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Friday, May 9, 2014

Coming of Age in Global and American Cultures

When you hear the phrases "coming-of-age" or "rites of passage," some well-known traditions might immediately come to mind, even if they are not a part of our own culture. For example, in many tribal cultures, the transition is often ceremonial, featuring some feat of bravery or strength against pain, such as success in a first hunt, or surviving painful tattooing or piercing. One might think of bar and bat mitzvahs for Jewish boys and girls "becoming men and women" around the ages of 12 or 13. Or quinceaƱeras for 15-year-old girls in Latin America.

We might then think of "Sweet 16" birthday parties in America and the milestone of earning the privilege to drive. From there, we think of turning 18 in America, and becoming a legal adult, and gaining the right to vote. Some might even think of turning 21 in this list of rites of passage, which is the American legal drinking age. (It might be imperative, even, to note that driving ages and drinking ages are different all around the world, too.)

If we look back in history, we might even think of debutante balls, which announced when a girl of a particular family was now of a certain age, and therefore, able to make and take social calls, be courted, and get married. Maybe we would even remember phrases like, "You're becoming a woman now," for girls starting puberty and menstruation. Or, other phrases like, "She'll make a man out of you!" when guys are teasing about losing their virginities, might come to mind.

All of these are moments in a young person's life that mark a passage from one stage to another -- from childhood to a more mature stage -- whether that's adulthood, or specifically womanhood or manhood. Every culture (and subculture) has different moments that members feel mark the true moment to womanhood or manhood. Some might even say it's the transition to mother- or fatherhood.

But what is much less known is how Native Americans mark the "coming-of-age" for their youth. We especially wanted to contrast these commonly known traditions with the traditions specific to the Ojibwe culture, after having read the coming-of-age story The Round House by Louise Erdrich.

Who Are the Ojibwe?

Sometimes called Ojibwe, Ojibwa, Ojibway, or even Chippewa, this group is the second largest tribe in North America, and among themselves, they go by the name Anishinaabe, which means "original people." Today, the Ojibwe can be found in five states and in three Canadian provinces, with no less than 19 Ojibwe or Chippewa bands in just Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan alone. In other areas, the Ojibwe have become closely related to the other local tribes, like the Dakota Sioux, the Nakota, and the Assiniboine, and have accepted some of their traditions into the Ojibwe culture. From "Ojibwe Waasa-Inaabidaa"

In 2012, the acclaimed writer Louise Erdrich, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa member, herself, published her bestselling and award-winning fictional novel, The Round House, about a community of Anishinaabe on a reservation in North Dakota, and the course of events that follow a crime against one of their people there, in Spring and Summer of 1988. While the book is a work of fiction, Erdrich drew from experience and from real Ojibwe traditions to exemplify their culture in her novel. In as much as the novel is realistic fiction, a crime novel, or a political commentary, it is also a book about the thirteen-year-old narrator "coming of age." Aspects of Ojibwe culture and traditions are woven well into the book, and, as you will see, will relate to the information on Ojibwe Rites of Passage and Coming of Age that we discuss below.

To hear more about the novel, from Erdrich herself, click here.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sweat Lodges

Sweat Lodges

Aside from vision quests or feats of strength, bravery, and power, such as moments in battle or in the hunt, the tradition of sweat lodges is another coming-of-age ritual for both boys and girls, though more so for the former. Sweat lodges are rarely co-ed, though it is known to occur, and nudity is forbidden. Sometimes, sweat lodges are a part of longer ceremonies. Sweat lodges are described as a time to meditate, but especially, as a time for purification. Specifically, the "sweat" was created to allow men a time of purification and sacrifice, as an equivalent to women's "Moon Time," when she is menstruating (a topic we discuss in a later blog entry). (This is also why menstruating women are not allowed in sweats: they are already going through a powerful period of purification and sacrifice, and it is believed that this power can detract from the sacred ceremonies like the sweat lodges.) (Information from Seven Circles.) Common elements of sweat lodges include: near or complete darkness, importance on the placement of the lodge, the door, and the stones, care in the construction, consideration of clothing, and offerings of tobacco or herbs (tobacco either being smoked, sprinkled on the stones, or offered to the fire). (Information from Crystalinks.)
The lodge is essentially a strong wood frame built out of flexible saplings in the shape of a dome, and is then covered with layers of tarps and/or blankets. Outside of the lodge, a Firekeeper (also known as a "dog soldier," in charge of protecting the ceremony and assisting the participants) tends to a fire pit which heats large rocks. When the rocks are ready, they are brought into the sweat lodge, and water is poured on them to create steam, like a sauna. (Crystalinks)

