The most important of Apache rituals is the Naichee ceremony, the female puberty initiation. The four days of pageantry include drumming, dance, song, and rituals meant to bless both the initiate and the community. Feathers, seashells, cattail pollen, and the observers themselves all play important roles in the colorful Naichee ceremony.
For many years, the Naichee ceremony was banned by the Army. This religious censorship lasted for decades. Even today, the cost and time commitment of the ritual prohibits many families from taking part. In his book Cibecue Apache, Keith Basso writes of one father waffling back and forth on the matter.
“I wasn’t sure of having a dance. My wife wanted to because she had one when she was a girl. Now some people think it is old fashioned and the medicine men don’t have the power. It costs a lot too. We don’t know what to do. Then it came close to when my daughter was to bleed for the first time, so we had to get going. Then my mother came to my camp and said, ‘I hear you won’t give my granddaughter Naichee. Why don’t you have her one? I am an old lady but I am still strong. Naichee did that.’ We decided it was good to have one.”
One of the central participants in the ritual is the sponsor: a respected woman of the community who serves a role similar to a godmother. This woman must not be related by clan and must possess sterling qualities, strength of character, intelligence, courage, and a good sense of humor. At one point in the ceremony, the sponsor massages the young girl as if she is molding pottery; as if she is shaping a vessel which will hold all the qualities of divine femininity. The abalone shell the young girl wears upon her forehead is symbolic of this divinity, representing the sea shell which the great Apache goddess known as White Changing Woman floated upon during the Great Flood. During the course of this four day ceremony, aided by the blessings of her community, the power of the medicine man, and her own ability to endure the rigorous ordeal, the young girl will transform into the holy person White Changing Woman for a short time.
Another important character in the ceremony is the shaman or medicine man. When the father has selected a medicine man to sing for his daughter, he must journey on foot to the medicine man’s house and arrive before sunrise with a traditional payment of cash, eagle feathers, turquoise, and cattail pollen. The medicine man will sing songs of magic and power intended to instruct and transform the young girl.
I have never seen a Naichee ceremony where the young girl did not look beautiful. She wears the abalone shell pendant atop her forehead and her long black silky hair is combed back with a gray or white eagle feather hanging down from the braid. Legends say that the young girl will live a long life until her hair turns the color of the eagle feather. She wears a beautiful buckskin serape covered with hand made bead work and a lengthy fringe hanging from the sleeves so her arms move like wings while she is dancing. At one point in the ceremony the medicine man will attach two small feathers of eagle down to the girl’s shoulders so that she might walk and run as lightly as feathers float on air. Probably the most important item in her attire is the cane. The cane is decorated with bells to make it jangle while she dances. It is adorned with eagle feathers to bring long life and oriole feathers for good disposition. She will keep this cane throughout her life and it is the cane upon which she will lean on in old age
In late summer of 2002 a Naichee ceremony was held on the San Carlos Reservation in the tiny town of Peridot. I leave home in the dark in order to arrive at Peridot for the sunrise. The bright colors of the women’s dresses shine in the morning light; blues, yellows, red, and turquoises. Many wear beautiful moccasin boots adorned with intricate beaded designs: suns, shields, and geometric patterns. Most of the women wear scarves with bright colors pinned to their breasts, many featuring American flags. I am close enough to over hear one Apache elder boast that she has brought five generations of Apache females to this dance to help bless this young initiate. The beautiful face of this old woman is reflected again and again in the generations of the younger girls surrounding her. From matriarch to great-great-granddaughter, their resemblance is remarkable.
In his book The People, author Stephen Trimble relates an Apache anecdote. Women are the trunk of the family tree, children the branches, and husbands the leaves. Traditionally, sisters and daughters live together forever and men enter the family only through marriage. The Apache say that, “The leaves may drop off but the trunk and branches will never break.” In the Trimble book there is an accompanying photo of a beautiful young Apache maiden whose piercing smile reminds me of my Sioux friend Nelson, who left his Montana reservation to come to Arizona because his favorite uncle had always told him that Apache women were the most beautiful women in the world.
These women at the Peridot ceremony, dance in their brightly colored dresses and are more than just observers, they are participants as well. Lining up in two long rows facing each other, the women lock arms and dance in place for much of the ceremony. Their shuffling feet, singing voices, and good hearts all contribute to the good blessings they are offering the young girl. The two rows of brightly colored women face each other while the sponsor and the initiate stand side by side. The musicians stand behind the sponsor and young girl, drums in the crooks of their arms as the other hand flails a steady beat. The shaman stands at the front of the musicians and sings of melody and magic.
The shaman at the Peridot ceremony is dressed more like a cowboy than the stereotypical Hollywood Indian. Many of the men are wearing cowboy clothing; ten gallon hats, boots, flannel shirt, and blue jeans. Most of the young boys wear the athletic logos of their favorite sports teams: New Mexico Lobos and Arizona Wildcats prominent among them. Flanking the band in a thin line stretching either way are male relatives of the young girl; dancing proudly and jangling the bells hanging beneath their baskets. These uncles, cousins, brothers, dance with high steps and arms constantly moving; knowing that it is their love and energy which will aid the young girl. The drums continue to pound, the medicine man sings his mesmerizing chant, and I bounce to the beat until my calf muscles grow weary.
