Ceremony Makes History

Hundreds attend reservation’s first Sunrise Ceremony

Carolena Guerra leads celebrants in a run at a key moment in the four-day coming-of-age Sunrise Ceremony.

Carolena Guerra leads celebrants in a run at a key moment in the four-day coming-of-age Sunrise Ceremony. Photo by Pete Aleshire. |

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White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers also performed parts of the ancient ritual.

Carolena Guerra made history this weekend by celebrating the first coming of age Sunrise Ceremony in the history of the Tonto Apache Reservation.

Between 200 and 300 people drawn from three Arizona Apache reservations attended the four days of dancing, singing, ceremonies, feasting and gift-giving that marked the transition to adulthood for girls of the tribe and also created intimate and ceremonial and family bonds between scattered Apache bands.

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Hundreds of guests joined in the social dancing at the staging of a vital, ancient ritual on the Tonto Apache Reservation.

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A sacred White Mountain Apache Crown Dancer played a crucial role in the ceremony.

In the days when the Apache were hunted by the armies of both the United States and Mexico, fleeing bands led by people like Cochise and Geronimo would sometimes stop in their headlong flight to stage the elaborate ceremony. They believed the invocation of White Painted Woman and the G’aan Mountain Spirits at the heart of the ceremony would bless and protect their people.

White Painted Woman is among the central figures in Apache belief and mythology, having given birth to the heroes Killer of Enemies and Child of Waters, who slew many monsters to make the world safe for human beings. She continues to safeguard the people, renewed in such ceremonies.

The Tonto Apache suffered persecution and exile, with sojourns on reservations distant from their homeland. They finally gained through sheer persistence creation of their own reservation 1972, but initially only 85 acres, making it the smallest reservation in the nation.

In 2010, they won the addition of another 292 acres. This finally gave the roughly 140-member tribe the space to create the sort of encampment necessary to stage a Sunrise Ceremony.

This weekend, they did just that in a joyful ceremony that drew singers, dancers and medicine men from the San Carlos and White Mountain Reservations to celebrate the renewal of a ceremony stretching back thousands of years. The Guerra family invited Roundup editor Pete Aleshire to attend and document the ceremony. We’ll present this historic, deep-rooted, deeply spiritual ceremony in coming issues.

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