Building of a Sweat Lodge, the Customs, and the Meanings
The rocks themselves are volcanic, and are known as "Stone People" or "grandfathers," representing man's "oldest living relatives" (Seven Circles). In the book, The Round House, by Louise Erdrich, these "grandfathers" are mentioned in several passages about sweat lodges. The main character, Joe, and his friend Cappy are the "fire keepers." Joe describes:

"Farther back, nearly in the woods, the sweat-lodge dome of bent and lashed-together saplings, covered by army-surplus tarps, humidly waited, gathering mosquitoes. Cappy had already made the fire. The rocks, the grandfathers, were superheating in the middle. Our job was to keep that fire going, hand in the sacred pipes and the medicines, bring the rocks to the door on long-handled shovels, close and open the flaps. We'd also throw tobacco into our fire when someone in the lodge yelled for it, to mark some special prayer or request" (36).

Later, Joe mentions Cappy's older brother, Randall, who is leading this sweat. From his description of Randall, we know that he is a little older than the boys -- of driving age, at least -- and he is involved in the reservation and his tribe's culture by dancing or drumming at powwows. Joe continues his description of the sweat lodge:

"[Randall] was obsessive about setting everything up perfectly -- the rack for the pipes, the star quilt blanket smoothed out beside the entrance, the abalone shell for burning sage, the glass jars of powdered medicine, the bucket and dipper. He seemed to have a little measuring stick in his head for lining up these sacred items. . . But that was Randall, too, always ready to make you feel a little uncomfortable with the earnest superiority of all that he was learning from the elders, even your own elders, for your benefit. Mooshum had instructed Doe on how to set up this lodge and Doe had passed it down to Randall" (37-8).

Through Erdrich's inclusion of these customs in her book, we can see that these descriptions corroborate the traditions of the sweat lodge that we already mentioned above. We can also infer that Joe and his friend Cappy, as 13-year-olds, are not quite at the age to be participating in the coming-of-age tradition of sweat lodges, whereas Cappy's older brother Randall, who may be at least 15 or 16, is already learning the traditions and participating in the ceremonies. Still, Joe and Cappy have been given an important role, probably signifying their impending maturation and allowance to participate in that particular rite of passage.

Vision Quests

Vision Quests

In the Ojibwe tribe, as with many Native American tribes, young boys have often celebrated their coming-of-age by going on a "vision quest," which may vary from tribe to tribe. During the typical vision quest, a young boy fasts, prays, and seeks his spirit helper, which usually presents itself as an animal, and which becomes the young boy's lifelong aide and guide. In some places, vision quests are supervised by, or discussed afterwards, with elders.

Though vision quests are occasionally components of the coming-of-age for girls, it has been more of a universal experience for Native American boys. It has been said that the typical age for this rite is between 10 and 14. Coming-of-age rituals have traditionally followed physical markers of maturity, like the start of menstruation for girls. However, for boys, who do not have such strong physical markers, traditions like the vision quests would often follow their first kill of large game during a hunt, or after their first success in battle (Markstrom, Carol A. Empowerment of North American Indian Girls. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 2008. Print.).


"Passing Into Adulthood" from Life In An Anishinabe Camp by Niki Walker

Appearance and Symbolism of Animals

While the word "doodem" is the Anishinaabe word from which we got the English word "totem," and while a doodem/totem is the animal associated with a certain clan, the idea of "totems" has gotten intertwined (at least, in popular culture) with the idea of animal spirit guides, not unlike the type of animal guide that a boy might see on his vision quest. Either way, animals, their appearances, and their qualities hold great importance in Native American culture and traditions. We see that here, with the tradition of vision quests, and we see it in Louise Erdrich's novel based on Anishinaabe culture, The Round House.

