The Sunrise Dance

Na'ii'ees, The Apache Woman's Puberty Ceremony

Traditionally, almost every Western Apache girl had a puberty ceremony, or na'ii'ees ('preparing her,' or 'getting her ready'), known popularly as the Sunrise Dance. Today, this is no longer true. Although puberty ceremonies continue to be performed on a regular basis, most Apache girls now must do without them. Two reasons for this decline are apparent. First, as a result of inroads made on the traditional religion by missionaries, some Apaches no longer believe in the effectiveness of na'ii'ees. A second reason that na'ii'ees is held less and less is its prohibitive cost. The amount of money and work required is staggering and this condition makes the ceremony impossible for many people.

Is dzán naadleeshe', Changing Woman

Na'ii'ees is a ritual enactment of the Apache origin myth. Long ago, according to the myths, Is dzán naadleeshe', Changing Woman lived all alone. One day she had sexual intercourse with the Sun, and as a result of this union brought forth Naye' nazgháné- (Slayer of Monsters), the foremost Western Apache culture hero. Four days later, Changing Woman became pregnant by Water Old-Man and gave birth to Túbaadeschine (Born of Water Old-Man). As the twins matured, Changing Woman and other powerful figures taught them all of the things Apaches needed to know. As soon as they were old enough, Naye' nazgháné-and Túbaadeschine left home and rid the earth of much evil.

Changing Woman's power grants longevity. Although she grows old, she is always able to recapture her youth by walking towards the east and turning around counterclockwise four times. This power is transferred to the pubescent girl through songs sung by the diiyin ('one who has power'), the medicine man. The 32 or more songs are believed to have first been sung by Changing Woman and are collectively known as gohzhoosih ('songs of beauty and goodness'). This power resides in her for four days after the ceremony. During this period, the pubescent girl personifies Changing Woman and is said to be able to cure the sick and bring rain.


On the day before na'ii'ees, four important events take place at the dance ground. The first is a sweat bath, held in the morning which is attended by male relatives. During this time, the medicine man, assisted by two or three older men make the ritual paraphernalia. This consists of the case, scratching stick, drinking tube, an abalone shell pendant, a downy eagle feather, a fringed buckskin serape, and a large buckskin. The second is niláá'ikaa ('food, exchanged') when a substantial gift of prepared food is presented to the relatives of the pubescent girl by those of na'il'eesn, her female sponsor. The third is a short ceremony at dusk known as bikee'ilzéé ('she is dressed') when the medicine man presents the girl with the ritual paraphernalia. Later in the evening bidiltii ('night before dance') is held and the girl dances in her special na'ii'ees costume.

Small burden basket made of bear grass, buckskin, red cotton trade cloth, and tin tinklers. Traces of pollen indicate that it may have been used for ceremonial purposes. Southwest Apache, Donated by T. Barbour 1909. Peabody Collection

Red calico print camp dress with yellow flowers and black and white trim has been in Ernestine Cody's family for many years. It is the kind of dress worn by young girls during the Sunrise Dance. Arizona, Cibecue, Western Apache. Personal Collection of Ernestine Begay

Knee-high moccasins are made of leather with fringes and toe shields, decorated with yellow and green beaded circle designs. Arizona, Mescalaro Apache, Collected by T.J. Eastman. Peabody Collection

On the morning of na'ii'ees, two or three of the pubescent girl's male relatives make the few preparations that the ceremony requires. They spread a large tarpaulin on the ground near the center of the dance area, on which they pile twelve blankets one on top of the other. The ceremonial buckskin is then placed on the uppermost blanket, with the forward part of the buckskin pointing east. They then bring out six or eight cardboard boxes or táts'aa' ('burden baskets') filled with candy, chewing gum, popcorn, and fruit, which they arrange in two rows directly in front of the buckskin. Two small baskets, one filled with cigarettes, the other with holy powder, and four drums are placed in an arc to the west of the buckskin.

The Eight Phases

Na'ii'ees is made up of eight distinct phases, each of which is begun, continued, and ended by a group of songs performend by the medicine man.

Phase 1 - The first phase of na'ii'ees is called bildeenilkéé ('all alone, she dances'). During this time the pubescent girl dances on the buckskin with her companion.

