A recent spot on National Public Radio brought deserved attention to a most sacred ceremony of Indian peoples. The Isnati Awica Dowanpi (Coming of Age) ceremony for Dakota girls was featured on NPR’s fascinating special series, “Hidden World of Girls.” The puberty rite, an ancient way of initiating boys and girls into adulthood, is being revived in all corners of Native America. Puberty rites are partly a response to increasing concerns about the harsh effects of modern pressures on Native lifeways, but mostly about coming to understand the sacred responsibilities bestowed upon indigenous peoples.
At the Turtle Lodge in Manitoba, there is a movement afoot to bring together boys and young men for a vision quest next spring. Following ancient protocols, Anishinabe elder and healer Dave Courchene hopes to see the emergence of strong men who will be set on a path of learning, love, humility and relationship to mother Earth based on respect for women—the life givers—and all life.
“It’s an opportunity to feel the love of the land,” said Courchene, founder of the Turtle Lodge on the Sagkeeng First Nation. “The boy will understand what it means to be a man, to become a father and a grandfather.”
Courchene, a former superintendent of education, has been on this path for 25 years. Puberty rites have always been practiced, he said, but had to “go underground” during much of the last century. Today, the ceremonies are conducted in a more open environment, creating opportunities for learning about traditional ways and a young person’s role and responsibilities in their communities. In the East, a similar thread is being woven. First Environment Collaborative, a program within Running Strong for American Indian Youth, is a culturally-based national network led by Native American women. Based partly in Akwesasne Mohawk territory, its advocacy in women’s reproductive health prevention and intervention from a lifecycle perspective includes support of the development of the Kanienkeha:ka Women’s Moon Lodge. Led by a bear clan mother of the Mohawk longhouse and assisted by a network of family volunteers, nearly 60 Mohawk girls and boys have undergone ritual seclusion as part of puberty rite restoration.
This strong support of Native women and girls in developing self-efficacy and control of their reproductive power is viewed as a cultural value. In this sense, reproductive justice by way of puberty rites is not just about the reproduction of indigenous bodies, but also production of culture, knowledge and development of women’s voices. Each element is critically important to the future of Indian country, notes Katsi Cook, a traditional midwife and director of First Environment Collaborative.
In the Southwest, Tewa Women United is a collective intertribal women’s voice in the Tewa homelands. The organization started as a support group focused on domestic and sexual violence, alcoholism, and wanted to explore ways to reclaim their cultural identities. TWU quickly grew into a large consortium of women who wanted to “uncover the power, strength, and skills they possess to become positive forces for change in their families and communities.”
A decade later, TWU offers programs for leadership and economic literacy, indigenous women’s health, and reproductive and environmental justice. Accordingly, a central value of Tewa Women United is wowatsi, a Tewa phrase that reflects purposeful living, reciprocity, and living life as a prayer.
The initiation of our young people by grand mothers follows this logic: The health of the child depends greatly on the health of the grandmother. Rites of passage often include real talk about courtship, relationships and childbirth, important experiences too often trivialized and hefted upon young women by popular media and society. Through the teachings of elder women in ceremonial settings, says Cook, there is an integration of indigenous knowledge, Native women’s ways of knowing, as well as lived experiences. The mentorship and guidance of elders is vital to the success of puberty rites, no matter where they take place on Turtle Island.
This piece originally appeared in Indian Country Today newspaper as an Editorial.