- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 11, 2001

EAST FORK, Ariz. — The sky is but a shadow when the girl walks onto the field just before dawn. In the distance, a campfire crackles. The aroma of potatoes and bacon, fresh tortillas browning over the fire, drifts in the breeze. "Say a prayer before you start," her grandmother calls.
The girl's name is Claudia Griggs, but everyone calls her Angel. She is 15 years old, though on this day her face is solemn, more like the woman she is soon to become than the girl she is.
She is dressed in the ceremonial costume of her Apache heritage: a fringed buckskin serape the color of the sun and clouds, a beaded necklace adorned with butterflies. An abalone shell, representing purity, rests on her forehead. An eagle feather, symbolizing a long, healthy life, is tied to her dark hair.
She clasps a cane strung with bells and feathers, to be saved for when she grows old.
At half-past five on this Saturday morning, Angel takes her position in the center of the old cornfield. Her parents by her side, she bows her head as a medicine man prays.
Angel is about to begin the most important day of her young life. Over the next 5 hours, she will dance almost continuously as part of an ancient coming-of-age ceremony called the Sunrise Dance.
"Na'ii'ees" in Apache, the dance marks the passage to womanhood. During the ceremony, the girl becomes "Changing Woman," who was impregnated by the sun and the rain, and gave birth to the first Apache people.
The four-day ceremony begins on a Friday night, when the girl is dressed in traditional costume. The dance takes place Saturday morning, followed by a painting ceremony the next day to symbolize the final metamorphosis to womanhood. On the final day, the girl's costume is removed.
Mentally and physically tough for any young girl, the ceremony is especially challenging for Angel, who had a third of her right lung removed several years ago because of respiratory problems. She still suffers from chronic asthma and takes antibiotics.
For Angel, the ceremony means not only growing up, but perhaps, she hopes, growing stronger.
"I was sick," she says, "and I didn't want to be that way."
Standing in the field, she raises her head as the medicine man finishes praying. Six men drums in hand begin pounding a constant beat, chanting.
Facing east, as the first glimmer of a new day ignites the sky, the young Apache begins her Sunrise Dance.
Traditions are fading fast among American Indians.
Church services replaced ancient ceremonies. Fast-food supplanted community gardens. Hospitals edged out medicine men. The children speak English, not Navajo or Apache.
In many American Indian communities, preserving the culture has become as much a challenge as erasing poverty, fighting substance abuse and providing health care.
"The connection is lost," says Joe Joaquin, a Tohono O'odham Indian and president of Keepers of the Treasures, a national group working to preserve Indian culture and languages.
Traditionalists fault missionaries who converted Indians to Christianity in the late 1800s, as well as government-run boarding schools, where children were barred from speaking their native tongue and practicing their religion.
"They were taught that everything you were doing is not the way it's supposed to be, that you have to learn the American way of life," Mr. Joaquin says. "The elders are dying, forever burying the customs of the past, and the young ones are too indifferent to learn."
Arizona's White Mountain Apache Tribe is as contemporary as the residents of any midsize town. Tribal members operate a timber company, a ski resort and a casino on 1.6 million acres of land in east-central Arizona.
They live in modern homes and shop at a chain grocery store.


Residents estimate that about half the 12,500-member tribe attend the community's Lutheran, Southern Baptist or Catholic churches.
Yet there are those who still practice the old ways and are fighting to teach a new generation the rituals of their ancestors, particularly the Sunrise Dance.
On any given weekend from May through October, the pine-studded forests and fields of the reservation are filled with onlookers shouting encouragement and dancing along with a young girl performing the Sunrise Dance.
But fewer families participate these days. Some blame the time and cost nearly a year of preparation and several thousand dollars. Expenses include the girl's costume, gifts that are exchanged during the ceremony, and fees for medicine men and ceremonial dancers.
Others simply no longer believe in the practice.
"They think it's a pagan ceremony," says Cline Griggs, Angel's father. He insists the traditions must be passed on to his children and their children if the Apache way of life is to survive.
By 7 a.m., the crowd has swelled to a few dozen people. Young girls and elderly women in calico camp dresses dance in a semicircle around Angel as she shuffles her feet to the drumbeat left-right, left-right, left-right the bells on her cane jingling with each movement.
Angel stares into the strengthening sun, unsmiling and concentrating.
Until her costume is removed Monday morning, Angel must abide by certain rituals. She must not shower, because it might wash away the power of Changing Woman. She may drink only through a reed tube, or it is said she will grow a mustache. And she must use a stick to scratch herself, or she might develop sores.
But the true test of strength and will is the dance itself. As 32 songs are chanted and drummed, Angel re-enacts the creation cycle and becomes Changing Woman.
It's 8 a.m., and Angel has dropped to her knees atop a buckskin and a pile of blankets. She sways back and forth with her arms stretched toward the sky. Her hair clings to her wet neck and beads of sweat dot her forehead as she grimaces in exhaustion. Her mother wonders if she can do it.
The sun is burning strong now, scalding the skin. Women pull their hair back and massage her limbs for renewed strength. In minutes, she's back on her feet.
"Dance, Angel, dance," a spectator demands.
The song picks up pace, the drums and chants growing louder, as Angel bends down and grabs the buckskin and blankets. She tosses them into the crowd, to the east, south, west and north.
With cheers and applause, the dance is done. The crowd lines up to shake her hand or offer a hug of congratulations. And finally, Angel smiles.
Angel is back in the field at dawn the next day. As a crowd gathers once more, her godfather paints her with yellow powder and water, to symbolize the final metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood, from Changing Woman to Angel, the new woman.
"I feel different," Angel said following her dance on Saturday, her face and hair still dusted with pollen. "It really does change you."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide