Free Coursework about How does the Western Apache Girls Puberty Ceremony

Differ from other Apachean Examples


The following paper will detail the ethnographic histories of Western and Eastern Apache, with a primary focus on girls’ puberty rituals, an essential part of Apache culture. The paper will detail Basso’s 1966 account from Wisdom Sits in High Places to start and then describe puberty rites in Eastern tribes, including Jicarilla, San Carlos, and Mescalero. The analysis found strong similarities between the Western and Eastern Apache, with the main difference being the presence of clown imagery and motif in the Eastern tribes. In addition to detailing and describing the ceremonial puberty rites of Western Apache, the paper will also provide meaningful distinctions between Basso’s 1969 work, Western Apache Witchcraft, and his previous work, Wisdom Sits in High Places.

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Girls’ Puberty Ceremonies in Apache Culture

Wright (2003) writes that gender roles continue characterization by cultural parameters, rituals, and customs, and the Apache is no different. Women themselves constructed what it meant to be a woman, what it meant to surpass puberty, and how knowledge passed on generationally. Women had deep significance within society and formulated their rituals within lodges. Women produced quills, leather goods, and baskets in the same clubs where the ceremonies occurred (Wright, 2003). 

Western Apache Girls’ Puberty Ceremony


Basso’s (1996) Wisdom Sits in High Places evocatively describes a girls’ puberty ceremony in a narrative and informative way. He notes a historical event occurring at Cibecue in 1977. In this year, anthropologists document the presence of a 17-year-old young woman with plastic curlers rolling up her hair. She was in a Utah boarding school just two weeks ago, where the style was fashionable. Western Apache women should wear hair down for their puberty ceremony, which illustrates respect for the tradition and stagers. The idea of respect is relevant here: the girls’ hair indicates she offers enough respect to her elders to assist her in success during adulthood (Basso, 1996).

Keith Basso also has a more dated work from 1966 called The Gift of the Changing Woman, which details the woman’s puberty ceremony. It primarily includes the Cibecue, the dominant Apache group in the Western category. The first part of the text details a pubertal girls’ ceremony from a community of Apache living on the reservation. The work came when there was not much activity on the Western Apache (Basso, 1966).

Basso first describes Cibecue, the community the anthropologists are analyzing. It is in east-central Arizona, known as the Fort Apache Reservation. The settlement has only about 700 inhabitants scattered around a creek with relatively infertile soil. 1875 was one year that the Cibecue Apache experienced conflict with white settlers and banishment to other regions. Many consider it a conservative and old-fashioned reservation (Basso, 1966).

Basso notes some relevant features of this ceremony, which is na ih es, and in some places, has waned due to high costs and the tradition upheld primarily by elders and grandparents. Before initial menses, the ceremony takes place at about 11 or 12 years of age. It consists of dance, while many elders suggest it remains too expensive to uphold. The girl in question must have good relations with her relatives, which indicates that the na ich es will go well. An elder sprinkles hadn tin, a powder, in four different directions to wish the girl success in all ‘directions’ of her life (Basso, 1996).

The Ndeh guhyaneh are elders who decide on the ceremony’s time and place. The na ihl esn is the sponsor or one who readies the girl for entering the ceremony and puberty. Blood kin and grandparents usually make up the Ndeh Guyana. The girl’s father is chief in command of events, and the na ih es organizational crew appoints a second in command, typically a paternal friend. They have the ceremony close to kin and where there is ample water, and they include a supply of food. Some of the first parts of the ritual include dancing, and blood relations remain a significant aspect of the na ih es (Basso, 1996).

The ceremony is a testament to the importance of the family unit and kinship ties in Apache culture. Bahr (1994) notes many Anglo-Americans typify their worldview as one in which a child matures and leaves home to pursue success and happiness autonomously. In American Indian, and thus Apache, culture grandparents and elders are central for raising children. They serve as agents of socialization. In some cultures, Amerindians even call children’ little grandparents’ (Bahr, 1994). Basso’s Western Apache Witchcraft also details the importance of kinship ties among the Western Apache tribes (Basso, 2004). It is not surprising, then, that the girls’ puberty ceremony includes a focus on engaging broader kinship participants.

