At the end of July, in a forest clearing in the heart of the Mescalero Apache Reservation, a 13-year-old girl braved a coming-of-age ceremony marking her initiation into womanhood. Teepees and oak-branch arbors had been erected for the occasion, which would last four full days and into the morning of a fifth. Throngs of family and friends gathered to offer support as Seaven Martinez performed rites of passage believed to have been gifted to her people centuries ago by White Painted Woman, a revered cultural heroine.

At sunrise on the first morning, a team of men erects the “big teepee” on the reservation in south-central New Mexico. Some are Seaven’s friends and family, but many work for the Mescalero Apache Natural Resources Department, which offers employees time to help with every coming-of-age ceremony. The tribe also provides huge stacks of firewood, picnic tables, trash collection and cash donations to ease the financial burden on the girl’s family. Although the heart of these ceremonies takes four days, the events span 12 days total, including set-up and tear-down time. Aside from helping to keep traditions alive, the tribe’s contributions convey a sense that these are truly community events, for everyone’s benefit. 

Medicine woman Uretta Platta coaches Seaven as the ceremony begins and will guide her throughout, offering instructions not only for each element of the ritual but also for her life going forward. Platta’s spiritual lessons are rooted in the challenges of the everyday. “I tell her to continue with her education, to go out into the world, to not have kids too early — and to watch her surroundings,” Platta says. “I want her to have a good life.” 

On the first morning of the ceremony, Seaven runs four times, starting from the big teepee, around a basket placed in a field, and back again. The basket — filled with eagle feathers, cattail pollen, tobacco and other ritual items — is initially set some 50 yards away, then is moved closer each time. The runs are said to represent the four stages of life, from baby to girl to adult to elder — the hope being that Seaven will be fortunate enough to experience all of them. She wears a fringed and beaded buckskin dress adorned with metal “jingles” made from cut-up soda cans; the dress evokes White Painted Woman, whom maidens are said to embody during their ceremony. 

Seaven attempts to make fire with a hand drill, one of the traditional skills deemed essential for an Apache woman to master. When she temporarily tires, a family member lends a pair of helping hands.

The ceremony’s centerpiece is dancing. Each night inside the big teepee (where photography is prohibited), Seaven performs traditional steps by the edge of an oak-fueled fire, the sound of her jingles joining the rhythms of the rattles shaken by a group of four chanters, led by medicine man Bo Kaydahzinne. “The medicine woman takes care of the maiden; the medicine man takes care of what goes on in the big teepee,” Platta explains. On each of the first three nights, Seaven dances for several hours, essentially practicing for the fourth, when she will dance until dawn, with only a short rest. “We sing about everything — the cattle hide she dances on, the teepee poles, the rattles, the mountains, the sky and all of the animals — on land, under the ground, in the air,” says chanter Byron Blake.  

Outside of the big teepee, masked and body-painted Crown Dancers, who represent the Mountain Gods, dance around a huge bonfire, ringed by a crowd of people who have come to watch. A group of men sing and drum behind the dancers. “They dance to bless the maiden, to bless the fire, and to keep bad spirits away,” Platta says. 

Tribal ceremonies like these were outlawed by the U.S. government under the 1883 Code of Indian Offenses, an attempt to eliminate “heathenish” rites and force tribes to join mainstream Christian society. According to one elder, the Mescalero Apache ceremonies stopped altogether for several decades; her own grandmother became the first girl to have her coming-of-age ceremony after the ban was enacted. “She had it in secret,” said Donalyn Torres. Other girls slowly followed her lead. At one point, “a soldier found out about it, and everyone was afraid he would squeal, but it turned out that he didn’t tattletale. So more and more people began doing it again, even though it was against the law.” The ceremonies became legal with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, and today they are vital elements of Apache life. Twenty-five Mescalero girls are scheduled to have their ceremonies by year’s end. 

Usually, the coming-of-age ceremony is simply referred to as ‘the feast,’ and for good reason. There is a lot of food, with breakfast, lunch and dinner served every day, free of charge, to the many people who come to watch and support the maiden. The main arbor, built from oak branches and covered with tarps, serves as a kitchen and dining hall, though most people eat outside. There are two big cookfires — one for making copious amounts of fry bread, the other for cooking meats, potatoes, chile, posole, stews and more. It’s customary for attendees to contribute something — perhaps a bag of flour, a tub of lard or even an entire brisket. 

Feeding everyone well and on time is like a minor military operation, and these days families tend to hire a head cook to captain the kitchen — who then calls in their own family members and friends to help. At Seaven’s feast, head cook Tasaheya Tsinnijinnie-Johnson (left) works with Coco Evans (right) and a team of friends to prepare the “wraps”— beef or venison wrapped in fry bread, served at midnight on the final night of the ceremony, and always a huge hit with feast-goers. “I’m really honored when maidens ask me to cook for them,” Tsinnijinnie-Johnson says. “Maidens draw strength from us, so it’s important to keep a positive mindset and create a loving atmosphere. Also, we show the value in hard work, so we hope to pass that on to them too.”  

On the third night, Seaven leaves the big teepee to join other women in dancing around the bonfire, as Crown Dancers offer their blessings. 

As important as Seaven’s actions is the role of family and friends who have come to support her. They not only encourage her to go on in the face of exhaustion but are there to send her into womanhood with heartfelt hopes for her future.

Seaven carves sun sticks, which are placed around the fire in the big teepee on the final night; there’s one stick for each song that is sung.  

Platta and Seaven by the glow of the bonfire. The changes that a girl undergoes during the ceremony can be difficult to articulate, according to women who have experienced it. Reflecting on her own feast in 1994, Coco Evans said, “I felt different afterwards, like I was a woman and had to take more responsibility for myself and my family.” Donalyn Torres, the elder, said of her ceremony’s impact, “It’s brought me this far, taught me how to live.”

On the fifth morning, after Seaven has danced nearly all night in the big teepee, medicine man Kaydahzinne brushes her with white clay, completing her transformation into White Painted Woman. It is said that White Painted Woman was the mother of the legendary warriors Killer of Enemies and Child of Water, who defeated the evil monsters that threatened to wipe humans from the Earth. She also was a great healer who was pure of heart and a “model of heroic and virtuous womanhood.” It’s hoped that these qualities will remain with Seaven for the rest of her life.

At the close of the ceremony, Seaven repeats the basket runs that she made on the first morning, only in reverse — this time, the basket is placed successively farther away. On the last of her four runs, Seaven keeps going, far beyond the basket, as far as she can go after dancing all night. On her return, she wipes the white clay off of her face. At its core, the ceremony aims to teach Apache girls how to tap their reserves of inner strength, which are far deeper than they ever imagined — and that, “when they feel weak, they can pick themselves up and push through it,” Courtney Naiche, one of the cooks, said. It’s the kind of knowledge that is an invaluable gift for any 13-year-old, particularly when wrapped in the age-old traditions of her ancestors. As for Seaven’s passage into womanhood, her parents, Lorilee and Jess Martinez, said it wouldn’t change their relationship with her at all. “She’ll always be my little girl,” said Jess.

Seaven with her parents, Jess and Lorilee Martinez. She covers a smile, as she’s supposed to remain stoic throughout the feast. 

To see more photos from Seaven’s ceremony, click here.

Michael Benanav is a writer, photographer and digital storyteller based in northern New Mexico. In addition to Searchlight, his work appears in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Sierra...