MTYT: The Gift of Changing Woman

In the last installment of October’s MTYT, Deborah Dimmett and Angie Hoffman talk about the picturebook The Gift of Changing Woman, which is written by Tryntje Van Ness Seymour. October’s theme is the cycle of life of young native women. This book provides the reader with culturally accurate depiction of a young Apache girl experiencing the coming of age ceremony where she learns about the Changing Woman.

Deborah: The Gift of Changing Woman is a nonfiction story based on the events and ceremonies commemorating the traditional rite of passage of young White Mountain Apache girls. Keith Basso (1966) researched and wrote extensively about the rite. He published an article for the Smithsonian Institute about the ceremony and documents most aspects, as well as the importance of the ceremony. Basso wrote about why the ceremony may be less practiced. In his interviews, he found that many members of the Apache nation feel that the ceremony is too dated, or “old-fashioned” among other reasons. If what he claims is true, it is very interesting that this rite of passage would continue to be written about and referenced in Native American children’s literature long after its popularity began to wane. This naturally raises the question as to why the story about the gift of changing woman continues to hold special significance for authors like Seymour and Apache illustrators. Given the books that Angie and I have written about this month, if Basso is correct, the ceremony and the cultural events associated with the Gift of Changing Woman has regained its traditional importance since Basso wrote about it in 1966.

Angie: The Gift of Changing Woman describes the traditional coming-of-age ceremony for young Apache women, in which they use special dances and prayers to reenact the Apache story of creation and celebrate the power of Changing Woman, the legendary ancestor of their people.

The dance signifying the Gift of Changing Woman, recreated through the symbolism of the culture and song (retelling narratives which signify the purpose of the dance) are prayers for thankfulness, endurance, protection and guidance. Dances are considered sacred religious ceremonies and are facilitated by a learned member of the cultures, such as a medicine man or Leader of the Ceremonies. Ceremony dance is often a component of the rituals honoring transformation of the individual, from infancy to adulthood. These rituals include, but are not limited to initiation, vision quests, blessing, healing and social ceremonies. Dancing activates the quantum energy of the universe seeking a practical outcome. In describing the Apache puberty ceremony as the marking of a transition, it becomes a developmental milestone in the life of a young Apache woman that differs significantly from perspective of mainstream culture.

In the ceremony, they call the power of the Changing Woman to the girl. The story of the Changing Woman is retold and reenacted. Through the ceremony, the girl receives blessings, guidance, advice and an example of how she should live her life. As the Apache see it, during the ceremony she goes from girlhood to womanhood. There is no “adolescence” in Apache life. The Apache puberty ceremony is very important to the Apache people. Many tribes across North America use puberty ceremonies to signify the special status of girls at this time in their life span. It is believed that whatever a girl does or experiences during this dance was bound to affect her entire subsequent life. It is also believed that she has exceptional power over all persons or things that come near her during this ceremony.

Song is another element of ceremony because song is of the universe, and it has existed from the beginning. Song is life. Song is supernatural. Song sings the singers and it becomes energy. Songs carry energy and messages. Songs retell stories and are significant components of ceremony. Song in the ceremony, tells the creation story of the earth. The girl goes through the creation story. She has to listen to the songs and really concentrate on them while she is dancing. However she is not just dancing, she has to listen and pray.

In the story of the Changing Woman, the main character is a girl who has gone through the puberty ceremony and is retelling her experience of the dance and how she expected to conduct herself while dancing, listening and praying to the songs. The girl and her godmother stand with dignity as they dance in place with a fast shuffling step to the sound of chanting that come from behind them. Close to her ear, the girl can hear the words of the medicine man, who serves as a religious leader and spiritual guide to his people. Today he conducts the girl’s ceremony. For much of this day he will sing the chants of Changing Woman– telling the story of creation, accompanied by a chorus of men and four drums that beats a rhythm to the chants.

Prayer is another element, it’s a significant component involved in ceremonies because it evokes a blessing, one that will allow the ceremony to be successful for the girl and her people and will deter obstacles. The puberty ceremony symbolizes four critical life objectives that all Apache girls seek: physical strength, an even temperament, prosperity and sound health to an old age. The significant aspects of ceremony have emerged as dance, song, and prayer. All contribute to and enhance ceremony. However, ceremony exists not for the sake of ceremony itself. Basso (1970) notes:

The myth of Changing Woman and her personification by the pubescent girl link this ceremony (Nai’es) to the past and thus provide the raison d’etre forits relevance to the present. Like other Apache rituals, the ultimate justification for Nai’es stems not so much from the ceremony itself as from the long cultural tradition of which it is a product (p72).

In conclusion, the important role of the woman emerges as one that is very significant to the Native American people because she is the Giver of Life. Woman is the co-creator, without her there would be no life. Women play strong roles as nurturers of generosity, kindness, pride and strength. Poise and confidence are necessary for the behavioral values and characteristics in all aspects of life. A woman demonstrates her unique, culturally-valued characteristics through her actions, work habits, tirelessness and strength to care for her family, community and Apache tradition. This dance is still performed today, even now as I write, one is being performed in Dishchii’Bikoh (Cibecue).

Deborah: Seymour’s vivid description of the ritual and its’ meaning relays the important message about how life should be lived. This is captured through the details of the ceremonial costume and actions over the four days. The first two are private with the final days concurring with symbolic actions and celebration. Illustrations of Apache artists (1890’s to the early 1990s) add to the imagery of Seymour’s words. Quotes from an Apache artist, a young woman who was the subject of the ceremony, and a medicine man provide important perspectives throughout the book. Although The Gift of Changing Woman might appear to be a simple story to the uninformed reader, it reflects a collaboration of all of the book’s contributors. It is this collective effort that is the hallmark of the ceremony.

Title: The Gift of Changing Woman
Author: Tryntje Van Ness Seymour
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co
ISBN: 9780805025774
Date Published: November 1, 1993

This is the last installment of October’s issue of My Take/Your Take. You can find the first, second and third installments on our site. Check back next month to see what books we’ve selected and to follow the conversation!

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