Kinaaldá Navajo Coming of Age Ceremony

“The ceremony was started so women would be able to have children and the human race would be able to multiply.” (Frisbie:1967)

It was late November when my friends and I set out for a Kinaaldá, Navajo coming of age ceremony for girls. We drove in the dark over rutted dirt roads high in the Chuska range and arrived at the family’s Sawmill home near midnight. After parking our car under some tall pines we walked towards the gathering. The sacred corn cake (alkaan) cooked in a large, circular pit east of the hogan and a fragrant fire of pinon and juniper burned nearby. Small groups of darkly clad Navajo stood quietly, illuminated by the light of the fire.

Kinaalda Coming of Age Ceremony Preparing hole to cook Alkaan

We pushed aside a blanket covering the hogan doorway and entered ritually, to the left. The hogan was filled with thirty or more people and its old, log walls were decorated with brightly colored weavings. This was the final night of the four day ceremony.

I remember the Kinaaldá as a moving night of sanctity, song and prayer. The girl of honor sat at the western end of the hogan dressed in traditional Navajo clothing: velvet blouse, satin skirt, white leggings, red sash and turquoise beads. She wore a white shell necklace, heavy concho belt and numerous turquoise bracelets. The aging medicine man with black headband sat to her right, while her female relatives sat on her left.

The purpose of the Kinaaldá, or Puberty Ceremony, was to initiate the young girl into womanhood, to identify her with the Holy person Changing Woman, to call the Holy People to her in song and prayer, to bless and protect her. “One cannot overestimate the importance of this rite in creating a positive self-image in a young girl.” (Shepardson:1995)

Throughout the night and early morning timeless rituals were performed. The girl was blessed and touched with corn pollen. Her hair and jewelry were washed with yucca soap in a Navajo Wedding basket, and her cheeks were painted with white clay. The medicine man and his three assistants were the lead singers during the night. When they paused for a break, other men in attendance sang Blessingway songs. I noticed a lively competition in the singing. I’d read that a Navajo man’s wealth was determined by the number of songs that he knew. Songs represented knowledge and knowledge was the greatest wealth a man could possess.

Kinaalda - Coming of Age Ceremony Alkaan ccoking in the ground

In the predawn hours the medicine man spoke earnestly to the girl. He told her that the Holy People were now with her, watching her; that she was now a woman, a Bride of the Sun. He spoke about prosperity, riches and abundance. The medicine man said that she had to set a plan for her life. “Draw out your life today. Draw the events, the course of your life as you see it, as you want it. Your life can’t manifest until you do.” He repeatedly stressed the importance of specificity in designing one’s life and gave a prescription to the girl: 1) Know what you want. 2) Draw it. 3) Write it. 4) Ask for it. 5) Pray for it. 6) Receive it. “The Holy People are there for you,” he said. “They want you to prosper. They’re the source, the seat of abundance.”

When first light appeared the girl left the hogan for her daily “running to greet the Sun.” The purpose of this running was to strengthen the girl and prepare her for life’s challenges. Many young women joined her. We heard their voices crying out as they ran towards the eastern sky. When the girl returned, red-faced and out of breath, it was time for her to be “shaped.” Her mother and aunt spread Pendleton blankets on the ground in front of the hogan door. The girl lay on her stomach, head to the west, and a mature, “Ideal” woman began molding her with her hands, shaping her so that she’d grow up to be strong, straight, healthy and beautiful.

Throughout the entire Kinaaldá the girl was considered to be Changing Woman herself, with all of her fruitful and regenerative powers. On this final morning the young initiate bestowed blessings on those in attendance. Many of us, especially the children, stood with our backs to her as she raised her arms up and over our ears so we would grow to be tall and healthy. “The perception that she has the power to offer blessings to participants at the Kinaalda´ signifies the degree to which her status has been raised through the absorption of the traits of Changing Woman and, indeed, the belief that she has been transformed into Changing Woman. This identification is the most important aspect of the Kinaaldá.” (Markstrom:2003)

Kinaalda - Coming of Age Ceremony Keana with Medicine Man Lawrence Begay

When this ritual was over we returned to the hogan and the women served the morning meal. They passed around steaming plates of mutton stew, yellow corn, potato salad and biscuits. Everyone drank strong black coffee poured from a big, blue enamel pot.

In the last rite of Kinaaldá the four foot wide corn cake was ceremonially cut into slices, removed from the cooking pit and brought into the hogan. The girl then served the sweet, warm cake from a Wedding Basket to those who filed past. This special cake, the corn of which the girl had ground on ancient grinding stones, the batter which she’d stirred with greasewood sticks and the cornhusk liner which she’d stitched by hand, contained everything sacred to the Navajo: “…the sun and earth; male and female; the Holy People, first of all beings; corn, and by extension vegetation; the cardinal points; zenith and nadir.” (Lincoln:1981)

At midmorning my friends and I wound our way back over the mountains to Gallup. The day was crystal clear and despite our sleepless night we each felt a heightened awareness. It was a rare privilege to witness this coming of age ceremony for a Navajo girl. I whispered a prayer of thanks.