Apache Female Puberty Sunrise Ceremony
copyright 1999 by Tika Yupanqui (Tracy Marks)





Introduction to the Apache Sunrise Ceremony

What is the Apache Sunrise Ceremony?
What myth does the Sunrise Ceremony re-enact?
What purpose does it serve for the girls who experience it?
What does the ceremony involve?
Who participates in the Sunrise Ceremony? 
When and where is it celebrated today?
How does it resemble puberty ceremonies of other tribes?
How can I learn more about it?

What is the Apache Sunrise Ceremony?
The Apache Sunrise Ceremony or na'ii'ees  is an arduous communal four-day ceremony that Apache girls of the past and present experience soon after their first menstruation. Through numerous sacred ceremonies, dances, songs, and enactments, the girls become imbued with the physical and spiritual power of White Painted Woman, and embrace their role as women of the Apache nation. 

For most of the four days and nights, to songs and prayers, they dance, as well as run toward the four directions. During this time, they also participate in and conduct  sacred rituals, receiving and giving both gifts and blessings, and experiencing their own capacity to heal. 

In the early 1900s, when the U.S. government banned Native American spiritual practices and rituals, conducting the Sunrise Ceremony was an illegal act; as a result, its practice diminished, and those ceremonies that did occur were conducted secretly. 

Not until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed, was the Sunrise Ceremony openly re-established on most reservations. But even today, because of the expense and time involved - which also includes four days of preparation and four days of teaching and recovery - some girls celebrate for one or two days, rather than have four day ceremonies. The families of girls entering puberty in a particular year may also sponsor joint Sunrise ceremonies, in which two or more newly menstruating girls celebrate the rites of Changing Women together.

What myth does the Sunrise ceremony re-enact?
The first woman, White Painted Woman (also known as Esdzanadehe, and Changing Woman) survives the great Flood in an abalone shell, then wanders the land as the waters recede. Atop a mountain, she is impregnated by the sun, and gives birth of a son, Killer of Enemies. Soon afterwards, she is impregnated by the Rain, and gives birth to Son of Water. 

However, the world the People live in is not safe until White Painted Woman's sons kill the Owl Man Giant who has been terrorizing the tribe. When they return from their victory, bringing the meat they have hunted, White Painted Woman expresses a cry of triumph and delight, which later will be echoed by the godmother at the Sunrise Ceremony. She then is guided by spirits to establish a puberty rite to be given for all daughter born to her people, and to instruct the women of the tribe in the ritual, and the rites of womanhood.

When she becomes old, White Painted Woman walks east toward the sun until she meets her younger self, merges with it, and becomes young again. Thus repeatedly, she is born again and again, from generation to generation.

What purpose does it serve for the girls who experience it?
The Sunrise Ceremony serves many purposes - personally, spiritually and communally - and is often one of the most memorable and significant experiences of Apache females today, just as it was for Apache women in the past.

First, by re-enacting the Creation myth, and personifying White Painted Woman, the girl connects deeply to her spiritual heritage, which she experiences, often for the first time, as the core of her self. In her connection to Changing Woman/ White Painted Woman,  she gains command over her weaknesses and the dark forces of her nature, and knows her own spiritual power, sacredness and her goodness. She also  may discover her own ability to heal.

Second, she learns about what it means to become a woman, first through attunement to the physical manifestations of womanhood such as as menstruation (and learning about sexuality), as well as the development of physical strength and endurance. The rigorous physical training she must go through in order to survive four days of dancing and running is considerable, and surviving and triumphing during the "sacred ordeal" strengthens her both physically and emotionally. Most Apache women who have experienced the Sunrise Ceremony say afterwards that it significantly increased their self-esteem and confidence. When it ended, they no longer felt themselves to be a child; they truly experienced themselves as "becoming woman."

Third, the Apache girl entering womanhood experiences the interpersonal and communal manifestations of womanhood in her culture - the necessity to work hard, to meet the needs and demands of others, to exercise her power for others' benefit, and to present herself to the world, even when suffering or exhausted, with dignity and a pleasant disposition. Her temperament during the ceremony is believed to be the primary indicator of her temperament throughout her future life. 

Not only does she give to the community - food, gifts, healings, blessings, but she also joyfully receives from the community blessings, acceptance and love. Throughout the ceremony, she receives prayers and heartfelt wishes for prosperity, wellbeing, fruitfulness, a long life, and a healthy old age. 

Finally, the Sunrise ceremony serves the community as well as the girls entering womanhood. It brings extended families and tribes together, strengthening clan obligations, reciprocity and emotional bonds, and deepening the Apache's connection to his or her own spiritual heritage.

What does the ceremony involve?
The Sunrise Ceremony involves extensive preparation and teaching, often lasting six months or more before the ritual begins. Much of the preparation, such as creating the girl's highly symbolic costume, and building the lodge, requires following complex procedures and rituals; another facet of preparation is a physical regime oriented toward strengthening the girl's physical endurance. Her family also is engaged in extensive food preparation, since throughout the ceremony, they will be providing food and gifts to all participants and visitors. 

Once the actual ceremony begins, the girl is guided by her sponsor and the medicine man through its many stages, including hours each day and night of dancing (the number of hours increasing each day and night), often in tandem with a companion whom she chooses as a means of support through the ceremony.  Rituals of running are also important - running east toward the sun at dawn, and running toward all four directions - symbolically through the "four stages of life." 