An emphasis on longevity is noted in Western Apache or Cibecue ceremonies. The girl receives a staff decorated and made of wood, gish ih zha ha or cane, which she also uses later in life. There are eagle feathers on it, which has a symbolic significance. Eagles protect from certain sicknesses. Feathers from an oriole, a different bird, represent prayer and directionality. Below is an image of the walking stick.

The girl also has a pendant tied into her hair, and she becomes the “Changing Woman” (Basso, 1966, p. 145) or white bead woman. The white feather of the eagle holds the women’s age and hope for long life. 

In addition to beverages, food is another significant aspect of Apache’s cultural ceremony. Feasts denote the unity of the clan. “When they have a big feed, all their relatives have given food or money. All their relatives wanted to help out” (Basso, 1966, p. 147). Nil sla ih ka join the rest of the kin members, and when there is a large amount of food around, they refer to this as a successful ceremony. Shi ti ke are the only relationships that are more about aiding and informal bonds than blood ties (Basso, 1966). 

A series of dances occur with the ceremony, beginning with the bi keh ihl ze, constituting a kind of ‘pre-ceremony’ of dance. It facilitates the introduction of the girl to the guests. One participant said, “It shows everybody that tomorrow she will be at the head of her people” (Basso, 1996, p. 149). Bi til tih is the second dance, with the medicine man singing songs the girl dances to announce her entry into the community. Two girls of the same age as her dance by her side. She cannot yet dance with a male partner. Members from the surrounding community attend the ceremony, getting ready for a ih es, which follows the morning after (Basso, 1996). 

According to thematic principles, Basso characterizes the na ih es, the main event, which are the Changing Woman, Songs, and Power. These are significant because they represent or underscore the ceremony’s purpose. Changing Woman emerges from an Apache mythos, whereby the Changing Woman gives birth to sons and Apache culture. There are supposed to be 32 songs sung at na ih es, signifying some of the first songs Changing Woman sang. The conception of power is different from our own. The Apache meant a supernatural force that a person could obtain only under the right conditions, and this force emanates from the universe. It may include aspects of mythos, such as plants, animals, shells, and stones (Basso, 1996).

The subsequent parts of the ritual include blessings, throwing off blankets (also symbolic), as well as the symbolic granting of what Basso calls “a good disposition” (Basso, 1996, p. 163), which the girl will require for the laborious physical tasks—such as hauling water and other materials—back to her place of residence. Within the nuclear family, ties continue to be non-reciprocal, while they are shared outside of the nuclear family (Basso, 1996).


The Navajo is another Western Apache tribe whose rituals Markstrom & Iborra (2003) describe. Is the ceremony’s name, and much like for the Cibecue, there is an emphasis on personality change and the transformational nature of this ceremony. There is also an association with the onset of menses as a cause for celebration. The Changing Woman—a concept also occurring in the Cibecue—relates to the mother who birthed two hero twins (Markstrom & Iborra, 2003). Basso also denotes the birth of the hero twins, issued from the union between the Changing Woman, Sun and Water. Much like the Cibecue, the Changing Woman mythologically gives birth to the Apache nation. The Navajo also stress that the Woman receives extraordinary power due to the ceremony and her transformation into a woman. The ceremony also lasts at least 4 days (Markstrom & Iborra, 2003), commensurate with the Cibecue ceremony. 

Compared to Other Apache Groups (Eastern)


Opler & Opler (1950) provide a history of the Mescalero, an Eastern Apache tribe. Accounts from a voyage by Mendoza-Lopez suggest the Mescales represented Indians at the area of Sacatsol, and they were horsemen during this period. By the 18th century, many already called them Mescalero because they tended to consume baked mescal. They had territory that extended to the Pecos Mountain sides and Rio Grande and the desert Bolson de Mapimf. They were predominantly present in New Mexico. As well as being hunters, they were also raiders, which put them at frequent odds with local Mexicans. They were more interested in hunting and raiding than agricultural ventures (Opler & Opler, 1950).

