The Blessings Of White Painted Woman

Sunrise Ceremony on the Tonto Apache Tribe

Sunrise Ceremony on the Tonto Apache Tribe Photo by Pete Aleshire. |

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We waited for the dawn, as the singer wove the incessant, hypnotic chant of an ancient song through the intently listening pinyons.

White Painted Woman stood in her buckskin dress, her people gathered around to celebrate her transformation — and to seek her blessing.

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I studied the beautiful young woman’s grave expression, backlit with the hint of a smile. Her pleasure and calm shone somehow through her impassive face, like the glow already cast onto the underside of the clouds on the eastern horizon. She had a Mona Lisa mystery, as befits the guardian spirit of an ancient people made flesh in the form of a 13-year-old girl.

Carolena Guerra had put away her cell phone and put on something wise and ancient for the four days of her coming of age ceremony — the first held in the short, eventful history of the Tonto Apache Reservation in Payson.

I could only glimpse Carolena now, glimmering through the aspect of White Painted Woman she had assumed in the long days of singing and dancing.

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The medicine man had come from the White Mountains. The singers had come from Bylas and San Carlos. The crown dancers had come from the White Moun­tains.

Kathie Kitcheyan, former chairwoman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, had consented to become her Godmother, a relationship that would now last a lifetime.

Hundreds of friends and relatives and clan members had come from all across the region.

They gathered to celebrate a rite of passage with the same steps, the same songs, the same prayers as Cochise and Geronimo and Lozen and Victorio and Managas Coloradas and Alchesey and all the indomitable leaders of the Apache — who were the last to submit to the envelopment of the whites. Once as the cavalry chased Geronimo’s band through the wilds of southeast Arizona, the Apache stopped in the midst of their flight to hold the Sunrise Ceremony for a girl whose time had come. They paused in terrible danger to celebrate this miraculous moment — and to seek the blessings of spirit and hope.

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White Painted Woman is the mother of human beings. She survived the flood that drowned the world before this one, floating on an abalone shell to the top of a great mountain. After the waters receded, she was impregnated by the sun and gave birth to Killer of Enemies. Later, she was impregnated again by the rain and gave birth to Child of Waters. She had to hide her babies from Owl Man Giant, who ate any people he could find. She kept those children safe with her quick thinking and cleverness until they grew strong enough to kill Owl Man Giant, finally making the world a safe place for human beings.

White Painted Woman developed the Sunrise Ceremony and so became a guardian spirit, especially for all the rites of womanhood. When she becomes old, she walks toward the sun until she meets her younger self. She merges then with that younger self, reborn generation after generation.

Song for making White Painted Woman’s wickiup

Killer of Enemies and White Painted Woman have made it so,

They have made the poles of the dwelling so,

For long life stands the blue stallion.

Here Killer of Enemies and White Painted Woman have made them so,

They have made the poles of the dwelling so,

For long life stands the yellow stallion.

Here Killer of Enemies and White Painted Woman have made them so,

They have made the poles of the dwelling so,

For long life stands the black stallion.

Here Killer of Enemies and White Painted Woman have made them so,

They have made the poles of the dwelling so,

For long life stands the white stallion.

All Songs From Morris Opler, An Apache Lifeway

Before the ceremony, I had met with Carolena and her mother Belinda and her sister Davida. Her sister stood out in the cleared ceremonial ground now, awaiting the sunrise. Dressed in her own bead-embroidered buckskin with leather tassels tipped with jingling bits of tin, she served as her younger sister’s helper. For White Painted Woman cannot scratch herself, except with a scratching stick properly blessed. She cannot pull the hair away from her face. She cannot laugh or chatter or act like a teenaged girl, who texts and chatters and thinks about little things. She must make herself a suitable habitation for White Painted Woman, so that when the sick and the wounded and the frightened dance up to her at the proper moment in the four-day ceremony she can serve as the conduit for prayer and healing.

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Standing now waiting for the dawn, I looked toward Belinda and her husband David, who had used precious savings to stage this four-day ceremony. Hundreds of people came. Many of whom camped the whole time in a great ceremonial grounds created from the juniper thickets on land the tribe recently acquired — doubling the size of the reservation. Until the Forest Service transferred the land the tribe had sought for decades, the Tonto Apache Tribe did not have the space to hold a Sunrise Ceremony. Now, Carolena had become the first, fashioning a link in a chain of prayer that stretches back 1,000 years. Belinda and David seemed caught somewhere between anxiety and joy themselves, since the ceremony had imposed an endless chain of costs and duties on them.

But they had graciously invited me to witness the ceremony, fulfilling my dreams stretching back a decade and more — ever since I started working on assorted books about Apache history. Now I stood to bear witness — hoping not to get in the way.

Sunrise Ceremony Song

White Lightning streaks an angular path;

I am the lightning flashes and streaking!

This headdress lives; the noise of its pendants

Sounds and is heard!

My song shall encircle these dancers!

Thus speaks earth’s thunder:

Because of it there is good about you,

Because of it your body is well:

Thus speaks earth’s thunder.

Alas, I cannot do the ceremony justice — not in the space I have here. The centuries have layered every aspect of the ceremony with meaning, much of it inaccessible to a witness standing on the outside. But it is really a great prayer, which draws in the whole community.

The ceremonies re-enact the creation myths and transform the role of the girl in the tribe. They say the qualities she displays in the course of the ceremony will remain with her ever afterwards. If she endures the exhaustion and the strain with dignity and humor, this will determine her nature. She can find her power, learn her history, command her weakness and connect to the sources of wisdom and healing.

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The medicine man who presides — in this case Bert Hinton — spent many years learning the hundreds of songs he must chant, the precise motions, the sequence in which he offers the cornmeal and the cornmeal pollen and the turquoise and the obsidian and the stick thick with blessings with which he can remove the fatigue of White Painted Woman, who dances for hour upon hour, seeking blessings for her people.

The dancers come down and build a traditional wickiup, in which they can purify themselves with sweat. They make the beautiful and elaborate headdresses and sticks they use in the dances of the Sunrise Ceremony from scratch for each ceremony. They make them of the traditional materials, saying the ancient prayers — seeking blessings at each stage.

Sunrise Ceremony Song

I come to White Painted Woman

By means of long life I come to her.

I come to her by means of her blessing.

I come to her by means of her good fortune,

I come to her by means of all her different fruits;

By means of the long life she bestows,

I come to her;

By means of this holy truth she goes about.

I am about to sing this song of yours,

The song of long life.

Sun, I stand here on the earth with your song;

Moon, I have come in with your song.

The Sunrise Ceremony makes manifest traditional Apache culture and belief, which sees spirit woven into all the world — the trees, the wind, the clouds, a cup of water, a dusting of pollen, a turkey track, an eagle call.

As the planet spun and the light poured through the barricade of trees in the east. The yellow light of dawn fell upon White Painted Woman in the midst of the ceremonial ground, glowing with promise. Even I could feel the spirit, could understand that life is frail, held in our fingernails — and we must each seek grace and the blessings or spirit to persist.

The voices of the singers rose, like a red-tailed hawk on an updraft. Cochise would have known the words, but even I could feel the wind.

White Painted Woman danced, as she has always danced.

And somewhere inside, Carolena almost smiled — a blessing to her people.

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