food and gifts. The girl’s dresses are works of art and no doubt costly. This is serious business and it’s evident by the solemnity of the ceremony.
But more than that, this ceremony shows just how valued women are in Mescalero society. Traditionally, men and women each had distinctive roles. The tribe could not survive without each man or woman fulfilling their obligation to family and tribe. In modern times, roles of women and men have evolved, but women have not always been valued for who they are or what they contribute. They still aren’t. For a Mescalero girl facing womanhood, this isn’t the case. She may go to Harvard or Berkeley or Columbia. She may be a doctor or lawyer or CEO. But she’ll always have the confidence of her place in Mescalero society. She’ll always be certain of her heritage and how, on this special day, she was valued above all else.
If you’re parents of girls, or a woman who wonders what it would be like to be truly valued for who you are, I’d recommend this July 4 ceremony. Except for the early start, it’s pretty easy to do. Travel U.S. 70 to Mescalero. About a mile or so east of the village, is the rodeo grounds. You can see the grandstand from the highway. Find you way there. Find you way back in time to see your way into a brighter future.
The Mescalero Apache Tribal office phone is 575-464-4494.
Posted by Bud Russo
Explore! New Mexico