Phase 2 - The second phase called niztah (sitting) takes place after the dancing. The girl takes a kneeling position and begins to sway from side to side as the singing starts again.(i.e. first photo)

Phase 3 - The third phase niztii (lying) takes place with the na'il'eesn massaging the girl's legs, back, and shoulders to make them strong.(photo left)

Phase 4 - The fourth phase is known as gishshizhaahá bidaa leedilyee ('cane set out for her, she runs around it'). During this phase the girl runs four times between the case and the buckskin with each time the cane being set farther away. These runs symbolize different life stages of childhood, girlhood, womanhood and old age.

Phase 5 - Phase five is similar to phase four with runs in the east, south, west and north directions. This phase enables the girl to run great distances without feeling fatigue.

Phase 6 - This sixth phase is called kéni naayiziid ('candy, it is poured'). It begins when the medicine man picks up a small basket filled with candy, corn kernels, acorns, and coins and pours the contents over her head. The spectators eagerly gather around to scoop them up.

Phase 7 - Phase seven baana'ildih (blessing her) takes place as the medicine man and all adults present bless the girl and na'il'eesn with holy pollen.

Phase 8 - The eighth and final phase is called jiih' ilkee ('blankets, she throws them off'). This is when the girl steps off the buckskin and throws a blanket in each of the cardinal directions, thus concluding the ceremony.

Musical Instruments:The water drum is made from a modified iron skillet with a buchskin head tied on with rubber tubing. The drumstick is fashioned from willow root. These were used for many different ceremonies including the Sunrise Dance. The amount of water contained in each determines the pitch. After a ceremony, the water was offered to the earth and drunk by the participants. Arizona, Cibecue, Western Apache. Personal Collection of Ernestine Begay

The dance rattle is made from the scrotum of a bull or horse and has impressed decorations of parallel lines. Rattles such as this were used by Shamans at the beginning of the Sunrise Dance during the time that Changing Woman's wickiup is put up. Arizona, Western Apache, Collected by G.Nicholson 1880-1914. Peabody Collection

The courting flute consists of wood, tin leather, eagle feathers, and beads. Eight to ten light, sweet notes can be played on it. It was believed to have the power to secure a woman's love for the player. New Mexico, Jicarilla Apache, Collected by F. Russel 1889. Peabody Collection

The violin and bow were made by Geronimo from agave wood, sinew, and horsehair and is signed by him. It is dyed red and yellow with painted star decoration around the airholes. During his long imprisonment, Geronimo made many traditional artifacts for sale to army officers and tourists. William H. Claflin purchased the violin from William R. Morris in 1930 who in turn purchansed it from General George Crook's widow. Arizona, Chiricahua Apache, 1886?. Peabody Collection

The Four Holy Days

Throughout most of na'ii'ees, the girl's power is used to benefit herself. However, immediately after the ceremony, it becomes public property and is available to everyone. At this time she is considered holy and continues to live at the dance ground with her family.

Because of this power, the girl must observe certain taboos. She may not wash herself, for it is thought that by doing so she would sacrifice her power. She may drink only through her drinking tube. If she were to drink from a container, whiskers might grow around her mouth. A third restriction dictates that the girl not touch her skin with her fingernails. She may scratch herself only with a scratching stick. If she did otherwise, ugly sores (and subsequent scars) would appear where she touched herself.

During the four holy days, the girl's power is believed to be strong enough to cure the sick. To be healed, a sick person stands facing the girl, who extends her arms in front of her (palms up) and then raises them quickly to shoulder level. She repeats this gesture four times. At no point does she touch the patient. If, after such a blessing, the sick person feels relieved, then the girl's power is considered exceptional in its strength and she is henceforth called baagodiyih ('she can perform miracles').

Social Significance

Na'ii'ees plays a vital social role in reproducing Apache culture. It serves a number of different functions including bringing clan relatives together, strengthening kinship obligations, and establishing reciprocal obligations between unrelated persons. Importantly, it encourages "moral" behavior by identifing and reinforcing the four life objectives of physical strength, a good disposition, prosperity, and a healthy old age. Na'ii'ees is symbolic of an ideal state of happiness which Apaches claim existed long ago in mythological times. The myth of Changing Woman and her personification by the pubescent girl link na'ii'ees to the past, and thus provide a justification for its existence in the present. The ultimate justification and sanction for na'ii'ees come not from the ceremony itself but from the long cultural tradition of which it is simultaneously a product and an expression. As the Apache say, "Changing Woman never died and she will always live."