The Apache Sunrise Ceremony reinacts the legend of the first Apache woman. In the legend, White Painted Woman (also known as Esdzanadehe, and Changing Woman) survives the great Flood in an abalone shell, then wanders the land as the waters recede. Atop a mountain, she is impregnated by the sun, and gives birth of a son, Killer of Enemies. Soon afterwards, she is impregnated by the Rain, and gives birth to Son of Water.
However, the world the People live in is not safe until White Painted Woman’s sons kill the Owl Man Giant who has been terrorizing the tribe. When they return from their victory, bringing the meat they have hunted, White Painted Woman expresses a cry of triumph and delight, which later will be echoed by the godmother at the Sunrise Ceremony. She then is guided by spirits to establish a puberty rite to be given for all daughter born to her people, and to instruct the women of the tribe in the ritual, and the rites of womanhood.
When she becomes old, White Painted Woman walks east toward the sun until she meets her younger self, merges with it, and becomes young again. Thus repeatedly, she is born again and again, from generation to generation.
The decision to have an Apache Sunrise Dance Ceremony,or na’ii’ees, for a girl to celebrate the onset of pueberty and the transition from being a girl to becoming a woman is not made hastily. It comes from the traditional values and beliefs of the Apache girl’s family. The Apache family believes that the girl who performs this ritual dance ceremony will be provided with special blessings.
The family will support and encourage the girl while she is performing the Sunrise dance. By participating in the dance, the girl will keep this Apache tradition alive and become a stronger woman.
The decision to have the Sunrise Dance is not an easy task because of the financial expense, the preparation, the responsibilities, and the support of the kinship and godparents. The preparations for this important Apache ceremony take more than a year to complete.
First, an Apache girl and her family have to decide if they want to commit to this ceremony. The preperations required are many, and the cost for everything needed is significant, as much as $10,000.00. Originally, this ceremony was performed for just one girl at a time, but in modern times, it is often shared by several girls and their families, due to the cost.
The Sunrise Dance Ceremony is held in the summer after the girl begins menstruating.
The next step after agreeing to have a Sunrise Dance, is the selection of god parent The godmother should be someone who will be an example and provide wisdom for the girl to follow in life. In addition, the godparent should be spiritually strong in the Apache way. When the selection has been made, the next step is to ask the god parents if they will accept the responsibilities of being traditional god parents to the special girl.
It is important for the chosen couple to have accomplished a lot of things already in their lives. Because the Sunrise dance takes place only during the summer season, it must be planned a year in advance. During the winter, the girl’s parents would ask the god parents to sponsor the dance, which will be performed during the summer.
Because the element of surprise is important, the request is made in the morning hours before the sun rises (3, 4, 5 a.m.). This is an important part. Since the parents of the child want the god parents to say yes, they give them no warning. On the chosen morning before they go to the future god parents, the family of the girl loads their vehicle with food and drinks to offer the couple to persuade them to accept. In addition, an eagle feather with a turquoise stone is given to the couple in appreciation of their acceptance.
The Sunrise ceremony has different stages with specific procedures that must be followed at each step.
One of these stages involves selecting a medicine man who will officiate the ceremonial event. This includes special prayers and songs. In choosing a medicine man, he must have these qualities: strength, respect, and good moral character. To have a knowledgeable medicine man means a more successful dance.
The Sunrise Dance is a four day event that begins on a Friday and ends on a Monday.
The first day of the Apache Sunrise Dance Ceremony
The first day is Friday, an important day for the medicine man, because it is now his duty to take over the spiritual preparations. In addition, he will have to obtain helpers, including the girl’s godfather, to help him perform his duties.
A sweat lodge is built by the girl’s family, in which the male members participating in this ceremony will purify themselves. During the sweat, the medicine man prepares and makes the scared tools the girl uses in the dance. He will make the cane which the girl will use in her old age. In addition, he will bless all the special tools, such as the eagle feather, abalone shell, deer-skin, ribbons, prayer stones, and anything else that is used in the ceremony.