It is a beautiful day and I am happy to be here. I was unable to attend the first Naichee I received an invitation for. It was about five years previous and I was coming home from a trout fishing expedition. On my drive home I was taking the scenic route across the White Mountain Reservation when I pulled into the prehistoric ruins at Kinnishba. The Mogollon peoples inhabited Kinnishba well over a 1,000 years ago and Kinnishba is an Apache word which means brown brick house. The ruins were partially restored by the University of Arizona as they tried build the Apache a Mesa Verde style tourist trap. The museum/ gift shop burned down while the ruins were only 1/3 restored and the entire project was abandoned.
To reach Kinnishba you follow a dirt road to a fork splitting into two smaller dirt roads. A small hand painted sign reads “Kinnishba, Holy Ground” and two arrows point to the left. The restored portions of the ruins are slowly crumbling back into the earth while the burned out shell of the museum sits perched atop the hill. There are tree limbs poking in and out of windows and the whole feeling is pretty spooky. Kinnishba contains an interior courtyard where one is surrounded by the beautiful red brick architecture and it is here that archaeologists found a stone altar. The altar was painted with a crowned dancer who was surrounded by cornstalks and lightning bolts. The Apache do not claim to be direct descendants of the Mogollon but rather they claim that Kinnishba was abandoned because those people who once lived here forgot their Gods.
This one day while visiting Kinnishba, I was scanning the archaeology trash mounds and admiring the beautiful stripes and colors of the pottery when a pickup truck approached and pulled in beside my weather beaten economy car. The truck belonged to an Apache father who had come here with an eagle feather and an invitation to his daughter’s Naichee for the Gods who once resided here. He decides that I am supposed to attend as well. He hands me an invitation on bright yellow paper.
So I am grateful to attend the ceremony at Peridot on a warm day filled with sunshine and good blessings, it is a chance to finally redeem a lost obligation. When everybody else dances I dance too. I bob in place and wiggle my arms slightly, captured by the bands rhythmic beat. I close my eyes, lost in the shaman’s song, words chanted in a language I don’t understand, chorus repeated by the band. I dance some more, bouncing up and down on my toes until my legs grow tired, then I dance some more; feeling warm and protected by the sunshine. Purification through dancing is a beautiful concept.
It is amazing that the young girl can dance for so long. The buckskin serape looks very warm and heavy as the summer sun climbs. The young girl grows close to overheating. Then she dances some more. There are parts of the ceremony where the sponsor and the young girl dance, parts where just the women dance, parts where everyone dances, but the young girl is the only one who dances continuously. She hops lightly from one foot to the other while the fringe on her serape waves in the breeze like wings. During the ceremony she is expected to fast and the only liquid she can consume must be sipped through a straw made from a hollow cattail plant stalk.
I speak with one Apache woman who says that as the trials and tribulations of life arrive to visit her, she always reminds herself of the physical ordeal which purified her during the Naichee ceremony. If she had the strength to endure all that dancing then surely she has the strength for anything.
Her cane is involved in one of the most important rituals. The medicine man and the sponsor take the cane and walk to the east, planting the cane in the ground. The sponsor stands beside it while the young girl runs out beyond the cane and then back to her original place. This is supposed to symbolize her ability to surpass and go beyond the obstacles in her life. Then the medicine man moves the cane a little further away. The young girl runs again and this time all the woman and children follow. Then the medicine man places the cane even further away and now everybody follows the young girl.
Next, the men form a line and approach the young girl reverentially with a pinch of cattail pollen between their fingers. The men approach and each offer a blessing to the young girl such as wishing her long life, luck in love, good education, or many children. In turn, they can ask for a blessing themselves. They sprinkle a few grains of cattail pollen atop her head. As the line passes through, the pollen makes her begin to glow as if she is made of gold.
The women come next with more pinches of pollen between their fingertips. Sometimes, as a particularly respected female approaches, the medicine man will stop and have the young girl massage this matriarch so that all the elder’s good qualities will pass into the young girl. Babies are presented to the initiate, so that in her temporary transformation into White Changing Woman she can hold the babies up to face each of the four directions and bless them.
The Naichee ends with the rows of women and the men breaking into smaller family units which lock arms while approaching and retreating from the young girl. The young woman dances with her hands raised up pointing towards the heavens. The small groups of people surround and gradually close in on the girl as they approach and retreat with locked arms. They press in on all sides; dancing and singing; the entire village welcoming the young girl into the community as an adult.
As she dances in her beautiful serape, adorned with eagle and oriole feathers, abalone shell atop her forehead, and hair glistening gold with pollen she does indeed look every bit the role of White Changing Woman. While the community welcomes and blesses her, she blesses all of them in her temporary transformation as holy woman. As a symbol of theses abundant riches, the shaman over turns a basket atop her head. The basket is filled with acorns, candy, fruit, and coins. As all these goodies spill on the ground the children scramble and wrestle for the loot, their giggling laughter echoing off the Peridot Hills.