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Only a soft light from the east lit the dirt path when I rose from my blanket and dressed in my favorite buckskin outfit and moccasins. After combing my hair I stepped from my lodge and walked to the center of camp. Women from neighboring Apache bands, dressed in their best clothing, squatted around their campfires, patting tortillas and frybread. My relations traveled great distances to share in my coming of age ceremony. I was proud. I smiled and called out greetings.
"Many blessings, my child," they replied, as I passed.
The sharp scent of crisp dough and the bitter scent of acorn stew floated on the cool air. My stomach grumbled in hunger. Large feasts, such as the one my people prepared today, were no longer common. Grandmother, however, remembered the long ago days when her band feasted at each change of season. She'd told me stories of times when food was plentiful. It was not so today.
I had not tasted beef or deer since my friend Yellow-Bird's ceremony. My stomach rumbled again and I quickened my steps. Hours would pass before the next meal and I tried not to think of the tender meat roasting on the open fire, or the sweet cakes baking under the ash covered pit.
Suddenly, Yellow-Bird called out, "Tanayia." As she ran, her long red dress flapped against her leggings. "Wait! I will walk with you."
"Thank you," I replied. "I welcome your company."
We remained quiet as we walked past the camp site. Yellow-Bird clutched a leather pouch to her chest as she walked. I kept my gaze focused on the dirt path that led up the steep hill.
My heart grew heavy for I knew the times we shared were coming to an end. Yellow-Bird'swedding would take place in two moons and, soon, I too would have a husband.
"Are you afraid?" Yellow-Bird asked, her dark eyes large and questioning. "I was afraid. When the Gahans came I almost screamed."
"I am a little frightened," I admitted and shivered at the thought of the hooded face of the Gahans staring at me. But I did not tell Yellow-Bird this. I was frightened. Very frightened -- frightened they would take my spirit from my body. I wasn't a woman, a voice inside me whispered -- I was still a child. I wanted nothing more than to run back to my lodge and bury myself in the soft comfort of my grandmother's arms, to rest beside the warm fire and listen to my grandfather's stories.
But I stood tall, my gaze raised toward the east and I held my tongue. I was Apache. I would not bring dishonor to my family by speaking of my fear. Instead I continued to walk and said, "The river was low this year, Yellow-Bird. But near its banks, see the small tree shimmer in the hard, thin glaze of the rising sun?"
Yellow-Bird sighed, and fell into step beside me. "Yes, I have seen the tree."
"Grandfather says we are like those trees. We will grow strong and certain in our womanhood."
"You always have an answer, Tanayia. I wish I could be sure."
I paused upon the pathway and glanced at my friend. "No, I do not have all the answers. But I know you are no tender sapling who will break at the first snow of winter. You will grow strong and bear many children. Strong-Heart will be a good husband to you."
Yellow-Bird smiled at the mention on her future husband's name. "You are right. I am speaking foolishness. Ever since--"
"Do not speak of it," I warned, glancing around to make sure no one heard. "Do not ever speak of it!"
I watched Yellow-Bird blink away her tears. She knew that seeing an owl was a bad omen for an Apache. Both the owl and the bear were forms that ghosts took to hurt people. Several weeks ago an owl's feather fell from the sky and touched her shoulder.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "You are right. I have much to look forward to. Strong-Heart is brave and has much love for me."
"And very good looking," I added with a giggle.
Yellow-Bird blushed and handed me her package. "I made this shirt for you, Tanayia."
My chest tightened and my eyes stung with hot tears. In the distance I heard the soft rattle of bean-filled gourds and voices raised in singsong chants. I knew we must hurry. The medicine man had arrived for the Sunrise Ceremony.
"Thank you," I replied.
"This is my blessing for strength and a long life," she said.
After giving her a quick hug, I took the package she offered and headed toward the clearing. I knew we would see each other after the Four Day Ceremony but my heart felt empty. I worried the owl had marked my friend with its evil. A desperate sorrow filled my bones and I glanced back at Yellow-Bird to assure myself she was still well and unharmed.
I forced my thoughts back to the Ceremony. Now the Medicine Man, the Singers and the Drummers were gathered at the river. My hands trembled and my knees were uncertain as I neared the clearing. I stared at the beadwork on the shirt Yellow-Bird had given me. The glass beads winked yellow, blue and red in the soft camp light and hot tears stung my eyes. The sage-brush fires burned and their sweet fragrance filled the air.
It was time, I realized. It was this day I became a woman. As I looked around, my heart filled with joy.
Most of the camp had moved up the river for the ceremony. The older Apache sat upon their blankets. Little children peeped from rabbit-skin blankets, their soft laughter ringing through the air.
The fringe on my buckskin dress brushed against the top of my moccasins. I felt soft earth under my feet and the heavy sound of drumming reached my ears.
