When Cutcha Risling Baldy started menstruating as an adolescent, she preferred to keep her body’s development private, but her mother surprised her by acting happy and celebratory.
Her mother told her that their Hupa ancestors had once held flower dances in Northern California for young women at this time in their lives, and she asked Risling Baldy if she’d like her own flower dance, a ceremony that hadn’t been held since the 1950s.
“I felt kind of ashamed about it, so I told her that was a gross idea, and I would never do that, and she dropped it,” said Risling Baldy, now a third year doctoral student in Native American studies at the University of California, Davis.
But later in life, Risling Baldy’s attention returned to the flower dances as young women’s coming of age ceremonies have seen a resurgence among the Hupa, Karuk, Yurok and other Northern California tribes.
“Many years ago I was in a bad relationship and I didn’t have the feelings of self-worth to get out of it,” Risling Baldy said. “When I was telling my mom about it, she said ‘Oh, Cutcha, we should have danced for you.’”
Risling Baldy said that conversation was the catalyst to start researching the importance of the flower dances and how these ceremonies can provide a space for healing and mend the tribes’ social fabrics that were so torn by the California Indian genocide.
“Anthropologists have written these long books about how to do a ceremony,” she said. “But I want to create something that discuses how the flower dances change the women and men involved, and the profound impact they have on bringing the community back together.”
Risling Baldy, who is enrolled with the Hoopa Valley Tribe with ties to the Yurok and Karuk peoples, recently received a $5,000 grant from the UC-Davis Humanities Institute to pursue her doctoral project in which she’ll collect oral narratives from the about 10 young women who have recently celebrated their flower dances, and the special meaning it brought to their lives.
When the flower dance resurgence began about 10 years ago, she said there was more hesitancy: the families of the young women would hold them in private with a limited number of guests, and only a few ceremonial songs were known. But today, Risling Baldy said, many young girls are already planning their flower dances, the ceremonies have become big public events and many more songs have been brought back.
“I want to have the girls talk about these changes in their own voice, so we can understand that trajectory,” she said.
She also hopes the project will shed light on how the important roles women played in traditional culture were suppressed and even erased by anthropologists, government officials and missionaries, she said.
One famous California anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber—who made audio recordings of Ishi telling traditional stories—described the Yuroks as being more “evolved,” she said, once they had stopped their celebrations of “female physiology.” She added that Kroeber’s own notes suggest the Yuroks were still holding the flower dances, though that apparently conflicted with the narrative for his popular books.
“The dissertation will tell the young women’s stories and also talk about the history of how colonization attacks the women in indigenous societies to break it apart,” she said. “If we can heal that break with how we see our women, we’ll start to rebuild our societies.”
Risling Baldy is also the executive director and founder of the Native Women’s Collective, a nonprofit with the mission of supporting Native American arts and culture through various projects and public education. The nonprofit also supports a group of women, including Risling Baldy and her 4-year-old daughter, who perform flower dance demonstrations at different Big Time gatherings and community events where they sing songs, wear regalia and display other cultural items used in the ceremony.
“It’s important for people to see the women singing our songs together, to see that we did sing and to understand why it’s important we continue to sing,” she said.