One thing that distinguishes the Mescalero girls’ puberty rites is a higher emphasis on music, even though the Western Apache at Cibecue also incorporates music. According to Shapiro & Talamantez (1986), the woman ‘sings’ into puberty (Shapiro & Talamantez, 1986), whereas, if we recall, in Western Apache culture, the focus is more on dancing. Practitioners of the puberty ceremony are ‘singers,’ with the utterance of powerful words done in song. Music plays a more significant role in structuring time during the ritual than does dance (Shapiro & Talamantez, 1986).

There are also different garments involved. Like with the Western Apache, some kinswomen and relatives assist with the pre-ceremony to get the girl ready to enter womanhood. There is a Separation Stage, which occurs in the beginning. More traditional families begin by collecting pollen and cattails, a necessary ingredient. The singer here is the Gutaal, while the Sponsor is the Naaikish. There are four gifts that the girl recipient receives for the ceremony (Shapiro & Talamantez, 1986). The Sponsor has a different name, even though it is still a female sponsor, much like with the Western Apache. In addition to this, the Sponsor teaches the girl the ways of life and the ceremony (Shapiro & Talamantez, 1986). In the Western ritual, the Sponsor essentially serves as a helper facilitating the ceremony. Note the following quote: “The girl is taught proper Apache ways by her sponsor” (Shapiro & Talamantez, 1986, p. 79), distinct from the Sponsor serving in a helping role. The girl receives a beautiful dress, which is different from the focus on feathers or eagle and oriole, as characterized by the Western tradition.

Dancing characterizes and structures the ritual for the Cibecue. There is a different dance for blessing the Woman, and a different dance when she throws off the blanket. There is also a designated dancing area where the medicine man plays drums. During the Four Holy Days, the girl continues dancing with her family (Basso, 1966). Basso says the following: “People come to na it es to “see the dance and take it easy for a while and have a good time” (Basso, 1966, p. 168). By contrast, for the Mescalero, it was more about structuring the ceremony, which also lasted at least 6 days, through music.

There remain some similarities between Cibecue and Mescalero. Sacred Sites, Sacred Places by Carmichael et al (2005) note there is a unique lodge designed for the puberty ceremony, and lodge poles support each element. There are four sides, and the myth is that Four Grandfathers hold up the club. Girls will transform to become the White Painted Woman like the Western Apache. Consequently, they receive such great power that Apache says nobody could cause them any harm.

They also use drinking tubes and scratching sticks (Carmichael et al, 2005), like girls do during the Western Apache, Cibecue, ceremony. The ceremony founders have suggested that the singers who enact songs during this ritual gain special powers. However, here, the singers represent those who have gained the ability to transform communities through song and issue traditional knowledge. Their influence remains reserved for tribal concerns and endeavors (Carmichael et al, 2005).

San Carlos Apache

Harrell (1976) details the puberty rituals of yet another Eastern Apache tribe, the San Carlos, who live on a reservation on Pinal Counties of Arizona and Gila. While the similarities between the San Carlos and the Apache of Cibecue are startlingly similar, Harrell (1976) talks about the shell as a significant symbol in this culture. In a photo, a young ‘maiden’ is 13-years of age during the ceremony (Harrell, 1976), indicating that perhaps, organizers and the San Carlos tribe chose older girls. The girl also wears her hair down but has a shell hanging in the middle. The importance of the surface is sacredness, and the cover possesses power. When the maiden wears the shell, Apache believes that she is receiving energy through it, infused into her directly. San Carlos Apache associate the Abalone shell with sunset and the White Painted Woman (Harrell, 1976). Here, a different element from the other tribes is the presence of the body, and its power-transferring capacities, even though power transferal is a theme in the other ceremonies.

