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Empowerment of North American Indian Girls: Ritual Expressions at Puberty

reviewed by Teresa L. McCarty - September 16, 2008

coverTitle: Empowerment of North American Indian Girls: Ritual Expressions at Puberty
Author(s): Carol A. Markstrom
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln
ISBN: 0803232578, Pages: 456, Year: 2008
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What are the functions of girls’ coming-of-age ceremonies in Native North American societies?  This is the question taken up by developmental psychologist Carol A. Markstrom in Empowerment of North American Indian Girls, who notes on her Web site that her interest in Native peoples “was solidified through work with Ojibwe and Dakota Sioux families and adolescents in Minnesota and South Dakota” (http://www.hre.wvu.edu/cmarkstrom). Based on extended fieldwork among the San Carlos Apaches in east-central Arizona, briefer observations of girls’ puberty rites on the Mescalero Apache and Navajo reservations in the Southwest, interviews with Lakota and Ojibwe community members, and more general ethnohistorical research, Markstrom’s central argument is that the purpose of these ceremonies is not to ensure girls’ fertility, but rather to confer individual benefits on initiates while reinforcing kin and extra-kin ties and community values and spiritual beliefs. Symbolically and behaviorally, these processes help ensure cultural continuity and “society’s hope for the eventual contributions of youth to the social order and in the perpetuation of their cultures” (p. 357).

Markstrom begins with contextual and methodological background, noting that her primary interest is “the complex meanings of rituals as they pertain to beliefs about the optimal development of North American Indian girls” (p. 1). In chapter 1, she makes her analytic and interpretive orientation clear: “cultural practices are more likely to endure when they serve functions for individuals and societies” (p. 2) – an approach that is not without problems, as noted later in this review. Markstrom characterizes her methodology as qualitative and multidisciplinary, emphasizing emic and critical-ethnohistorical perspectives (p. 21). She also acknowledges the study’s limits: These portraits of girls’ puberty ceremonies are not grounded in larger ethnographic research to fully contextualize them (hers is “somewhat of a ‘snapshot’ approach,” she says), and, as a non-Native outsider who does not speak the Indigenous language(s), she “most certainly could not grasp subtle cultural expressions” (p. 20). Still, she points out, all “researchers base their studies on the knowledge that is accessible to them, and it must be accepted that a full and complete portrayal is lacking” (p. 23).

The next two chapters document social problems faced by contemporary Native youth, relating them to “the trauma of colonization” (p. 29), and discuss Native American perspectives on human development. The latter are distilled into nine widely shared  “beliefs about pubescent girls held by North American Indians” (pp. 72-84), crucial lynchpins in Markstrom’s subsequent interpretations. Chapter 4 privileges the writings of Indigenous scholars on menstruation, cosmology, and feminism, with the goal of illuminating women’s status in North American Indian societies. Here, Markstrom argues strongly that, “it is not appropriate to analyze North American Indian puberty rituals of girls…and experiences of Native women according to European American-based feminist approaches” (p. 112). Complementing this chapter, the next one draws largely from the Smithsonian’s multi-volume Handbook(s) of North American Indians to describe coming-of-age practices in different “cultural areas” (Northeast, Southwest, etc.).

The heart of the book is the next three chapters, which describe and interpret, in detail, the Apache Sunrise Dance or Na’ii’ees (also written as Na’i’es, “preparing her,” “getting her ready”; see Basso, 1970; Golston, 1996), primarily as practiced at San Carlos but with a comparison to Mescalero. Briefer portraits of Navajo, Lakota, and Ojibwa girls’ puberty ceremonies follow. All are steeped in oral tradition, which, for the linguistically and culturally related Apaches and Navajos, centers on the female deity White Painted Woman or Changing Woman, who “gave the Apaches the girls’ puberty ceremony and instructions on how to conduct it” (p. 201). As Markstrom notes (citing Basso), the Sunrise Dance is the most elaborate Apache ceremony, “characterized by a rich array of symbolism” and involving the full community (p. 193). Here, Markstrom also introduces Dunham et al.’s (1986) Ritual Process Paradigm (RPP), the 14 steps of which she connects with specific aspects of the Sunrise ceremony, from “old support group/old identity” to “liminality,” “agony,” “numinosity,” “accommodation,” “ecstacy,” “transcendence,” “new identity/support group” and “identity reinforcement/equilibrium” (pp. 206-207).  

In one of this ceremony’s climactic events, the initiate is visually transformed to an elderly woman through the painting of her entire body and attire with white clay (she also carries a cane throughout the ceremony), signifying her embodiment of White Painted Woman/Changing Woman and longevity. By the ceremony’s end, the girl is empowered to confer Changing Woman’s blessings on others. As Markstrom puts it, the ceremony signifies that “the future of the Apaches rests in the hands of a girl who is about 12 years old” (p. 258).