My aunt came to stand beside me, her heavily lined face a map of her many years. "Place the top Yellow Bird made for you over your dress," my aunt urged. "The Medicine Man is near. Hurry."
I felt the motion of the music flow over me, as she fitted the top over my head and brushed the soft skin over my dress. Three rows of bright beadwork were stitched along the yolk of the top under which narrow fringes were tied along the yolk. These fringes reached almost to my waist. At the bottom of each piece of fringe was fastened a small, thin cone shaped piece of tin. These pieces of tin brushed against one another as I moved, making a soft sound like a gentle spring breeze. My people know this will help ward off misfortune in times to come.
"The Sunrise Ceremony is of great importance," my aunt reminded me. She fastened an eagle feather on my head, its dark tip toward Mother Earth. "The dance promises that you will be strong and live to an old age. The feather of the eagle will help you live until your hair turns gray."
She fastened an abalone shell pendant upon my forehead, the sign of Changing Woman, mother of the Nde people.
I knew the most important thing my grandmother would do during the ceremony would be to massage my body. During this time she would give me all her knowledge. My eyes burned with tears as l looked at my aunt, for I knew her thoughts. My mother did not have this sacred ceremony and she'd died before her long black hair was woven with gray.
I felt sad, but I drew strength in the knowledge, my mother would have rejoiced in this day.
My aunt smiled, her mouth wide with pride. "Now you will dance. You will dance not as a child, but as a woman."
I swallowed. "Yes," I replied softly.
I flexed my knees and fitted my movement precisely to the beat of the drums. There were three hard beats, and I knew I must make a slight bow and take small, mincing steps to the center of the dance ground. I swayed from side to side in time to the singing and drumming and stared into the sun. This symbolized the impregnation of White Painted Woman by Sun Father. Currents of heat warmed my face from the orange sunrise. I heard the faint rustle of leaves and I smiled. Soon would come the true test. Now was the time I must run to greet the sun.
One of the elders moved to the rise of the hill where he jabbed the base of a wooden staff firmly into Mother Earth. The staff stood sure, its bright wood a contrast against the hillside's blue-gray sage and new green grass. This is my sacred cane. One that was carved and blessed before grandfather adorned the yellow wood with quail feathers and metal bells. This cane is one that I will keep with me my entire life. A strong staff used for walking while I'm in my youth, and a sturdy friend to support me in my old age.
"Now!" My aunt said rushing to my side. "Now run as fast as you can around the sacred cane. Run so fast that evil will never catch you. Run, my child. Run!"
I ran. My steps fast and sure as I ran toward the sun. My heart and my ears pounded to each drum beat. I climbed the hill and each breath I took burned my chest and my throat tasted of copper.
My aunt, in a yellow calico dress, joined the run as I reached the last rise of the hill. She fell into step behind me. Soon my grandmother also ran behind me.
Suddenly the rain began, soft, uncertain drops at first. Then harder, until I heard the sound of rain drops hitting the earth. And my dress, which weighed ten pounds, got heavier and heavier. I lifted my skirt, and was surprised I didn't fall. Still I ran. My feet beating lightly against the soft ground, the leather fringe of my dress slapping against my arms, I ran. I did not tire.
When the run was complete, I noticed the rain stopped and the heat of sunlight was once again upon my face.
Painted hides were tossed on the ground and I laid down upon my stomach. My aunt sat down beside me.
A singer raised his shaker gourd high in the air and brought the song to an end with a sound that was like rushing water.
My aunt kneaded my skin. I felt the hardness of Mother Earth against my body. The sharp scent of pinon and dust filled by nostrils. My aunt's hands rubbed my shoulders in firm strokes. The movements were repeated until she reached the bottom of my feet. In this way I was molded into perfect womanhood.
The music began again. The soft, even tempo of the gourds, the hard throb of the drum, and the sweet light whistle of my uncle's wood flute filled the air.
Grandmother sat down upon the hides. "Now is the time we mold your future life," she said, touching my head and repeating a soft prayer. Then she, too, molded my flesh.
To me it seemed as if only moments had passed. But the sun was high overhead and I knew the ceremony was over for today.
"It is time to rest and prepare for the afternoon feasting." My aunt told me, as she helped me stand. "Later you will help carry the food to the Medicine Man's camp for blessing."
I nodded and followed her back to camp.
"We have much to do before tomorrow," she said.
Tomorrow I would become as the first mother on earth, White Painted Woman. I was afraid to say the words out loud, fearful of offending the Mountain Spirits.
Instead I cleared my throat and said, "The medicine man arrived three days past and he is making the brush shelter." I kept my fear from my voice and my aunt glanced at me. She did not say a word. We both knew this was the most dangerous part of the ceremony of becoming a woman.
