Survivance, survival, healing and joy - Women's Coming of Age Ceremonies (Winnemum Wintu to Hupa and beyond)
Currently the Winnemem Wintu Tribe in Northern California is fighting to have the US Forest Service close a portion of the McCloud River so that they can hold their puberty ceremony this summer for a young girl. You can read this article to learn more. The "Baɬas Chonas" represents the coming of age for teenage girls who symbolically transition into womanhood by swimming across the river on the last day. The first "Balas Chonas" ceremony in over 85 years was held in 2006 though because the forest service refused to close the river, it was disturbed by intrusion and heckling from recreational boaters. In one instance, a group of boaters goaded and yelled at the attendees of the ceremony and one woman even flashed her bare breasts at the people on shore. (This was all caught on tape and can be seen here.) The ceremonies are held at the sacred Puberty Rock site (Kokospom in Winnemem), which is located on the McCloud Arm of Shasta Lake and is now owned by the U.S. Forest Service. The tribe is asking that this year the Forest Service close the river, but so far their requests have been met with either no response or with denials. The tribe has also been protesting at the US Forest Service hoping to call attention to this issue. They are asking that if anyone would like to write a letter to show support for the closure of the river that you: Call 7075628737 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to let Randy Moore know you support the Winnemem's right to a river closure. Please keep your messages respectful and peaceful, just like we want our ceremony to be.
I am a PhD Student in Native American Studies at UC Davis and my primary research focuses on the revitalization of Puberty Ceremonies and the roles of women in Indigenous communities in North America. In particular I write about the Hupa Women's Ceremony called The Flower Dance which has experienced a significant revitalization over the past 10 years. I was inspired to write this blog in support of the Winnemum Wintu ceremony and to speak a little to why this type of ceremony is so important to the continued survivance of Native peoples. Ts'ehdiya.
I'll start by telling the story I often tell when I begin any presentation about why I research Indigenous Women's Coming of Age Ceremonies. I was twelve and I got my period and my father was out of town for business so my mother (who was very excited by the way, she hugged me a lot that day and told me how wonderful it was and I kept thinking "I really didn't DO anything.") makes me call him on the phone to tell him the "good news." Because, she said, it was "big news."
It was mortifying to me. The phone rang, I asked the hotel lady to transfer me to my Dad's room (yep, this was before everyone had their own cell phone) and when my Dad answered I said "so, uh, I started my period today."
And he sort of choked a little and went "well, that's nice."
After that my mother insisted on taking me out to dinner to celebrate. I was half convinced she was going to buy me some congratulations cake with a bunch of fake candy tampons on them and make the waiters sing me "I'm every woman" or something like that. Instead, we went out to a nice restaurant and she kept telling me about how proud she was.And then she said to me "You know, in the old days, we would have done a Flower Dance for you. The Hupa, we used to celebrate this time. It was very important to us, when girls became women. We could do a dance for you now, if you'd like."
I wish I had known at the time what she was offering. I wish I had known that the dance hadn't been performed in a number of years. That it wasn't commonly practiced anymore. That at one time it was one of the principle dances of our tribe, but then there was the influence of the boarding school, the BIA, the missionaries, colonization in general and though some people tried to carry on this tradition - it had stopped.
Some of our ceremonies had survived. Hupa has an interesting "historical" narrative, considering that we were "relatively" late in our contact with Western influences, and we had fought very, very hard to keep our ceremonies and ways of knowledge. BIA agents often wrote about the Hupa that there was no stopping them from continuing to practice their "primitive" ways. At the time they often equated it with the Hupa being too stupid to know any other way. But it was a form of resistance that would help our people to survive and to also retain the valley where we have lived since the beginning of time.
My mother - offering to do this dance for me, which would have meant so much work, and so much labor to recreate and revitalize was a moment of strength and power that I could scarcely grasp at the time. It was a gift.
And I said 'eww Mom, gross. I don't want everyone to know. That's just gross."
Many years later my mother would gather with other women from my tribe to revitalize the Women's Ceremony in Hupa. She would pour over anthropological records, she would sit with elders, she would gather with the other women and recall the songs her grandfather had taught her. They would bring together as much knowledge and resources as they could find so that they could honor girls and women. My mother would speak often about how important the ceremony is to the continuance of our tribal people. She would talk about how our women were in violent relationships, how some of them were not finishing school, how others were fighting with each other over small, petty things. She would talk about how the roles of women in other ceremonies were being diminished and how men were forgetting how to respect and care for the women of our tribe.
And then one night I called her on the phone crying because I was leaving my violent, very mean boyfriend at the time and she told me "you are making the right decision." And I just sobbed and said "no Mom, he is right. I am nothing. I am worth nothing." And my mother took a deep breath and said "oh Cutcha, we should have danced for you."
This is what these dances mean to a people, to a community, to a society. It reverberates into all parts of our world. When we dance for each other we create a strong, lasting foundation that will steady each and every person as they move through this often shaky world. Joy Harjo writes "...we who love you gather here" she says "you can come to us./ You will fall, but you will get back up again, because you are one of us."
This is what this ceremony is for. When the girl runs, she runs with the children behind her and her face veiled with Blue Jay feathers. They say how she runs, is how she will live her life. So if she stumbles she must catch herself, if she falls she must get back up. They say how she sits in ceremony is a demonstration of the kind of woman she will be. Some girls say they think they will fail, but they do not. The people are there to give them energy and strength. The K'ixinay (our spirit people) are watching them from above, pointing their Flower Dance sticks in our direction.
We did not have this dance for many years and now we do them at least once or twice a year. Now, after 10 years of revitalization girls are requesting and planning for their flower dances from a very young age. My daughter (age 4) has already memorized most of my family's flower dance songs, and she has already started to make up her own song, for when she does her dance. And she has never known a time in her life when this dance did not exist. She has never known a time where women did not get together in large groups to sing, laugh and talk. She has never known a time where men did not celebrate the importance of girls becoming women in their families.
What this revitalization has done is jump started the healing of hundreds of years of cultural, spiritual and gender specific genocide and oppression. As Native author Paula Gunn Allen writes "...cases of violence against women are powerful evidence that the status of women within the tribes has suffered grievous decline since contact, and the decline has increased in intensity in recent years. The amount of violence against women, alcoholism, and violence, abuse, and neglect by women against their children and their aged relatives have all increased. These social ills were virtually unheard of among most tribes... popular American opinion to the contrary" (The Sacred Hoop, 191).
Activist and scholar Luana Ross (Salish) writes “Acts of violence against Native women are manifestations of a racialized patriarchy and have the power to eliminate the desire for survival. …It is important to challenge the oppression that all Native women face; we cannot afford to be silent.”
The Flower Dance is an act of revival and an act of survival. It confronts the colonized version of women's roles in society and starts the process of rebuilding by encouraging the community voice to sing out together, effectively breaking the silence through dance, through song, through ceremony.
So how do we heal? With ceremony. We heal ourselves, we heal each other, we heal the community, the land, the sky, the entire space in which our energy reverberates. We start with one girl, but as we all come together, as we all share and talk and laugh (and boy do we laugh) we heal.
Not just this one girl, but all the girls before, and all the girls who will come after.
Please support the Winnemem Wintu in their fight to hold their Puberty Ceremony. Click here to find out more.
Cutcha Risling Baldy is an Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies at San Diego State University. She received her PhD in Native American Studies from the University of California, Davis. She is also a writer, mother, fan of "The Good Wife" and "The Walking Dead", who likes to go for long walks on long piers...
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