Photograph above by Kenji Kawano
By Tess Kenner
The Navajo are the largest Native American nation in the North America. The Kindaalda is the Navajo coming of age ceremony for women. The ceremony takes place after a girl’s first menstrual cycle and lasts four days.
The ritual revolves around the Navajo myth of the ‘Changing Woman.’ According to myth, the ‘Changing woman’ performed the Kinaalda ceremony at puberty, and thus became the first woman to bear children.
In modern day Kinaalda practice, the ceremony commences after the girl’s mother has combed her hair and tied it back into a ponytail. During the first night of the ceremony, the girl stays awake all night, with her legs straight out in front of her, while the men in her family chant prayers.
The following morning, the girl makes an alkan, a large corn cake honoring the sun. This is not an easy task, as it must be large enough to feed the entire tribe. She grinds pounds upon pounds of corn into meal, which she then stirs into a thick batter. She digs a large hole in the earth, in which the men of the tribe start a fire. The girl then lines the hole with cornhusks, pours the batter in, and then layers more cornhusks on top. The cake cooks overnight, while festivities continue. When the cake is finished, it is cut starting on the east side of the cake, moving west, into circular pieces (honoring the sun). The innermost pieces of the cake are presented to the more important members of the tribe like the girl’s grandmother and the medicine man who presides over the ceremony.
Throughout the ceremony, the girl is ‘molded’ several times. She lies down flat on the ground while her mother hovers her hands over the girl’s body, in an attempt to ‘mold’ her into a robust woman. The girl’s hair is once again part of the ritual; it is taken down, and pulled out straight, symbolizing that she will grow strong and tall. After the girl is ‘molded,’ she may go out into the tribe to ‘mold’ others who wish it; it is believed that, during this time, the girl is a magical being and has the power to heal.
Over the course of the ceremony, the girl runs several times, as far as she can to the east. She does this twice a day, testing her endurance, once in the morning and once in the evening. The ceremony ends on the last day with a final run, a final molding, and the distribution of the alkaan.
While the Navajo have a detailed ceremony to signify a girl’s right of passage into adulthood, no coming of age ceremony exists for boys.
Watch this National Geographic clip about the Kindaalda ceremony: