Coming of Age in Hupa
The Rebirth of the Flower Dance
By Allie Hostler, Two Rivers Tribune
Several years ago Wendy George saw a splitting maple tree while driving in the mountains. The sunlight illuminated the fibers of the bark and a wave of excitement overcame her. “Stop the truck!,” she said.
“I just knew,” George said. “This is how you make a bark skirt.”
Learning to strip bark from a maple tree is just one of the many lessons of the forest Hupa girls traditionally learned on their journey to womanhood. The lessons are not simply procedural, but spiritual too re-enforcing their connection with nature. Many lessons are learned from plants and herbs used for various purposes and each item used in traditional Hupa clothing and ceremonial regalia: pine nut, abalone, cedar berry, bear grass, porcupine, woodpecker and even the materials used to weave baskets—all have their own teaching.
After seeing the splitting maple tree, George, a Hupa basketweaver, was inspired to make a bark skirt—an article of clothing Hupa women wore everyday as opposed to the fancy buckskin dresses adorned with an assortment of shells and other items. Fancy dresses were worn only for special occasions such as ceremony. Each item on the dress has a purpose and a prayer that goes beyond looking pretty and cuts to the heart of Hupa religion and spirituality.
George’s first completed maple bark skirt was worn by her niece during her coming of age ceremony, a flower dance. Her dance, which occurred in spring of 2000, signaled a Renaissance of Hupa’s coming of age ceremony for young women.
Since then, nearly a dozen flower dances have been held in Hupa. And, several more were and are being held up and down the river in Yurok and Karuk country. Many believe the ceremony could help change negative perceptions about women—a positive way to honor the transition of a girl becoming a young woman.
“…When a woman has her moon, I think she is nearly as powerful as mother earth…,” Jackie Martins said in an interview conducted by the Hupa Language and Culture Program. “We went through a time when women weren’t valued as much.”
In a similar interview, Melodie George-Moore shared similar thoughts. Two of her daughters had a flower dance when they began their transition from girl to woman.
“For the girl, it is a celebration as opposed to something to keep secret…We have so many English euphemisms that are nasty that refer to a woman’s menstruation in a bad way when in fact it is not,” she said. “It is proof positive that she is a conduit between this world and the other for life to come into this world. How much more sacred can that be?
The ceremony has been done various ways as a result of various teachings amongst families, regardless, the ceremony has commonalities such that it occurs over a time period of three to 10 days; the girl is kept covered throughout until the last day of the dance; the girl runs every morning and every evening signifying her preparedness to run the pathways of life. The dance is primarily a woman’s dance; mock orange sticks are used to tap the walls of the girl’s house, keeping rhythm with the women’s songs and men are asked to come in wearing various combinations of regalia that people are accustomed to seeing at the Jump Dance and White Deerskin Dance.
This coming week, George will turn off her cell phone and limit contemporary life’s obligations. Her focus will be turned toward her third daughter, Evelyn, whose flower dance will begin at sunup on Wednesday, June 20. George hopes the community will come out and join her family in welcoming her daughter into the community as a young woman.
“We should all look out for each other’s children,” George said. “Let’s come out and pray together, sing our songs and truly, honestly unite in a positive way. We have to start somewhere especially for our children we have to pull together with our knowledge and share it.”
The ceremony officially begins Wednesday morning when Evelyn will sing a song and ask the K’ixinay, or spirit people, to stop dancing so that she can dance. She will run a path of about three-miles with her eyes shaded by a blue-jay feather blind. Children will chase her and try to make her laugh. Although there will be many attempts to lure her to laughter throughout the ceremony, she is not supposed to. Her ability to stay focused is an indication of her preparedness and ability to adapt to different situations.
On Wednesday evening, before dark, people are invited to come have coffee, visit and ask questions. Evelyn will be kept in semi-seclusion making contact with her attendant and grandmother only . She will run again in the evening. And, just after dark they will go down to the Xontah Na-kya’ (the big house located at Hostler Field) and begin singing and keeping rhythm with sticks carefully carved from mock orange. The dance will not last all night. Women are invited to attend and participate even if they are menstruating.
On Thursday evening the dance will begin around the same time, however men will join in the dance. In addition to the sound of mock orange sticks keeping rhythm, the men will carry poles that they will pound against the ground. Women who are menstruating should not participate in the dance pit while the men are dancing.
Friday a similar schedule can be expected, however the dance will continue throughout the entire night and conclude in the morning when Evelyn is revealed on Saturday morning wearing her highly anticipated new regalia that she and her family created during her teachings that prepared her for womanhood.
When the dance concludes there will be a celebration breakfast served and a gift-giving ceremony for those who contributed to the dance in some way. Often times the gifts are pieces of regalia that she made or a jar of salmon that she helped can.
All attendees are encouraged to bring a positive attitude; women should wear a skirt and are encouraged to wear their caps and beads if they have them.
Men do not need to bring any regalia.
Do you see the big white bird bathing in the east?
(an excerpt from an interview with Wendy George)
During my research, before the last three flower dances, I came across a Hupa word that our people used to describe a young girl starting her menstruation. This word is KinaLdang. It describes a young girl who has just started her menstrual cycle, reaching puberty. Once a young girl would reach this stage in life, her family would have a flower dance for her.
At this time the young girl would be handed over to her grandmother or another very close female relative. The ceremony can last up to 10 days and can be as short as three days. Before the ceremony actually takes place there is a lot of preparation that goes on. The dance is held to let the community know that a girl has reached a turning point in her life, she is now a young woman and ready to viewed this way. She is saying that she has learned many lessons about life and agrees that people should respect her as a young woman now. She will go through this ceremony willingly learning more lessons that will help guide her in life. When she completes the ceremony she will expect people to view her differently and respect her for the trials that she has gone through…
The girls need a ceremonial dress, bark dress, blue jay head blind, burden basket, herbs, pine nut necklace and acorns. Other things that take time to prepare are the medicines, teas, flower dance sticks, fur poles and acorn powder. Everything that happens during this time is for the benefit of the girl. Our intentions are to teach and inspire this young woman to be everything that she can be in life. To never underestimate one’s self, to set her goals high. She should take all of the lessons offered and use them wisely.
Before the ceremony begins the medicine woman and the mother will walk and bless all of the trails the young woman will run on. During the blessing the mother will offer tobacco and herbs to the creator. At the Hostler Creek Village there are four bathing spots and one further up the river at Supply Creek, totaling five. During the ceremony she will run this pathway every evening. Each time she runs, small children will run behind her, trying to get her to laugh. She is not allowed to laugh or act like a child, she is to show her strength and ability to adapt to different situations. If she stumbles during this run she is to back up and run over the same spot again. It is said, if you trip on the trail and you don’t bother to go back and correct yourself, you will trip in life. On the very last day she will run these trails by herself. It is a very happy time but also very emotional time for a mother. It is time to say, “I believe you have the strength and knowledge to run the pathways of life: you must run on your own.”
More on this subject and excerpts from interviews with local women and men about the Flower Dance can be found in a publication titled “Do You See the Big White Bird Bathing in the East?” published by the Hupa Language Culture and Education Program, a program under the tribe’s Education Department.