In addition to this, the mythos behind the Changing Woman differs here. Basso (1966) notes the mythos in his text involves the Changing Woman impregnated by the Sun (Basso, 1966), and the same myth element is present in the San Carlos, where the Sun’s rays impregnate the Woman. However, in the Cibecue myth, Water Old Man also impregnates the Woman after four days. In this myth, the children borne of the Sun and Water are half-siblings who constitute the first Apache ever created. The two children of these figures, Borne of Water Old Man and Slayer of Monsters, the Sun’s child, venture out into the world as independent heroes (Basso, 1966). The myth described by Harrell (1976) does not talk about this additional feature of the story with the two children.

Other minor and nuanced differences appear miscellaneous. For instance, the girl has turkey and eagle feathers on her adornment (Harrell, 1976), rather than oriole and eagle feathers. The Changing Woman’s attendants also have a more elaborate and intricate role. The researcher studying this culture noted a teenage female companion, D, was a Goddess companion. One goddess companion is the Sun, representing a day, while another is the Moon, meaning night. D’s cape has a star-like pattern (Harrell, 1976), while Basso’s account does not mention such a thing.


Opler (1936) noted relevant geographical features of the Jicarilla, another Easternmost Apache tribe. Their land included northern and eastern North Mexico, joining with southern Colorado. At the limits of the east, they saw the Canadian River, while to the north, the boundary consisted of the Arkansas River. Opler (1936) examined Mora’s site in the south (Opler, 1936). Jicarilla culture typically coincides with the Pueblo people who lived in the Rio Grande and has attested to an emphasis on corn growing. They share commonalities with other Athabaskan tribes (Opler, 1936). 

There are significant differences in the Jicarilla, and one of these is the clown’s presence, which illustrates that males also participated in the puberty ceremony for girls. The Jicarilla view themselves as indebted to Pueblos for their long life, and there are events here involving the sacred clown. The clown has a hidden cap with white and black stripes, and he has a painted body of black and white horizontal lines. He has on a bandoleer with strung-up bread and deer hooves on moccasins. He also has spruce branches in hand. The clown engages in seemingly leud acts, such as simulating copulation, eating filth, and delivering a speech. He offers the young Woman a deer in a sexualized way, while his appearance is meant to strike fear in children (Opler, 1936).

Kiowa Apache

Beatty (1978) anthropologically documented the Kiowa Apache, a small group compared to the other ones considered Eastern. They lived near and in Anadarko, Oklahoma. There was a sharp distinction from the southwestern tribes. There is some ambiguity regarding the Kiowa’s origins and whether they want to consider themselves Kiowa or Apache. However, for the most part, they view themselves as Kiowa-Apache (Beatty, 1978).

One distinct feature of the Kiowa is the Fire Dance, which most notably occurs during their puberty ritual. During this dance, there are four dancers wearing masks and a clown. They require the use of five men to complete the ceremony correctly. There is also a ‘runt’ who dances with them. They have body paint and kilts. Much like with the Cibecue, there is an emphasis on dance rather than a song. Beatty (1978) says the dancers circle a central fire, lining up and facing this fire. 

They move outward and inward-facing the fire and switch cardinal directions. They move in the four cardinal directions, north, west, south, and East (Beatty, 1978), which could be a testament to the importance of thematic focus, which, as shown earlier, was also significant for the Cibecue. However, here, the dancers participate in these ceremonies in a unique way to the Kiowa, and those anthropologists have not seen in other tribes. 

Explanations for Differences and Distinctions Between Western & Eastern Apache Groups, Exploring Basso Through Time

First, it can be difficult to emphasize the differences and dissimilarities between Western and Eastern Apache girls’ puberty rituals, as they have many similarities. Markstrom & Iborra (2003) notes one common theme among all ways is the notion of submissiveness to the Ideal Woman, who serves as a guide to the Apache Changing Woman. In addition to this, there is an assumed position that the Changing Woman will receive new powers that will prepare her for complex tasks ahead (Markstrom & Iborra, 2003). Rituals from all Apache groups occur when the girl has already hit her first menses. It might make sense, as most Apache lived in similar climates and geographical conditions, and there would have been some cross-cultural interaction.