As the medicine man prepares the tools, there are many sacred songs sung in the Apache language. The men in the sweat lodge will sing and pray most of the day.
While this is taking place, the women also have a role to fulfill. They cook special food for everyone who comes into the camp., The special girl is also expected to take food to the sweat lodge at noon and to leave the food at the outskirts of the lodge.
Before sundown on this special Friday, everyone is gathered for the occasion of the dressing of the girl. This is when the godmother dresses the girl with the sacred tools the medicine man has made and blessed. The items that were prepared and blessed are placed on top of a tarp on the ground. The purpose of the sacred tools are as follows.
The eagle feather in the girl’s hair is for strength and guidance. The abalone shell that is tied to her hair is positioned in front of her forehead as a symbol of the Changing Woman (also known as White Painted Woman or First Woman or Esdzanadehe). The deer-skin (buckskin) symbolizes the sacred animal. The design sewed on the dress and the tin cones placed on the fringes of the outfit represent the spirits. The cane that she uses through the dance is to support her and also provide her with strength. The ribbon attached to the cane signifies the cardinal colors of black, blue, yellow, and white.
After the dressing of the girl take place, the next stage is to have the medicine man make a speech. The medicine man’s speech is to focus on the gifts of the Sunrise Dance Ceremony and how important it is to be prayerful during the next four days. He also stresses to the girl her role, responsibilities, and the learning in which she will partake. One special role is the healing powers she alone will possess during the dance.
The medicine man also will address the god parents as to their roles and responsibilities. The responsibilities of the god parents are especially important because part of the time the girl spends with the godmother.
Many small rituals must be performed and abided by. The medicine man explains to the girl that she must not touch her body, therefore, she is given a scratch stick. Because the girl cannot touch water, a reed is given to her through which to drink. These observances are procedures that must be followed. The medicine man hopes that the girl will listen, learn, and open her heart to all that she will face. This will mold her into a knowledgeable woman. It is said that the girl will pick up qualities from her godmother that will benefit her in her life.
Four sour songs are sung to officially begin the Sunrise Ceremony.
After the sun sets and continuing into the night, songs and prayers are performed. The medicine man and his singers will began singing the thirty-two songs. Each of these songs are taught and learned through successive generations.
When the dance begins, the special girl selects another girl who has already performed this dance. This girl will accompany and encourage her to be strong throughout the ceremony. The dance will continue until the thirty-two songs are completed. Than the girls will go back to the camp and rest, for the next day is another stage through which her endurance will be tested again.
The second day of the Apache Sunrise Ceremony
The second day, early Saturday morning, the girl is told that one of the medicine man’s helpers will come to the camp to awaken her. However, the girl is already awake, even before the helper comes. The girl and her friend are escorted to the dance ground, where she must prepare the blankets. Four blankets are placed flat on the ground.
The four blankets are obtained from the girl’s camp and the god parents camp. Then, a buckskin is placed over the blankets. The purpose is for the girl to dance on them and to be massaged upon it. After this takes place, a large abalone shell, which is full of pollen, is placed at the east front of the buckskin. A personal burden basket full of candy and money is placed next to the abalone shell to be given away after the completion of the dance on Sunday.
Now the girl will begin the actual dance. The dance will last approximately three to six hours and is a real test of her physical and spiritual endurance. On this second morning, the girl will dance in a camp dress, which is a two piece long length dress. This dress is fashioned after the white settlers, and a buckskin top is placed over the dress.
Another stage of dancing occurs when the girl is stretched out on the blankets. Face down, on the pile of blankets, the godmother massages the girl. Bending over her, the godmother gently “molds” her so that she will have a good disposition all her life. This is why it is important to pick a godmother who has a good disposition. As the godmother massages the girl, she passes her good dispostion into the girl and prays that this young girl will become a strong person and grow up to be a fine lady.
Then, according to the Apache culture, the girl walks in the foot prints that are outlined in pollen. Putting her moccasin foot in each print, the girl will “walk in the footprint of the god,” and she will be fortunate and healthy.
