White Painted Woman

I was privileged to be invited to participate in the sacred coming of age ceremony of an Apache girl. It is called the Sunrise Ceremony. I do not have many photographs of this ceremony. I asked an Apache elder if it was permissible to take photographs. He informed me that if I saw other Apaches taking pictures it was okay. He then said, “Don’t be a tourist!”

The Sunrise ceremony is a four day, arduous coming of age ritual for a young Apache girl once she has her first menstruation. Our friends were the godparents, hence the invitation.

I was admonished to not take any photographs of the medicine man, that was strictly forbidden. I left my Canon camera in the car and used my cell phone to take the few photos I did take.

The ceremony starts on a Thursday night and lasts four days. It is a feat of endurance, as the young maiden must dance for four days straight through. The entire family is involved, and those invited are expected to participate in the dance.

The end of the ceremony is marked by the crown dancers and her godfather covering her in pollen (clay and corn meal) where she becomes the White Woman. This heralds to the Apache legend of the white woman who survived the great flood in an abalone shell. She survived the deluge and was impregnated by the sun and the rain, giving birth to two sons. Her sons defeated the Owl Man Giant who terrorized the tribe.

Of course, this is the Reader’s Digest Condensed version of the legend.

The ceremony was banned by the US Government for nearly 70 years. It is both solemn and joyous. It teaches the young Apache girl what is expected of her as she enters womanhood. She is to protect the tribe, to be honest and fair and strong.

Being invited to participate was one of the high points in my life.  A white eye outsider, I was welcomed. I danced. I have no pretense of being one of them; this was simply one more step in understanding their culture.

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