The descriptions of Navajo, Lakota, and Ojibwa coming-of-age ceremonies are less rich but also are shown to engulf young girls “in atmospheres of support and affirmation,” impressing upon them a distinctive ethnic identity (p. 336). These ceremonies, Markstrom states, enable young women to “acquire a greater sense of their value and purpose in life through specialized preparations that lead to their engagement in and performance of meaningful rituals that emulate valued roles and responsibilities” (p. 356).

As mentioned earlier, functional analyses of this sort are not without their difficulties, particularly when used not just to describe but also to explain cultural practices. While it is evident that the ceremonies do fulfill important social and individual roles, from an explanatory perspective we are left with the tautology that girls’ coming-of-age ceremonies exist by virtue of fulfilling needs which in turn are their reason for being (see Hempel’s [1965] classic treatment of explanation by functional analysis, and Orans’ [1975] examination of the Northwest Coast potlatch). And, although Markstrom is careful to point out the intra- and inter-tribal diversity of cultural beliefs and practices, there is an implicit view of culture(s) as unitary and bounded, as evidenced by reference to Western European/Indigenous binaries and to “North American Indian cultures” as self-contained (see the recent problematizations of the culture concept by Borofsky et al. [2001], Eisenhart [2001], and González [1999]). Factual errors also creep in, as with the claim that “most North American Indian nations practiced matrilineal descent patterns and matrilocal residence patterns” (p. 118), an assertion that the ethnohistorical and contemporary record does not support (e.g., the patrilineal/patrilocal and bilocal preferences of many Native peoples, including the Mohave, Quechan, Maricopa, O’odham, Dakota, and Omaha, among others). Moreover, a disjuncture exists between the “preeminent status given to Indigenous sources of knowledge relative to theories of human development” and Indigenous “interpretations of the meaning of rituals” (pp. 19, 22), and the use of Dunham et al.’s (1996) RPP to structure the analysis.

Overall, as a comparative treatment of out-of-school, community-based education, Markstrom’s portrait of Native American girls’ coming-of-age practices is a welcome addition to the literature. The author has an impressive command of sources, and her coverage of these girls’ coming-of-age ceremonies is respectful and nuanced. The book also includes helpful photographs of the Apache Sunrise and Navajo Kinaaldá (girls’ puberty) ceremonies. A final important message in Markstrom’s work is that despite the ongoing pressures of coercive assimilation, these cultural practices endure, attesting to the power of oral tradition as a positive individual and collective identity-shaping force in Indigenous communities today.



Basso, K. H. (1970).  The Cibecue Apache.  New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Borofsky, R., Barth, F., Shweder, R.A., Rodseth, L., & Stolzenberg, N.M. (2001).  WHEN: A conversation about culture.  American Anthropologist, 103 (2), 432-446.

Eisenhart, M. (2001).  Educational ethnography past, present, and future: Ideas to think with.  Educational Researcher, 30 (8), 16-27.

Golston, S.E. (1996).  Changing Woman of the Apache: Women’s lives in past and present.  New York: Franklin Watts.

González, N. (1999).  What will we do when culture doesn’t exist anymore?  Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 30 (4), 431-435.

Hempel, C. (1965).  The logic of functional analysis.  In C. Hempel, Aspects of scientific explanation and other essays in the philosophy of science (pp. 297-330).  New York: The Free Press.

Orans, M.  (1975).  Domesticating the functional dragon: An analysis of Piddoche’s potlatch.  American Anthropologist, 77 (2), 312-328.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 16, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15376, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 3:43:04 PM

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About the Author
  • Teresa McCarty
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    TERESA L. MCCARTY is the Alice Wiley Snell Professor of Education Policy Studies and Professor of Applied Linguistics at Arizona State University. An educational anthropologist, her research and teaching focus on American Indian/Indigenous and language minority education, language education planning and policy, critical literacy studies, and ethnographic methods in education. She is the former editor of Anthropology and Education Quarterly, and she currently directs a large-scale study of the impacts of Native language loss and retention on American Indian students’ school achievement. Her recent books include Language, Literacy, and Power in Schooling (Erlbaum, 2005), A Place To Be Navajo: Rough Rock and the Struggle for Self-Determination in Indigenous Schooling (Erlbaum, 2002), and “To Remain an Indian”: Lessons in Democracy from a Century of Native American Education (with K. T. Lomawaima, Teachers College Press, 2006).
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