One difference we can observe and perhaps explore in more detail is that of the Jicarilla Apache, including the male or clown element. Boyer & Boyer (1983) note the clown was prevalent in the Mescalero to the East. During their rituals, the clown almost always appears ceremonially. Jajah is the name of the dancing group that includes the clown. English researchers have called them Mountain God Dancers, Mountain Spirits, Horn Dancers, Crown Dancers, and Devil Dancers. Mescaleros and Chiricahuas are related the most out of different groups on the eastern front. Apaches incorporated traits from the Pueblo, but in a religious-medical fashion. Some of their beliefs included the notion that supernatural elements and figures emerged from the underground, from Pueblo holy places. The actual ‘supernatural’ figures are still underground, and the men who walk the Earth with which they have imbued their powers are ‘made’ supernatural figures, or Crown Dancers with a clown. The clown always accompanied the Crown Dancers (Boyer & Boyer, 1983).

Another class of Mountain Spirits also appeared in shamanic contexts, performing powerful ceremonies. Mescalero and Chiricahua dance teams have six men and one clown. On some occasions, there are two. Clowns are boys learning dances, rituals, and songs, and in some cases, the dancers themselves dress up as clowns. Crown Dancers wear skirts, wangs, sashes, and headdresses. The clown is tan and gray from the beginning, painted in white. Clown also correlates with the coyote, a central animal.

Interestingly, the Jicarilla have also incorporated aspects of this cultural and mythical figure. Thlibayeh means ash-colored, which refers both to the clown and coyote. There have also been associations between the clown and ghosts, mainly as the clown is ashen in color (Boyer & Boyer, 1983).

One possible anthropological explanation for the prevalence of the clown figure within the eastern Mescalero is the linkages with Pueblos. According to Parsons & Beals (1934), the Beals were archeologists and cultural record takers who encountered the Pueblo. Clowns from Pueblo culture were notable for their tradition of eating filth. The clown men would participate in ritual play that involved rolling over dogs and falling in the mud, setting dolls on the ground as though in the act of veneration, and pretending to eat the excrement of women or men walking by (Parsons & Beals, 1934). Through accounts from the other authors, we also know that the Mescalero interacted with the Pueblo, at least adopting some of their customs.

It might explain why the word ‘clown’ does not appear once in Basso’s 1966 account of the Cibecue. The difference here possibly stems from the fact that the Pueblo, who interacted with the Mescalero, had succinct knowledge about clowns, and clowns appeared as a cultural staple and foundation of rituals. It was so much so the case that the Mescalero and Jicarilla even integrated the notion of the clown into their girls’ puberty ceremonies. Opler (1936) also notes the connections between the Jicarilla and Pueblo, explaining why the Jicarilla integrated the playful clown and other elements into their puberty rituals.

We can also look at Basso’s Western Apache Witchcraft to see how this work differs from his 1966 work on the Apache, Wisdom Sits in Places. His 1966 text is significantly more narratively evocative and uses narrative as the primary mode of information conveyance. Basso tells the girl’s story with the curlers in her hair and how this girl made tortillas to give to her maternal grandmother (Basso, 1996). At the same time, his Witchcraft is more formal in tone and recent, detailing the importance of kinship ties in a textbook and standardized way. Basso writes about these relationships under the heading, Social Organization, where he describes the different maternal and paternal kinship ties and how they were necessary for the Western Apache (Basso, 2004). This book emerged first in 1969, several years after Wisdom. The tone is different here, and Basso has likely taken on some academic experience and brevity, adopting the literary language. He also talks about different types of Western Apache, including the Tonto, White Mountain, and Cibecue (Basso, 2004), while in Wisdom, he talks solely about the Cibecue and details only one site he attended with this group. 

