Coming of Age Ceremonies Transform 'The Curse' Into a Celebration Embracing Womanhood

Filed under: Religion & Spirituality, Development: Tweens, Development: Teens

american indian ceremony picture

The Brave Heart Society believes that the transition to womanhood is something to be celebrated. Courtesy of The Brave Heart Society


Remember when the onset of your first period was a clandestine event marked by "the talk?" Your mom marched you to her closet where she had secretly stashed away a Kotex "starter" kit, offering vague instructions designed to smooth the transition to womanhood?

Later, you stuffed your soiled undies in the garbage and nearly died of embarrassment as you heard your mom declare to a friend on the phone: "My baby girl is a woman!"

That was probably the moment you understood why menstruation is often called "The Curse."

Well, good news: Our daughters have come a long way, baby. While we were dealing with PMS, sexual insecurities and popping Midol, a group of South Dakota women have revived and reinvented a centuries-old ritual that celebrates the blood, or how it lets womanhood shine.

The group, The Brave Heart Society, believes this rite of passage is a gift and created "Four Days, Nights: A Girls' Coming-Of-Age Ceremony" where, last month, five young girls raised a tepee on a grassy bank of the Missouri River on the Yankton Sioux/Ihanktonwan Oyate Reservation in South Dakota. They shared their story with the Kitchen Sisters.

The ritual marked the first day of the celebration for their womanhood.

"The Brave Heart society reconnects women and girls with the culture that was stolen from them, in the most powerful way possible," Olympic gold medalist and Running Strong for Indian Youth spokesman Billy Mills tells ParentDish. "By bringing back a once-vanished coming-of-age ceremony, Lakota, Dakota and Nakota women are reclaiming what's theirs. Girls in Indian country face many challenges, but the Brave Heart Society reminds us that while many of our communities are economically very poor, we remain culturally very rich."

Now in its 14th year, it turns out the group's ceremonies that model empowering womanhood with "coming of age" rituals are an ancient idea that was shoved under the proverbial carpet in the pre-June Cleaver "let's not tell anyone" '50s, '60s and '70s eras.

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Young women participate in a four-day ceremony called Isnati Awicadowanpi. Courtesy of The Brave Heart Society

The ceremony, also called Isnati Awicadowanpi, was almost completely lost to Dakota women until recently, but was pieced together through interviews with the elders and grandmothers who recreated it.

"I was part of the first group who went through this Isnati coming-of-age ceremony 13 years ago," one of the teenage participants tells NPR, referring to the first year in recent history that the ancient ritual was revived and reinvented.

With American and European contact, many such societies and ceremonies have been lost in the past 100 years. In 1994, Brave Hearts interviewed grandmothers from three states about what they remembered of the Isnati Awicadowanpi coming-of-age ceremony and replicated the ceremony for their daughters and granddaughters.

"In the old days," one of the Brave Heart members tells NPR, "as soon as a girl had her first moon, her menses, she would immediately be isolated from the rest of the camp and begin a four-day ceremony where she was taught by other women. So we symbolically set up one camp a year and have the girls come in for four days."

"At times, we have a nutritionist come in and talk to them about eating right and not just drinking Gatorade, about not being afraid of doctors and having to get a check-up," Brook Spotted Eagle says. "Sexual abuse and incest can pose a huge problem within families. There's no easy way to talk about these issues, so you just have to get them out there. And we're always talking about this concept of a camp circle. We can't be attacking each other and doing this mean girls stuff."

Since it was reclaimed and reinvented 13 years ago, almost 90 teenage girls have experienced this rite of passage.

These days, manufacturers, including Kotex, are embracing a shift of consciousness surrounding the start of cycling for young girls. Modern period starter kits are branded "OMG I got my period," and Kotex launched two online communities, one called Girlspace for girls to talk about their "periods, boys, shoes and whatever ... and share tips for pads or tampons," and The Ladies Room where moms and daughters can share their thoughts and feelings about this passage.

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