"Grandmother made my dress during the time of falling leaves," I told my aunt. I was not permitted to see my dress but I knew it was made of the softest buckskin and dyed yellow, the color of pollen. Sacred symbols, symbols that the wise women knew would protect me during life, were painted on my dress. And it was now four days that Old Woman had sang over my dress, praying for my safe passage.
"It is a beautiful dress. For this is a sacred ceremony. Tomorrow you will have all the powers of White Painted woman. Remember our people will come to you for blessings and good luck. This will be the most important day of your life."
I nodded. Grandmother had instructed me to be patient. I knew I would sit in the wickiup I had made. I must be wise and keep my own counsel. I bit my lower lip, suddenly uncertain of the task before me.
"You will do well, Tanayia," she said, a twinkle in her dark eyes. "White-Eagle completed his fourth raid, did he not? Your Grandfather talks of past hunts with White-Eagle. This is a good sign."
I nodded and glanced at the ground, a rush of heat moving up my neck to my face. My aunt knew I had eyes only for White-Eagle, but I had not seen him in two winters. I worried he would no longer want me for his bride.
"Do not worry so, child," she said, guessing my thoughts.
I blinked my eyes open and looked at her heavily lined face. Her dark eyes were filled with pride and love. My throat tightened with emotion and I wished I could tell my aunt how much she and Grandmother meant to me.
My aunt brushed her calloused fingertips along my cheek. "There are no dark thoughts today -- today is only to be filled with joy. Now, we must hurry or we will miss the feast."
I smiled back. Both my aunt and I knew no man would call me a beauty. But I was pleasant looking and my grandfather said my voice sounded like a gentle bird's morning song. And for White-Eagle this was enough. But tomorrow, I realized as my heart thrummed in excitement. I would be honored as White Painted Woman. And I would claim my place among my people. The Gahn -- Crown Dancers -- would paint me with corn-and-water paste. This paste would dry in the sunlight and I would appeared to be covered with clay. The Gahns would bless me with sacred corn pollen.
I would be a woman.
My mind focused on the next day as I went into my lodge to prepare for the feast. The fire had died down to only white-hot embers. Reaching for some twigs I stirred the coals and added a small branch to the fire. I glanced around my home taking in the familiar objects, grandmother's cooking pots and neatly tied bundles of cooking herbs hung from a wooden ladder. I inhaled the sweet-heavy fragrance of sage and sweet grass. It burned my eyes. I reached for grandfather's bow and quiver. Running my finger tips over the worn wood handle of grandfather's bow, I was filled with sadness. How many times had I sat before this fire and listened to grandfather's stories as he oiled or retied his bow? Soon, I knew, my life would be very different.
Tomorrow's daylight would bring the Gahns -- I knew their powers would protect me from evil. But I still feared their presence. The Gahns traveled between the place of the Mountain Spirits where the Life Giver lived to where the Nde lived. The Mountain Spirits are protectors of the game animals, the horned animals. The Gahns, I knew, were holy men dressed in long buckskin shirts, high moccasins and black hoods under their carved headdresses. Their mortal legs and arms were covered with a white mixture and painted with sacred symbols. Sometimes deer antlers, a bear, or lightning were painted by the medicine man. They would howl and coo as they approached me, tipping their tall headdresses as they jumped, sidestepped, and turned in time to the singers and drummer.
I thought I would rest a while. My body was tired from the long run and many hours in the hot sun made me sleepy.
I snuggled into my blanket and closed my eyes. I would think of the Gahns later. Soon grandmother would wake me and I'd join in the feast.
It was not my grandmother's voice that awakened me later that afternoon, but several loud, harsh sounds. It sounded like the cracking of tree limbs under the heavy weight of snow.
Woman were screaming. Babies crying.
I jumped from my lodge and ran outside.
People were running about. Women holding babies to their breasts, tried to protect them from harm. Warriors gathered what weapons they could. Suddenly the air was filled with dirt and dust and flying bullets. I clutched the side of my wickiup and stared, too shocked to move.
"Get down!" Grandfather shouted at me.
I dropped to my knees. What was happening? Where was my aunt? My grandmother?
I was terrified, more afraid than I'd ever been in my life. This is a time of celebration, my mind shouted, but I could not make a sound.
Copyright © 2001 by Connie Vines
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"The, The wolves!" He rasped before his head fell and he went unconcious.
"I will do a patrol"she said
"Soulpaw do you pledge your life to waterclan?" (Assumeing a yes) " then by the powers of of starclan i give you your warrior name, soulpaw from this moment on you will be known as soulheart!" She announced proudly." Soulheart,soulheart,soulheart!" The clan cheered happily.
The tom wked in hoping to join.
Connie Vines provides wonderful insight into the world of American Indian children who were ripped from their homes to become Anglocized. The experience is authentic, the characters real, and the ending is upbeat. Connie is a talented writer, and I look forward to more of her books.