For example, there is a description of the meaning of doodems made by the main character's father on pages 153-54. He informs that "an Ojibwe person's clan meant everything at one time and no one didn't have a clan, thus you knew your place in the world and your relationship to all other beings. . . The clan system punished and rewarded; it dictated marriages and regulated commerce; it told which animals a person could hunt and which to appease, which would have pity on the doodem or a fellow being of that clan. . . .".

In another instance, when the main 13-year-old character, Joe, is discussing the recurring appearance of a "ghost" man in his life and his need for "luck" in sorting out the central crime and mystery of the story, his grandfather, Mooshum, tells him, "You go to your doodem first. . . Find the ajijaak." Joe, as the narrator, tells us, "My father and his father were ceremonially taken into the crane clan, or Ajijaak. They were supposed to be leaders and have good voices, but beyond that I'd been given no special knowledge. I told this to Mooshum." And his grandfather concludes, "That's okay. You just go straight to your doodem and watch. It will show you the luck, Joe" (133).
In the next scene, Joe goes to the lake where he has seen herons before, and he narrates, "All the herons and cranes and other shorebirds were my doodemag, my luck" (134). Sure enough, while in contemplation, he realizes there is a heron in the shoreline at which he has been staring. Not long afterwards, Joe makes a huge discovery there at the lake... One could say that Joe had his own form of a vision quest in that scene!

Another passage highlights the ubiquitous meanings and importance of animals in an Anishinaabe person's everyday life:

"My walls were painted a soft yellow. My mother had painted the walls while she was pregnant and always said she'd chosen the color because it would be right for either a girl or boy, but that halfway through the painting she knew I was a boy. She knew because each time she worked in the room a crane flew by the window, my father's doodem, as I have said. Her own clan was the turtle. My father insisted that she had arranged for the snapping turtles she'd hooked on their first date to scare him into asking her to marry him without delay. I only learned later that they'd caught the very snapper whose shell my mother's first boyfriend had carved with their initials. That boy had perished, Clemence had told me. The turtle's message had been about mortality. How my father should act with swiftness in the face of death" (147).

Finally, in this novel about Ojibwe culture and a coming-of-age story, Erdrich, in fact, added a passage about the tradition of vision quests! It reads:

"[Y]our own great-aunt was saved by a turtle. As you remember, she was of the turtle, or the mikinaak, clan. At the age of ten she was put out to fast on a small island. There she stayed one early spring, four days and four nights with her face blackened, utterly defenseless, waiting for the spirits to become her friends and adopt her. On the fifth day when her parents did not return, she knew something was wrong. She broke the paste of saliva that sealed her thirsty mouth, drank lake water, and ate a patch of strawberries that had tormented her. She made a fire, for although she was not allowed to use it on her fast, she carried with her a flint and steel. . . [S]he determined to swim to the mainland, twenty miles away. . . Her arm and legs were heavy as swollen logs, she thought that she would die, and in her struggle called out for help. At that moment she felt something rise beneath her. It was a giant and a very old mishiikenh, one of those snapping turtles. . . ." (154).

The story in this last passage corroborates the aspects of coming-of-age rites that boys (and girls) still participate in today through vision quests and the seeking of their animal spirit guide. 

Coming of Age for Girls

First Menses

In a Native American tradition, a young girl will mark the end of her childhood with a berry fast, wherein she stops eating berries for an entire year. During that year, she meets with older women in the family and learns about the role she would one day take on as a mother. The actual coming-of-age traditions vary from tribe to tribe, but they usually happen around the time of a young girl's first menstruation, and involve some type of seclusion accompanied by fasting and the use of a sweat lodge. Sometimes, periods of seclusion are done in addition to other practices, depending on the tribe.

"[Y]our own great-aunt was saved by a turtle" (Erdrich 155). Joe's great-great-aunt was saved by a turtle during her time of her first menses when she was fasting after many moons. Her parents did not return for her. She lived off of the land, but later, decided to swim back to her tribe. After swimming for so long, she was exhausted and a turtle carried her back to her siblings. "This creature swam below her, breaking her way through the water, nudging her to the surface when her strength gave out, allowing her to cling to its shell when she was exhausted, until they came to shore. She wade out and turned to thank it. The turtle watched her silently, it eyes uncanny yellow stars, before it sank away" (Erdrich 155).

