What does it mean for a young Native American girl to come of age? Is the ceremony a kind of guidebook to maturity? I had no idea how to answer these questions when I was invited to photograph for the family the sacred and private Coming of Age Ceremony.
I grew up in the west Texas border town of El Paso in close proximity to the Mescalero Apache Reservation in southern New Mexico, homelands of famed warrior, Geronimo. I had little contact with the tribal members but the sprawling lands in the Sierra Blanca MountainRange are beautiful and inviting and I wanted to know more.
After four decades of working as a professional photographer, with a keen interest in women’s issues and spiritual rituals, I would at last have a chance to learn more about my neighbors. In 2010 sixteen year-old Ashlee Belin celebrated her Coming of Age Ceremony. In 2014her cousin, Malia Enjady at age thirteen had hers. I was with the family for much of the preparation and camped with them on the reservation during the puberty rites ceremonies.
The Mescalero Apache historically were nomadic warriors who fiercely defended their homelands from other tribes and settlers.After the wars with the white man and capture of Geronimo, children were separated from their parents in reeducation camps and were forbidden to learn about their culture or speak their language. In 1883the US adopted the Code of Indian Offenses, which banned manyNative American ceremonies. For nearly a century, traditions like theRite of Passage Ceremony was conducted in secret.
It wasn’t until 1978 that the US passed the American Indian ReligiousFreedom Act, which revived the open practice of ceremonies. These ceremonies today help to keep cultural practices intact.
There is much to do in preparation for the ceremony that involves community commitment. A medicine man and woman are chosen.Drummers and singers are invited. Cattail pollen is collected for blessings.Deer are hunted and hides tanned for the maiden’s dress and intricate beadwork is added. Teepee poles are cut and canvas sewn. Cattle are slaughtered for traditional meals during the feast days. Gifts are purchased for those in the community. The cooking arbor covered in pine boughs is built, lumber for the bonfires brought in, and the tee pees are raised. Everything and every act are blessed in prayer.
The twelve-day ceremony consists of four days of set up, four days off east and ceremony and four days for private reflection and take down. Everything is done in fours, for the four sacred mountains.
On the first morning the massive teepee is raised by a small army of men. Evergreen boughs and canvas are added and a fire is set. The maiden is blessed by her medicine man and woman and she in turn prays for and sprinkles pollen gathered from water plants on her tribespeople.A blessing basket is filled with medicine — tobacco, an eagle’s feather and clay from the sacred mountains. The basket is placed in afield and as the maiden runs to the basket, the jingle of the metal cones on her buckskin fringe fills the air. She runs to test her endurance and strength. She then circles back, receives more prayers and runs again, further. Four times she runs, every day for four days. She must wear her heavy buckskin dress at all times; water does not touch her body and she is never left unattended. She remains serious, quiet and calm as she listens and learns from the medicine men and women and her elders.
When the sun sets each night the bonfire is lit, the community gathers and the men sing and drum Apache songs. As the Crown Dancers circle the fire the sparks fly high into the starlit sky. Women and girls drape their camp dresses with tasseled shawls and form longlines extending the fire circle, in a gentle swaying dance to the cadence of the drums, rattles and song.
On the final night the medicine men and women, the maiden’s female relatives and attendants gather in the big teepee. The maiden dances all night to the drum and songs of the medicine men and encouraging hoots from her medicine woman. She dances in sets of four songs for many sets. Whittled sotal (yucca) stalks become prayer sticks and are placed around the fire to keep count of the dances. In between dance sets the maiden rests. When she tires her attendants dance with her in support.At dawn, the group greets the sun and the final blessings begin.
The maiden is given her Apache name by the medicine man. Next,Lp. 52she is painted on her face, arms and legs with the white clay from the sacred Sierra Blanca Mountains. She then becomes the White Painted Woman. Legend states that she is the woman of virtue who bears a son who slays evil. The White Painted Woman is a woman of strength, honor and generosity.
After many blessings and prayers, the exhausted maiden fulfills her final four runs. On her very last run, she runs as far as she can away from camp, into her future as a strong woman. When she returns, the final feast is served. The guests say their goodbyes after the meal on the fifth morning and the maiden stays in her dress and teepee with family for the remaining days, in contemplation and reflection.
It takes time for the girls to absorb all that they learn during their ceremony. Nine years after Ashlee’s ceremony I asked her how it had affected her and she responded thoughtfully. “It made me a better daughter, a kinder neighbor, partner and worker, and now” as she cuddled her son “a good mother.” Her mother, Bea said Ashlee has“embraced her traditions and this ceremony allowed her to be able to model this sacredness for herself and her family.” Malia’s motherRainey said “Malia has respect for every glorious golden thread that runs through her DNA & her culture. It’s in her blood…the act of bringing people together to support dreams is part of the excitement of an Apache celebration. The family’s efforts, dedication and persistence rewards all, most especially Malia. It shows her by example the character traits needed to bring out the mystic in her own family.”
As a photographer I am honored to help preserve the Mescalero heritage through the imagery. I am blessed to witness the intimacy of family, friends and community.
It’s unclear if I can answer the questions I first posed. The words whispered into the maiden’s ear by her medicine man and woman were not for my ears. The songs, not in my tongue. But the images show the commitment of a community to help these young girls grow into strongApache women, keepers of the tribe.
Access and trust. Two of the underlying themes of great documentary photography. Walking into a gallery in New Mexico and seeing Jan’s work was illuminating. We knew immediately we wanted her images and words on the pages of AG23. Jan’s work shines a light on subjects that most of the world never sees, subjects that reflect the power and fortitude of human experience. She receives access because she has earned the trust and we as viewers are the beneficiaries.
For Jan Butchofsky, photography embodies a sense of spontaneity and openhearted curiosity that guides everything she does and puts her smack dab in the middle of life. The camera acts as a catalyst, transforming everyday events and experiences into insights and images that reveal the intrinsic human connection behind the imagery.
With three decades of professional photography behind her, Butchofsky's most recent projects stem from a deepening interest in women’s issues, focusing on ethnic cultures around the world—but always with an emphasis on crafting visual stories that serve to unite.