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The Apache Girls' Sunrise Ceremony is celebrated for 4 days in July  in Arizona and New Mexico to celebrate the coming-of-age of young Apache women. (The sign of this is when a girl begins her first menstruation.) . The Apache Indians believe that their early ancestors emerged from the underworld by climbing up a cane stalk behind the Red Ants, who they also refer to as "The First People."  The Changing Woman, also known to them as the White-Painted Woman ( or Esdzanadehe) was the very first Apache.  She appeared in the East as a beautiful young woman, then moved to the West and disappeared when she grew old.

  They have 4 days in which they prepare the girl with a "getting her ready" ceremony. It is during this time, the Apache believe that the Changing Woman's mythical powers enter the girls' bodies and thus giving them the power to heal all those around them.  The girls' faces are painted with white clay, and each girl is blessed with sacred cattail pollen.  They also wear a piece of abalone shell above their foreheads and act out the role of their mythical female ancestor as they prepare for their lives as adult women.

On the Mescalero, New Mexico reservation, the ceremony involves the girls running around a basket four times to symbolize passing through the 4 stages of life: Infancy, Childhood, Adulthood and Old Age.  This also represents the 4 values to which the girls should aspire to: Physical Strength, Even Temperament, Prosperity and Healthy Old Age.

In the Holy Lodge every night they dance to songs telling the story of creation are sung accompanied by deer-hoof rattles.  Besides the puberty rites for the young girls, there is also a rodeo, a powwow (that offers cash prizes for dancers), a parade (on the 4th of July), and a Dance of the Mountain Gods dance at night.  

The most central figure is the sponsoring godmother, followed by the medicine man and Gaans Crown Dancers. But, not all Apache girls who reach adulthood choose to participate in this ceremony. But, those that do feel it is a powerful, life-affirming ritual that helps prepare them for whatever lies ahead in their lives.

The ceremony is pretty expensive. This is why many girls choose not to participate. And, the work involved is also great. The cost of can be up to  $10,000 per ceremony. The sponsoring godmother must be paid, as must the medicine man and the Gaans dancers, and food must be provided for four days to the entire community. Also, the girl's White Painted Woman costume and adornments are costly, much like bridal gowns are for today's weddings. Theefore, girls may sometimes wait a year or more so that their families may join with other families to share the expenses (and extended family members also help out) and workload of preparing the ceremony with the families of other girls soon to enter puberty.

In the 1800's the U.S. government forbade Apaches to congregate. Therefore, most of the ceremonies were done secretly.  But in 1911 they were granted permission to get together on the 4th of July to celebrate our nation's birthday.  This is why they have chosen this date for one of their most important cultural rituals, the Apache Girls Sunrise Ceremony, as a way of insulting their conquerors. But, it wasn't until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed, that the Sunrise Ceremony got re-established on most reservations.

The abalone  shell that is tied above the forehead of each girl who participates is believed to represent the Changing Woman.  This is because their legend states the Changing Woman survived the great flood  in an abalone shell to become the First Apache. She wandered the lands as the water receded. Then on top of  a mountain, she gets impregnated by the sun, and gives birth of a son who is called, Killer of Enemies. Then,, she gets  impregnated by the Rain, and gives birth to a son who is called, Son of Water. When she grows old,  the White Painted Woman walks East toward the sun until she meets her younger self. She then merges with her youthful self and becomes young again. Therefore , she is born  over again and again, from generation to generation.
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The Apache Crown Dancers also known as Gaan, represent Mountain Spirits, who come to the puberty ceremonies to dance with the girls. These dancers have black-hooded faces and wear awesome headdresses. Their bodies are painted and adorned with harness bells also.  As the Crown Dancers dance around the fire, they look like giant wooden marionettes as they swing their headdresses from side to side.  They also fling around wooden swords.

Return to our July Holidays Page for more celebrations.

Source of Information:
"Holidays, Symbols & Customs  3rd Edition"
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

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