Many other tribes follow (or have followed) very specific customs surrounding a girl's first menstruation. For example, the Comanches practice seclusion at menses (Kavanagh, 2001), as do various groups of the Sioux, who require seclusion of the girl at her first and all subsequent menstrual cycles (Demallie, 2001). Santee Sioux require girls to engage in rituals, such as fasting and seclusion at the onset of menses (Alber, 2001). Paqnee girls move into a small lodge accompanied by their grandmothers where, at each subsequent menstrual cycle prior to marriage, the girl and her grandmother would withdraw to this lodge (Parks, 2001).

Assiniboine girls are isolated in a small lodge near the family tepee (Demallie & Miller, 2011). For a few tribes, such as Teton Sioux and the Cheyennes, girls are carefully chaperoned after their seclusion, because virginity in a single woman is highly valued. An exceptional instance of this was with the Cheyennes, who required girls to wear protective chastity belts from puberty to marriage. Girls are usually bathed and re-clothed after their isolation, as occurred among the Pawnees, who also purified girls with cedar smoke. During the fourth day of seclusion of Assiniboine girls, they are obligated to fulfill many dietary and behavioral restrictions (Pritzker, 1998). Finally, the Cheyennes would give away a horse in honor of the girl's first menses.

Some groups did not observe detailed and involved puberty rituals, but nonetheless it was common to give some recognition to the event of a girl’s menarche. The Poncas might simply give the girl a horse accompanied by speeches from an elder (D. N. Brown & Irwin, 2001). While the Blackfeet did adhere to beliefs about the dangers of contact with women during menstruation, they didn't have special female puberty ceremonies (Pritzker, 1998). However, the completion of a daughter’s first quill-work or bead work could result in her family’s sponsorship of a feast (Dempsey, 2001).

Also, the reinforcement of moderation and containment in the personality and behavior of pubescent girls is observed through various instructions given to them at the time of their coming-of-age. For example, in the past, it was observed that pubescent Haida girls were not to eat too much or risk being greedy later in life, and to not smile too much or be inclined to hilarity. One major North American Indian belief is that pubescent girls are very impressionable at this time in their lives. So, adult females must mentor and maximize their time instructing and teaching these young women how to act properly, since they are no longer children.

After First Menses

"After being allowed to return home after her first menses she had to follow extremely strict rules for a year. This included using separate utensils and dishes and was restricted to only her house other than going to school. She was only to display modest behavior which included wearing a dress that covered most of the body and she could not be involved in any 'boisterous play with her brothers.'"

(Markstrom, Carol A. Empowerment of North American Indian Girls. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 2008. Print.)

Moon Time
A girl or woman's "Moon" or "Moon Time" is the period when she is going through her menstrual cycle, because, like the moon, women also have a 28-day monthly cycle. In the Ojibwe culture, this is a time of purification for women, and it represents the sacrifice that women make for their people -- that is, bleeding and bearing children. It is a time of connecting to, and recharging, one's power. For this reason, women will often be secluded or cared for specially, and they are expected to abstain from participation in sacred ceremonies, like the sweat lodge (which is viewed the men's equivalent of the cleansing and sacrificial ritual of menses). "The Creator does not ask so much that women need to double their effort to be close to Spirit" (Seven Circles).

The first menses is regarded as the first opportunity to connect with "Spirit," and in Native American culture, menstruation is something to be respected (as opposed to patriarchal, Western views of it as being dirty or shameful). During the ritual periods of seclusion, women go to "rest and receive dream guidance," which is a form of the vision quests mentioned previously in this blog. Women use this time to evaluate their role as creators and to evaluate their relationship with "the Creator" 
(Seven Circles).


Some tribes also practiced the art of tattooing for the female coming-of-age ceremony. Wichita girls were tattooed as a form of social identification to distinguish them from females captives and of other tribes (Newcomb, 2001). "The women tattoo lines upon the chin, and some of the older ones have their breasts covered with tattooed designs" (Omaha Public Library). More information here.