The differences in textual style may be a clue that connects Basso to the other ethnographers and anthropologists whose accounts this paper documents. Some of the other ethnographers, including Boyer & Boyer (1983), Opler (1936), and Beatty (1978), have similar exhibit styles, depending on the time during which the authors wrote. Indeed, there is an emphasis on the rich tapestry of cultural life the Apache participated in, whether from the East or West.


The paper’s conclusion is not easy, as there are still likely many more similarities between Eastern and Western Apache than there are differences. From an anthropological and cultural perspective, the primary difference is the prevalence of the clown figure in Eastern Apache rituals, which is also a testament that the male figure appears in the girls’ puberty rituals of the Jicarilla and Mescalero. It also shows that the Eastern tribes had contact with the Pueblos, another tribe that was non-Apache. The Changing Woman is a theme appearing throughout all Apache rituals, as the girl changes into a woman to receive guidance from her attendants and female idols. 

The paper also detailed other minor differences, such as a more comprehensive creation mythos for the Cibecue than some Eastern tribes. Further, Harrell (1976) notes instead of eagle and oriole feathers. The San Carlos Apache used both the turkey and eagle. The oriole is a small songbird that likely appeared more in the area where the San Carlos lived. San Carlos Apache also emphasized the girl wearing shells during the ritual, resulting from increased shell traces and products in the area they frequented.

Of particular note for the reader is that the eastern Apache may have mingled with the Pueblo, which is a document of how intercultural and intertribal communication can alter or modify practices. The Pueblo constituted the foundations for introducing the clown, the coyote, and the ashen colors associated with some of the eastern tribes’ garbs during the puberty ceremonies. In any case, puberty rituals have associations with female empowerment in all Apache cultures. They are coming-of-age ceremonies that usher girls into new statuses (Silvey, 2008). Muuss (1970) notes these rites were different from ours today, which have become more about pomp and prestige. 


Bahr, K. S. (1994). The strengths of apache grandmothers: Observations on commitment, culture, and caretaking. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 25(2), 233. 

Basso, K. H. (2004). Western Apache witchcraft. University Of Arizona Press.

Beatty, J. (1978). Systemic Aesthetics: Kiowa-Apache Ritual. Dance Research Journal, 11(1/2), 31–34.

Boyer, L. B., & Boyer, R. M. (1983). The Sacred Clown of the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apaches: Additional Data. Western Folklore, 42(1), 46.

Carmichael, D. L., Hubert, J., Reeves, B., & Schanche, A. (2005). Sacred sites, sacred places. Routledge.

Harrell Clark, L. V. (1976). The girl’s puberty ceremony of the san carlos apaches. Journal of Popular Culture, 10(2), 431.

Keith Hamilton Basśo. (1996). Wisdom sits in places : landscape and language among the Western Apache. Albuquerque Univ. Of New Mexico Press.

Markstrom, C. A., & Iborra, A. (2003). Adolescent Identity Formation and Rites of Passage: The Navajo Kinaalda Ceremony for Girls. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 13(4), 399–425.

Muuss, R. E. (1970). Puberty rites in primitive and modern societies. Adolescence, 5(17), 111. 

Opler, M. E. (1936). A Summary of Jicarilla Apache Culture. American Anthropologist, 38(2), 202–223.

Opler, M. E., & Opler, C. H. (1950). Mescalero Apache History in the Southwest. New Mexico Historical Review, 25(1).

PARSONS, E. C., & BEALS, R. L. (1934). THE SACRED CLOWNS OF THE PUEBLO AND MAYO-YAQUI INDIANS. American Anthropologist, 36(4), 491–514.

Shapiro, A. D., & Talamantez, I. (1986). The Mescalero Apache Girls’ Puberty Ceremony: The Role of Music in Structuring Ritual Time. Yearbook for Traditional Music, 18, 77.

Silvey, L. A. E. (2008). Empowerment of north american indian girls: Ritual expressions at puberty. Great Plains Research, 18(2), 240.

Wright, M. C. (2003). The woman’s lodge. Frontiers, 24(1), 1-18. 


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