When a Navajo girl reaches puberty (the time of her first menstruation), she undergoes a four day ceremony called Kinaalda which signifies her transformation from childhood into womanhood. The ceremony is centered around the Navajo myth of Changing woman, the first woman on Earth who was able to bear children. The myth says that Changing Woman performed the first Kinaalda and that the ceremony gave her the ability to have children. Because of this, all Navajo girls must also undergo the ceremony so that they will grow into strong women who can also have children.
The First Kinaalda
“The first Kinaalda was performed for Changing Woman, the most honored of all Navajo Holy People. One morning at dawn, First Man and First Woman saw a dark cloud over Gobernador Knob. When they went to see the cloud, they heard a baby crying within it. First Man found the baby girl who was born of darkness; the dawn was her father. First Man and First Woman raised the children under the direction of the Holy People.
When the girl reached puberty, the Holy People wanted to make a ceremony for her so she could have children. First Woman told the girl, who was called Changing Woman, that she must run four times in the direction of the rising sun. “As you come back you must make the turn sun-wise,” First Woman said.
To begin the ceremony, Changing Woman’s hair was washed with suds made from the root of the yucca plant. Then her hair was tied back.
Next, First Woman decorated a dress for Changing Woman. First she spread out an unwounded buckskin – one without an arrow hole. On it she placed a piece of turquoise, a bit of white abalone shell, a piece of black obsidian, and a white bead. Then she put white beaded moccasins on the girl’s feet. She gave her a skirt and leggings that were also made of white beads. She designed with-bead sleeve fringes and wristlets.
Then First Woman placed her hand on Changing Woman’s forehead and moved her hand from Changing Woman’s shoulders up over her head. She did this to modl the girl into a woman like herself.
The Holy People said that Changing Woman must make a large cake for the Sun. She was to grind and mix the corn for the batter. When the Sun rose in the east, and after all the prayers were finished, the cake would be given to the Sun. The was given the first piece of cake and because he was one of the most powerful of the Holy People. He controlled night and day.
Later, when Changing Woman grew up, the Sun married her. He took her to his home in the western ocean. They had twin boys. These boys became known as Monster Slayer and Child Born for Water.” (Roessel)
The ceremony begins in the family’s Hogan where the girl and her mother sit together, facing the house’s door (which is always built on the east side) and begin to prepare the girl for her ‘race’. The girl’s mother will comb out her hair with a traditional grass comb and tie it back in a simple pony tail with a buckskin tie. Once the girl’s hair is tied back, the ceremony is considered to have officially begun.
At this point, the girl’s family will sing the first prayer. The prayer lasts for about thirty minutes and after it is finished, the girl will finished putting on her ceremonial attire. She wears a woven ‘rug dress’ that is essentially a Navajo rug that is sewn together on the sides, leaving holes for the head, arms and legs. The girl will also wear jewelry made of turquoise, shells and other materials for her ceremony. Finally, she will put on buckskin moccasins and wrap leggings around her calves to prepare herself for her run.
Throughout the ceremony, the young woman will perform tasks on others that she is having performed on herself. This is because the Navajo believe that during a sacred ceremony, the participant gains the power to help others in the same way they are being helped. During the Kinaalda, this means that the young girl will be ‘molded’ by her mother and then she will also ‘mold’ others in the tribe and so on.
As the next step in the ceremony, the young woman will make her first run. She will run several times over the course of her four day ceremony, usually twice a day: once in the morning and once in the evening. She will run out, as far as she can, toward the east, then she will turn and return to the Hogan. During the first night of the ceremony, she will stay in her family’s Hogan where she will be forced to sit straight up with her legs straight out in front of her for the entire night without being allowed to sleep. While she sits this way, men in her family will sing more prayers. They will sing throughout the night and into the dawn while the young woman remains seated.
In the morning, the young woman will begin the arduous process of making her alkaan, a large, ceremonial corn cake that will be fed to the entire tribe. She will begin by grinding pounds upon pounds of corn into meal which she will then have to stir into several batches of thick batter. To help her stir the batter, her mother will give her a special stir stick which is made out of several greasewood sticks tied together. These stir sticks are sacred to the women of the Navajo partly because they are often passed from generation to generation during the Kinaalda.
To cook the large corn cake, the girl will have to dig a hole in the earth about four feet wide and one foot deep. The men of the tribe will start a fire in the hole, once it’s dug, and keep the fire going while the girl participates in other parts of her ceremony. When the batter is ready, the girl will line the heated hole with corn husks that will prevent the cake from getting dirt and ash in it. Then she’ll pour the batter into the whole and cover it with more corn husks. The cake will then be cooked in the hole over night during the festivities. When the cake is ready, it will be cut in a circular fashion, starting on the eastern side, and then be offered to everyone in the tribe. The center pieces of the cake are offered to the more prestigious members of the tribe like the girl’s grandmother and the medicine man who presided over the ceremony.
Throughout the course of the ceremony, the girl will be ‘molded’ several times. This is a symbolic process by which the girl’s mother will have the girl stand upright before her or lay her straight on the ground and pass her hands over the girl in a motion that is similar to that of molding clay. The mother doesn’t actually touch the girl, her hands hover slightly above the girl’s body. The girl’s hair is taken down during this time and pulled out straight. The Navajo mothers do this so that their daughters will grow strong and tall. They ‘mold’ the girls hoping they will grow up attractive, and thin and the girls’ hair is left down and, sometimes, pulled gently so that it will grow out long and straight.
After the girl is molded, she often goes out into the tribe to mold others who wish it. She will lift up smaller children in hopes that she will help them to grow tall and strong. She will also lay hands on the elderly and the sick in hopes of helping or healing them because it is believed that, during this time, she is a magical being and has the power to heal.
The ceremony ends on the last day with a final run, a final molding, and the distribution of the alkaan.
And, though the Navajo have an incredibly detailed ceremony to signify a girl’s passage into adulthood, there is no such ceremony for boys. If anything, Navajo boys enter manhood by means of a four day solitary survival trip, though I have not been able to verify that this is something the Navajo have ever actually done.
Estelle Nora Harwit Amrani, “The Kinaalda Ceremony – A Dance into Womanhood.” URL: http://www.vibrani.com/Kinaalda.htm
Eric Henderson, Stephen J. Kunitz, Jerrold E. Levy, “The Origins of Navajo Youth Gangs.” 1930 American Indian Culture and Research Journal v. 23 no3 (1999) p. 243-64 URL: http://www.streetgangs.com/academic/navajogng.htm
Monty Roessel, “Kinaalda: A Navajo Girl Grows Up.” Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1993.
San Juan School District, “Puberty Corn Cake.” URL: http://dine.sanjuan.k12.ut.us/bichiya/breads/puberty.html