Other features of the ceremony include:  re-enacting Changing Woman's story, the massaging  the girl's body by her sponsor so that she is "molded" into Changing Woman, singing, chanting and praying throughout most of the night, the nightly dances of the Ga'an or Mountain Spirits and accompanying clown, and the throwing of buckskin blankets toward the four directions. 

The girl is also painted (actually covered) with a sacred mixture of cornmeal and clay, which she must not wash off throughout the entire ceremony. During the last day, she blesses her people with pollen, as well as "heals" all members of her tribe who seek her healing touch and blessing; she also receives many gifts from her people.

Who participates?
Most of the extended family of an Apache girl are involved in preparing her puberty ceremony. The most central figure is the sponsoring godmother, followed by the medicine man and Gans Crown Dancers.

The family take special care in choosing the godmother, who will be a role model and have a special relationship with the girl throughout her life. As her primary attendant in the Sunrise ceremony, the godmother will dance with her both day and night, massage her, help inspirit her and care for her when she is exhausted, give her food and drink, and prepare a huge dinner for all her relations. She therefore  must be strong, energetic and committed. 

When choosing a godmother, the family visits her residence at dawn, and places an eagle feather on her foot, offering her also a prayer stone and gifts as they request her to serve as godmother to their daughter. They may only ask four godmothers; acceptance is indicated by picking up the feather from her foot.

The medicine man also has an important role, and must be approached in a similar manner. He will preside over much of the ceremony, chanting dozens of songs and prayers, and both orchestrating and paying the singers and drummers that will accompany him.

Another female relative, usually an older sister or cousin, is also actively involved, dancing along with the girl throughout much of her ceremony, supporting her when her energy flags.

When and where is it celebrated today?
Today, approximately one third of Apache girls are believed to have a Sunrise puberty ceremony - whether for four days, one day, or jointly shared with other girls of a similar age. The White Mountain Apaches of Arizona and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation sponsor about twenty Sunrise ceremonies per year, most occurring from Friday-Monday in spring or summer.  Public ceremonies which outsiders may attend, and which involve several girls, occur on the Fort Apache reservation and the Mescalero reservation of New Mexico on July 4th weekend.

The work involved in sponsoring a sunrise ceremony is enormous, as is the cost, which approximates $10,000 per ceremony. The sponsoring godmother must be paid, as must the medicine man and the Gans dancers, and food must be provided for four days to the entire community. In addition, the girl's White Painted Woman costume and adornments are costly. For these reasons, extended families contribute their time and/or money, and girls may sometimes wait a year or more so that their families may join with other families to share the expenses and workload of preparing the ceremony with the families of other girls soon to enter puberty.

How does it resemble puberty ceremonies of other tribes?
Many other tribes, such as the Wintu and Papago,  celebrate a girl's coming of age into womanhood, and  have rituals commemorating this change of life. The ceremonies of other southwestern tribes, especially the kinaalda of the Navajo, which also honors Changing Woman, are remarkably similar. According to the Navajo myth, Changing Woman was the daughter of First Man and First Woman, who created a puberty ceremony for her which involved running four times toward the rising sun. Changing Woman later married the Sun, and gave birth to two boys.

The Navajo kinaalda involves daily running toward the east, singing and prayers, the molding of Changing Woman, the blessing of the people and the giving of gifts, but it does differ in a few significant ways from the Sunrise Ceremony. At the beginning,  the girl washes her hair in suds from a yucca root and binds it back for the duration of the 2-4 day ritual. For the first three days, a considerable portion of her time is spent grinding more than 100 pounds of corn and wheat and preparing corn husks as she makes a giant cornmeal cake, heated in a firepit dug in the ground.

During the night and day of the kinalda, the girl must stay up all night, sitting with her back straight and her legs in front of her, and not fall asleep through an entire night of lengthy prayers. The next morning, she runs toward the sunrise again, and then blesses the cake, which has cooked all night in a firepit dug in the ground. She then offers the first piece of the cake to the Sun, and serves the rest to her people.

How can I learn more about the Sunrise Ceremony?
See the link page on this site, which lists more than a dozen web sites about the Sunrise Ceremony, kinaalda, and puberty rites in native tribes, as well as books and articles on the subject.  Better yet, attend a Sunrise ceremony on the Fort Apache or Mescalero reservation.
Featured Book recommendations -
For children and young adults:
The Gift of Changing Woman by Tryntje Van Ness Seymour
For young adults and adults:
Changing Woman of the Apache: Women's Lives in the Past 
and Present (Golston)
For adults: Women of the Apache Nation by Stockel
Apache, the Sacred Path to Womanhood  (published 1/99)


Introduction   Quotes    Images     Links

TO Becoming Woman: Apache Female Puberty Ceremony
TO Becoming Woman: Seminar Transcript  NEW!

TO Tika Yupanqui's A.S. Web Site (relocated)
TO Celebration of Women in History(see index)
TO: Ancient Sites Index Page

This web site is copyright 1999 by Tika Yupanqui (Tracy Marks) 
Last updated January 15, 2001.

Image at top of this page was scanned from Apache: Sacred Path to Womanhood, copyright 1998 by John Annerino. .