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Thursday, May 8, 2014

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.

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