Another stage in the Sunrise Dance during the second day is when the girl is positioned on her knees on the stack of blankets. She “dances” on her knees with her hands upraised, fingers straight and flat together, and sways back and forth. This is the representation of “The Changing Woman.” At no time is the girl imposed beyond her strength. It is her choice, at any moment, to cease this activity, but it is in her favor to continue. This endurance will obviously give her the gift of strength.
The dance will continue until each stage is completed on this Saturday morning. The girl will once again go back to her camp to rest and prepare for the evening dance.
The Crown Dancers appear on the evening of the second day of the Sunrise Ceremony.
Late in the evening on the second day, the Crown Dancers will appear. They are Mountain Spirit Dancers representing the gaans, who will bless and guide the girl through the dance this evening. The Crown Dancers have crowns that are made in advance by the medicine man. They will be blessed by the medicine man.
The total number of Crown Dancers is five. There are four regular dancers, one for each direction, and one clown. The Crown Dancers will dance to their own special songs, as well as the thirty-two songs sung on this night. The girl, her guiding friend, and three other selected friends will dance with the Crown Dancers around a big fire. The fire is full of huge logs that will burn until the early morning.
The special girl is lovely as she dances holding in her hand the cane decorated with ribbons. The Crown Dancers will give the special girl blessings and will guide her through the dance around the fire. Her friend will give her the gift of encouragement by dancing with her. This dance is a very spiritual dance because, while the Crown Dancers and the girls dance, they form a spirit that is felt, not only by them, but by the surrounding people. The girl has danced at sunrise and now she dances until midnight. The dance is completed for the night, and tomorrow will bring to the girl a greater gift than today.
The girl will rest now, for a few hours because at sunrise, she will awaken and be ready again for the Sunday dance.
The third day of the Apache Sunrise Ceremony
On Sunday morning, some of the most impressive of all the rites are performed. It is the men who now take over. Saturday was the woman’s day, and Sunday is the man’s day.
Prior to this day, the girl grinds some corn and other natural ingredients for the sacred clay that she will be painted with this morning. The men are directed to mix these ingredients continuously. The dance will have thirty-two more songs, and the girl will dance close to three hours, in which her endurance is amazing.
Her godfather appears and he approaches her while singing. He paints her with a brush that is dipped into the clay mixture. As he brushes the clay onto the girl, he must pray powerful prayers and encourage the girl to finish. The painting is a blessing for peace, prosperity, and fertility. The godfather bestows all these blessings on the girl as he finishes painting her. He then sprays the crowd with the paint as he flicks the brush in the air.
The molding into a woman is to bring powers to the girl, in which, she is able to cure sickness, emotional illness, and is able to bless the people who come to her. The power she has is used. After the painting of the girl, people go up to her and bless her. At the same time, they ask for blessings from her or cures for specific illnesses.
The first to line up is the medicine man, followed by the men of the tribe, and lastly, the woman of the tribe. After the last blessing is given, the dance is over for the girl.
After the painting ceremony is over, the young men who were the Spirit Dancers must now dance one more time. Special prayers are said to them by everyone. Then a special person comes up to speak, following the Crown Dancers, and the prayer sworn by the Crown Dancers shall be put to rest forever. These prayers are sacred and no one else will repeat what has been said by the dancers.
The young men will dance to four more songs. The prayers of the medicine man lead the dancers, as they are now free to leave. The Apache people send them on their way with thanks for having come as special guests, because they are considered sacred beings.
On Sunday after this is done, the girl is finally free to rest.
The fourth and final day of the Apache Sunrise Ceremony
On the fourth day, Monday morning, the final prayers are said by the medicine man. First the girl is undressed. Each item that has been worn is now taken off, one by one, by her godmother. In conclusion, the medicine man, again talks to those who are present and reminds them of their own responsibilities. He addresses the traditional family, friends, and has special words for the girl and her god parents
The medicine man is a strong, powerful man and what he speaks will linger in everyone’s mind until they meet again.
The Apache Sunrise dance has now been completed and the girl has become a woman.