Case Study

Sunrise Ceremonial: An Apache Girl's Coming of Age White Mountain Apache Reservation, Whiteriver, Arizona, 1990

With excerpts from "Carla's Sunrise" by Anna Early Goseyun, (Native Peoples magazine, Vol. 4, No. 4)

The Sunrise Ceremonial marks the transition of an Apache girl into a woman, and takes place during the summer after a girl's first menstrual period. The Ceremonial lasts four days during which, traditionally, the girl takes on the role of Changing Woman, the first woman on earth and the mother of all Apache women.

From the time her daughter Carla was born, Anna Goseyun, a White Mountain Apache, knew that she would give Carla a Sunrise Ceremonial. Although she raised her daughters as Catholics, Anna taught them the importance of practicing Apache beliefs. Nevertheless, when the time came for Carla's Ceremonial, Carla was reluctant, because it meant missing her Little League baseball tournament. Eventually she agreed, and her family began a six-month planning process.

First the family chose godparents and a medicine man for the Ceremonial. Because these duties carry great responsibilities, the family went formally and with ceremony to ask these people to participate. Carla's family also chose a site for the Ceremonial and built a special camp to shelter up to eight families.

During the week prior to the Sunrise Ceremonial, Carla's family served a special meal honoring Carla's god-family. Two cows were butchered for the meal, which featured at least fifty traditional Apache dishes. Carla's godparents served a dinner in return a few days later. After four nights of singing, special prayers, and numerous preparations for the ritual, the main part of the Ceremonial began. Here is the story of Carla's Sunrise Ceremonial as told by her mother:

Before sundown, Carla must be dressed, and around 5:00 PM, her godparents come dancing into our camp. It is time for her godmother to dress her. The medicine man will start with a speech. He will dwell on the gifts of the Sunrise Ceremony and how important it is to be prayerful for the next four days. He reminds us of the need to be charitable and that it is okay to be traditional. He tells us that we are all brothers and sisters in the Creator's [Usen's] image, and that we must live by those standards as passed to us from our ancestors. Because he is here to pray for Carla, he will also pray for all of us, as there is a need for healing in our community.

He addresses the issue of alcohol, and asks that we pray for those who suffer from alcoholism. He tells Carla and her godparents of their responsibilities, and Carla learns that she will also have special healing powers during the next four days. She must be prayerful, and she must fast and drink only spring water. She must learn to be patient because her Ceremony will be a test of endurance and a time for her to get in touch with her spirituality.

Carla is told to stand in the middle of the ground covering. The feathers, her drums, buckskins, scarves, scratching sticks, her water straw made of bamboo, her beads, shells and sacred yellow pollen are all laid out. This is the Dressing Ceremony--with the medicine man directing the placement of each item. Usually the feather for her hair is put in last--it is always a long special eagle plume.

I had learned a long time ago that our Creator communicates with us in different ways although sometimes we are not aware of the signs he gives us. Soon after her godmother put the feather on Carla's head, the feather stood straight up on its own, and it seemed to just dance on her head. It was a moving sight. We were told that truly we had an innocent daughter. For me, this incident of Carla's feather on her head was a powerful sign.

After she is dressed, four songs are sung that officially begin the Ceremony. On this Friday evening, the medicine man and his singers will sing thirty-two songs, each one taught and learned through the generations.

Early on Saturday morning, Carla was told that one of the medicine man's helpers would be in the camp to awaken and direct her to the dance grounds. It is important to be early and even better to start before sunrise. From our camp, Carla and her sister are escorted to the dance ground where she must prepare the blankets she will dance and be massaged upon. The buckskin is also placed there. The pollen is placed in an abalone shell, and lots of candy, fruit and sodas to be given away are nearby. Carla also has her own personal burden basket with her own candy and money to give away. The burden basket is her gift from me.

This morning, Carla will dance approximately six hours--a real test of physical and spiritual endurance. It must be difficult, because it was her wish to dance in her whole buckskin outfit, and the weather is humid. This will surely test her endurance. I was proud of her, and I prayed she would persevere. She will be massaged by her godmother who prays, too, that this young girl shall become a strong person, and will grow up to be a fine young lady.

Carla also has special healing powers. She is to be blessed with the sacred yellow pollen, first by the men, then by the women. Some come to bless her, and others come to be blessed and healed by her. She will lay her hands on the sick, pray along with the medicine man and blow away to the four directions whatever is ailing the sick.

After the Sunrise Dance, Carla's godfather has assigned two men to cut two trees to use for Carla's prayer tipi. Usually these are cut before noon and one would be a cottonwood pole. This was a special prayer request for rain because we have suffered a drought for three years and our creeks and ranges are dry.

