Apache Girls' Sunrise Ceremony

Apache Girls' Sunrise Ceremony

Type of Holiday: Religious (Apache)
Date of Observation: Four days in July
Where Celebrated: Arizona and New Mexico
Symbols and Customs: Abalone Shell, Blessing the Sick, Cane, Cattail Pollen, Ceremonial Dress, Crown Dancers, Molding, Running Ritual, Sponsor, Sunrise Dance, Symbolic Tipi


The Apache Girls' Sunrise Ceremony is part of the Native American religious tradition. The history of this and other Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The historical development of religious belief systems among Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

The Apache Indians, most of whom now live on reservations in New Mexico and Arizona, believe that their earliest ancestors emerged from the underworld by climbing up a cane stalk behind the Red Ants, also known as the First People. Changing Woman, also known as White-Painted Woman or White Clay Woman, was the first Apache. She appeared in the east as a beautiful young woman, moved to the west, and disappeared when she was old. Changing Woman is the primary deity in the Apache religion. She is embodied as the earth itself.

In July, ceremonies are held at both the Arizona and New Mexico reservations to celebrate the coming-of-age of young Apache girls. Although in the 1800s the U.S. government forbade the Apaches to congregate, in 1911 they were granted permission to get together on July 4th to celebrate the nation's birthday. They chose this date for one of their most important cultural rituals as an insult to their conquerors.

For the four days of the so-called "getting her ready" ceremony, the mythical power of Changing Woman is believed to enter these girls' bodies, giving them the power to heal those around them. Their faces are painted with white clay, and each girl is blessed with sacred CATTAIL POLLEN . They 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.

The size of these ceremonies is one of their most distinctive traits: dozens of people may attend, and they must be fed for the four days that the ceremony lasts. In addition, singers, musicians, and dancers are hired, so the cost of the celebration is significant. Some families find it beyond their means, and this is one reason why the ritual is less common than it used to be. However, in many cases, the extended family will help underwrite the expense. Financial assistance may also come from the woman who serves as the initiate's SPONSOR . This figure is usually a mature friend of the family who aids the young woman throughout the ceremony and is somewhat similar to a godmother.

On the first day, a SYMBOLIC TIPI is constructed to house the ritual activities that will take place. Soon after, a medicine man blesses the CEREMONIAL DRESS that will be worn by the girl, a CANE , and various other sacred items used in the ceremony. On the morning of the second day, the SUNRISE DANCE is performed by the girl and her sponsor. It is during this dance that the girl is believed to take on the powers of Changing Woman, which she then uses in BLESSING THE SICK . The initiate also receives blessings, which take place when adult guests at the ceremony sprinkle CATTAIL POLLEN on her head.

Throughout the four days of the ceremony, the initiate must observe certain guidelines that are related to the sacred quality she is believed to possess. She can only drink through a straw, because if she touches water directly, it's believed that she will bring rain. If she scratches her skin with her fingernails, she will be scarred, so she is given a special scratching stick to prevent this from happening. She also must maintain a serious demeanor because if she laughs a great deal during the ceremony, she is said to become prematurely wrinkled.

Beginning on the second evening, four or more CROWN DANCERS perform a dramatic set of dances, representing the Gaan mountain spirits, who are thought to create good fortune for the girl and those attending the ceremony. The CROWN DANCERS and the girl dance on subsequent days as well, and the girl also completes a RUNNING RITUAL . When the ceremony concludes after four days, the initiate's supernatural powers come to an end, but she is then considered a woman and is eligible for marriage.


Abalone Shell

The piece of abalone shell tied above the forehead of each girl participating in this ceremony represents the shell in which Changing Woman, according to Apache legend, survived a great flood to become the First Apache.

Blessing the Sick

When the initiate takes on the spirit of Changing Woman during the sunrise dance, she is believed to have the power to help those who are suffering from illness or otherwise need assistance. During the ceremony, they come before the girl, and she blesses them in hopes of giving them some of her qualities of longevity and strength. The girl will usually lay her hands on the person and then turn them to each of the four directions. In this way, the girl's coming of age becomes an event that also benefits the wider community.


Representing long life, the cane is made of wood and usually has bells, feathers, and ribbons attached to it. The initiate holds it during her dances, and it is also used in the running ritual.

Cattail Pollen

The Apache consider the pollen from the cattail plant to be a sacred substance that represents the life-giving quality of the earth. To invoke its power for the young woman, guests at the ceremony sprinkle the pollen on her head.

Ceremonial Dress

The girl undergoing the ceremony dons a bright yellow dress on the first day and wears it for the remainder of the ritual. Her sponsor sometimes wears one in a similar style. Traditionally, these were made of buckskin but now are often fashioned from cloth.

Crown Dancers

Wearing elaborate costumes that include enormous wooden headdresses and black hoods, the crown dancers are the most exciting element of the ritual. There are usually four of them along with a fifth clown-like figure, and they perform a long series of athletic dances around a huge bonfire, sometimes on their own and sometimes with the initiate. Impersonating the mountain spirits known as the Gaan, they are believed to have the power to drive away evil, and so are essential to making the ceremony an auspicious event. They wear fantastic headdresses, which tower above their black-hooded faces and painted bodies adorned with harness bells. As they dance around the fire, they resemble huge wooden marionettes as they swing their headdresses from side to side and brandish their wooden swords.


At one point during the ceremony, the girl lies on a piece of buckskin, and the sponsor massages her entire body. It is said that this causes the girl to be "molded" into the proper form so that she will have strength and good health.

Running Ritual

In this part of the ceremony, the girl's cane is stuck into the ground in specific places, and she runs to it and circles it, returning to her starting point. This symbolizes the different stages of life she will pass through. The girl then makes four additional runs to the four cardinal directions. Small children sometimes accompany the girl during the running.


As she enters adulthood, the girl has the assistance of an older female who helps her make the transition. In addition to molding the initiate and participating in the sunrise dance, the sponsor often contributes money to finance the ceremony.

Sunrise Dance

The central action on the part of the girl is the sunrise dance, which takes place early on the second day of the ceremony. Accompanied by the sponsor, the initiate faces east toward the rising sun and dances a specific program of songs, usually a total of thirty-two, with music provided by singers and drummers. The songs relate the story of Changing Woman, and in the course of this performance, the girl is believed to take on the holy powers of that figure.

Symbolic Tipi

The traditional house of the Apache people is the tipi. It is invoked in the ceremony, but rather than creating an actual tipi with walls, a ceremonial open-air structure is made, lashing together four spruce poles in a tipi shape. It provides a ceremonial enclosure, but the open design allows the guests to view the ritual.


Crim, Keith R. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989. Eagle Walking Turtle. Indian America: A Traveler's Companion. Santa Fe: J. Muir Publications, 1989. Fergusson, Erna. Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1931. Ganteaume, Cécile R. "White Mountain Apache Dance: Expressions of Spirituality." In Native American Dance: Ceremonies and Social Traditions, edited by Charlotte Heth. Washington DC: National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, 1992. Henderson, ed, Helene. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Kavasch, E. Barrie. Enduring Harvests: Native American Foods and Festivals for Every Season. Old Saybrook, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1995.


Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University www.peabody.harvard.edu/maria/Sunrisedance.html
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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