Archive for Thursday, June 12, 1997


June 12, 1997


The coming-of-age ceremony for girls has ties to the legend of White Shell Woman.

Photographer Helga Teiwes has documented the daily lives and rituals of the native people of the Southwest for more than three decades. Hopi basketry, kachina dolls and Navajo pottery have captivated her lenses and ended up in her informative books.

Now, she's sharing her photographs of an Apache ritual -- the Sunrise Ceremony, or coming-of-age ritual for girls.

"Western Apache Sunrise Ceremony," an exhibition of 50 color photos first shown in her hometown of Dusseldorf, Germany, is on display through Aug. 10 at Kansas University's Museum of Anthropology.

The Sunrise Ceremony is held after a girl's first menses and symbolizes the girl's change from childhood to womanhood.

"It's the only ceremony of the Southwest Indians that can be photographed," Teiwes said. "They said it could be shown to the public as long as it showed their culture, which is the reason I do it."

Teiwes said she had photographed the ceremony twice during her tenure as staff photographer for the Arizona State Museum. She decided in 1992 to see if she could get permission to shoot the ceremony in its entirety for herself at either the White Mountain or San Carlos Apache reservations in eastern Arizona.

"In the late '60s, it was a rare occasion because of the cost involved," she said. "Now the girls want it and it makes them feel very special."

Teiwes first had to obtain the consent of the girl's family and then had to get the nod from the girl's sponsor, or godmother, and the medicine man.

In June 1992, Teiwes was allowed to photograph the San Carlos coming-of-age ceremony for 12-year-old Leia Tenille Johnson, of Whiteriver, Ariz. In 1994, she attended another ceremony in Bylas, Ariz., to complete her documentation. The latter ceremony was for 12-year-old Vanessa Jordan.

Prior to the ceremony, a site is chosen near a water source, such as a river, and two camps with brush huts -- one for the girl's family and the other for the sponsoring family -- are erected. Other huts are built for use as a dining and food preparation area, a food storage house and a place to make tulapai, a wine made from corn sprouts.

The first day of the ceremony sees the girl's family and the sponsoring family meeting for a huge feast.

The Sunrise Ceremony is held on the second day. During the six-hour ritual, the girl comes to represent the mythological, ancestral White Shell Woman, sometimes known as Changing Woman.

According to legend, White Shell Woman faced the east and was impregnated by a sunbeam. She gave birth to Slayer of Monsters and then four days later gave birth to his twin brother Born-of-Water-Old Man. Together, the twins eliminated evil from the world.

As a result of the ceremony, the girl gains the strength and power of White Shell Woman and grants wishes and fulfills the prayers of those who attend the ceremony.

"The purpose of the ceremony is to give her longevity," Teiwes said.

The ritual has eight phases: The girl, wearing ceremonial dress and adorned with various ritual paraphernalia, dances in front of a stack of blankets with other girls who have gone through the ceremony; the girl faces the east and impersonates White Shell Woman; the godmother massages the girl's body as she lies on her stomach with head uplifted; the girl runs for her longevity; the girl runs for her longevity in all four directions; a basket of candy is dumped over her head and others gather the candy now empowered because it touched the girl's body; the girl is blessed by the others, who dust her with cattail pollen; and the girl tosses the blankets in all four directions.

After the sun goes down, a group of five Gaan dancers, which represent the spirits of the mountains, enter the camp and dance with the girl and her friends. Four of the dancers are symbolic of the four directions; the fifth is a clown who is respected because he can make rain. All of them wear elaborate masks and cover their bodies with white clay.

If the family has enough money, Teiwes said, a Painting Ceremony is held the following day. That ceremony replicates the earlier night's celebration, with the Gaan dancers taking a more active role and the godfather taking the place of the godmother. This ceremony ends with the girl being covered with white clay and the godfather blessing others by sprinkling them with the clay.

The four-day ceremony closes with the medicine man performing a ritual in the camp of the girl's family.

"It's not just a ceremony for the girl," Teiwes said, "but the people present benefit, too."

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