It is now time to feed our guests and visitors again. it is also decided that a food and gift exchange must be done today in order to continue with the Ceremony without interruption. Having just danced six hours, Carla is tired and not exactly happy about the prospect of more dancing. She must be reminded that all this is part of her becoming a stronger person

Dinner is served and everyone is fed. Then the food and gift exchange begins. We count all the food in stock, and we decide how much we should give to our traditional friends. The gifts also include blankets, yards of material, enamel pots and pans, dresses, baskets and other items brought for gifts. We load up our trucks for the exchange. It will involve more singing and dancing--four singers from our camp go to the godparents' camp and dance with whatever can be carried into their camp.

After the exchange, we are relieved by rain, and the air has cooled considerably. We encourage Carla to get some rest because now we must get ready for the evening of Crown Dancers. Again, the men take over, and we prepare for our special guests.

Back in June, we had taken a weekend to have all the special crowns made for this evening's event. The dancers had also been selected. Because we chose to have Carla painted in the White Mountain tradition, it meant we had to do extra things. Because it is important to do this away from the community, the crowns were made in a secluded area with the medicine man present. Special designs and colors were chosen, and my father, brother and son were involved. A sweat lodge for the special prayers and songs was built. The women were not allowed in this area, but were required to provide food and drinks for the men.

It is a moving sight to see the Crown Dancers at Carla's Ceremony. We pray and bless them with our yellow pollen, and my parents become their keepers while they are in seclusion until their dance.

My mother treats them with care, and she talks to them every day and feeds them the yellow pollen. They are special because they will be with us only for a short time; they are coming to do what we ask and then they shall be gone forever.

Now the time has come for the evening of the Crown Dancers. On this evening, the Crown Dancers will dance to their own special songs, and they will be blessed by four chosen medicine people. It is an honor to do this because the Crown Dancers will have special protective powers and blessings this night. One of them is my brother, who is the clown; he is the revered dancer because we believe he is the leader and directs what has to be done. He checks to see that everything is in order, or he will make a big fuss. Never fool around with the Crown Dancers because they will know if we are not sincere. They are powerful spiritual beings coming to do what we ask of them--to bless my Carla.

Thirty-two special Crown Dance songs are sung this night. Carla, Carmen and a special cousin will dance with the Crown Dancers. Carla's godparents will also have two girls to dance with the Crown Dancers. It is understood by now that three Crown Dancers are mine and two are theirs. There will be songs and special prayers in the tipi where the girls will dance later in the night. Of the five young boys chosen, my son and two special cousins will dance. It is an honor because young men are chosen who we hope are virgins and innocent. We know our boys are innocent they are only twelve years old! We believe that the prayers of the young and innocent are always powerful, and Usen will hear them,

My family knew I had wanted singing and dancing the rest of the night, but by midnight, am dead. Carla is relieved that she doesn't have to dance all night. In the old way, the girl danced all night - but we did a lot today. Carla has danced almost since sunup, and we have all done a lot of physical things.

It is Sunday morning, and our tipi is waiting for us. It is the men who now take over. Carla is directed to fix the blankets, and she must grind some corn and other natural ingredients for the sacred clay that she will be painted with. The men are directed to mix these ingredients continuously.

Carmen's godfather helps in this ceremony. Thirty-two more songs will be sung, and the feathers have been put in place on the tipi. The tipi has become our altar, and special prayers have been said, and it is under this that Carla will dance with her godfather. Carla has now danced close to four hours. Her endurance is amazing, but she is showing signs of fatigue. Her godfather appears and as he paints her, he is singing. He must have powerful prayers, and he now encourages Carla to finish. My son, Julian, is also a part of the Ceremony. He takes the part that is traditionally Carla's father's place in dancing with her cane. He is excited and scared.

After the painting ceremony, the young who had been the spirit dancers must now dance one more time, and special prayers are said for them. Our tribal chairman will speak for us and thank all those who came and helped.

After the speakers, the crowns and prayer swords of the Crown Dancers shall be put to rest forever. The young men will dance to four more songs, and we pray that wherever our medicine man leads them, they are free to go. We then send them on their way, and / thank them for having come as my special guests.

On Sunday after the last ceremony, Carla was finally set free to rest. While she slept, storm clouds formed; I was thankful.

Early Monday morning, final prayers are said. This time, Carla is undressed, and each item that has been put on her is now taken off, one by one, by her godmother. Our medicine man, Harris, again talks to those present and reminds us of our responsibilities and that we are now a traditional family and friends. He reminds us of our Creator's goodness and tells us to keep our prayers strong. He has special words for Carla and her godparents.

We thank Harris because he has done another ceremony, knowing he will do many more. He is truly a gift to us from Usen. I shall always keep him in my prayers. I am grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Glenn and Phoebe Cromwell for the honor of becoming my daughter's godparents.

It is my hope that my daughter will grow up to be a good woman helping others as she travels her journey of life. Carla did dance, and did so wonderfully. She surprised us all, and things happened during her Sunrise Ceremonial beyond our expectations.

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