A few years ago we opened up a phone line on NPR and asked people to call in with their story ideas for our series Hidden World of Girls – girls and the women they become – about rituals and rites of passage, women who crossed a line, made a change, blazed a trail. We received a call from Brook Spotted Eagle in Lake, Andes South Dakota. The call opened up a world to us on the Yankton Sioux reservation where a group of grandmothers have revitalized an ancient coming of age ceremony for girls on the banks of the Missouri River. This year girls from tribes in Canada and throughout the US took part int the 18th annual Isnati.
Brook Spotted Eagle from the the Yankton Sioux/Ihanktonwan Oyate Reservation in South Dakota was one of the hundreds of people who called our Hidden World of Girls’ phone line with a story idea.
Hi. My name is Brook Spotted Eagle. I belong to a women’s society on my reservation in South Dakota. The Brave Heart Women’s Society. My mother is one of the founding grandmother’s who has brought it back to life. Over the last 100 years we’ve lost a lot of our ceremonies. I’ll have to check with the elders, but when I saw the Hidden World of Girls I thought it would be amazing to share with other Native women the Isnati coming of age ceremony for our girls. Give me a call if you’re interested. Thanks. Bye.
White Swan, South Dakota
On a wide grassy bank of the Missouri River on , Brook Spotted Eagle stands watching five young girls raise a tipi. The girls are taking part in a four-day coming-of-age ceremony revived in the 1990s by the Brave Heart Women’s Society.
“I was part of the first group who went through this Isnati coming-of-age ceremony 13 years ago,” Brook recalls. Brook’s mother, Faith Spotted Eagle, is one of the women who re-established the Brave Hearts. With American and European contact many such societies and ceremonies have been lost over the last 100 years. In 1994, Faith and the Brave Hearts interviewed grandmas from three states about what they remembered of the Isnati coming of age ceremony.
“In the old days,” Faith Spotted Eagle says, “as soon as a girl had her first moon, her menses, she would immediately be isolated from the rest of the camp and begin a four-day ceremony where she was taught by other women. So we symbolically set up one camp a year and have the girls come in for four days.”
In traditional Yankton Sioux culture everyone had a niche, a role. One of the roles of the women who were part of the Brave Hearts was to retrieve the dead and wounded from the battlefield and help the families. “In a way we are doing the same thing today with the modern day Brave Hearts,” Faith Spotted Eagle says, “bringing back our people from emotional death.”
Thunder cracks in the distance as the girls, dressed in long skirts and tank tops, unroll the canvas tipi. This is where they will sleep together for the next four days, away from the rest of the camp. A group of grandmas and aunties yell instructions from the sidelines: “A little to the north, to the north! Hurry up girls — before the rain comes!”
“Most women’s tipis have 13 poles because we have 13 moons in a year,” explains Judy Drapeau, a grandmother who helps every year. “That’s why we call it a moon camp because it’s a special time for women to learn about themselves.”
“The first thing you need to do is put up your own lodge, you need to have that strength to house yourself,” says Marissa Joseph, 21. Adopted at birth, Joseph spent a large part of her youth bouncing between relatives.
“Childhood was really rough — lost, floating and drifting.” “By my early teens, I was a pretty strong alcoholic. I didn’t know who I was and what I needed. I really wanted to not live anymore. The summer of my 14th year I went through Isnati. I felt like I was found.”
Feeding The Girls
During the four days, the girls cannot touch food or drink. They are fed by their mothers and other women in the camp. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to do this,’” says Kiari Worldturner, 16. “Your mom has to feed you and give you water. I didn’t like my mom. I didn’t trust her.”
Marla Bull Bear, who has been through the ceremony with her daughter, says the feeding feels a little like heartbreak — “that bittersweet feeling.” “It’s treating them like a baby one last time before they become women,” she says. “No longer would she be my little girl to feed anymore. You really begin to start the foundation of what that adult relationship is with a mother and daughter.”
On the second day, the girls pile into the back of a pick up truck to gather traditional herbs and medicines. Faith Spotted Eagle points out a little plant called “too proud,” and yellow cornflowers, which have roots that when ground up are used to treat toothaches.
The girls pick buffalo berries and armfuls of wildflowers and women’s sage for the bouquets they’ll carry at the womanhood ceremony.
Teresa Heart, a Brave Heart grandmother, arrives in the afternoon and sizes up the girls. For the past 13 years, she’s made the girls’ ribbon dresses for the ceremony. “I didn’t have this when I became of age,” Teresa says. “Growing up at a boarding school, they came from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and they took us. I must have been five. And I didn’t see my mom and my grandparents for nine years. When I was older, they assigned me a little first grader and I had to teach her English. I’d braid her hair and take care of her. Then they’d switch everybody all around and I’d get another little girl. They wouldn’t let us get close to each other.”
The Camp Circle
Just before dusk, Marissa Joseph arrives to teach the girls how to make ceremonial food — dried buffalo meat jerky with buffalo berries.
“Every year I try to teach what I know, bring that back to recreate that feeling I felt,” she says. Older Isnati girls return year-after-year to feed the younger girls and teach them ceremonial songs and beading.
Throughout the days, the elders talk to the girls about modesty, courtship, pregnancy — and suicide, a serious problem on the reservations. “At times we have a nutritionist come in and talk to them about eating right and not just drinking Gatorade,” Brook Spotted Eagle says. “About not being afraid of doctors and having to get a check up. Sexual abuse and incest can pose a huge problem within families. There’s no easy way to talk about these issues, so you just have to get them out there. And we’re always talking about this concept of a camp circle. We can’t be attacking each other and doing this mean girl’s stuff.”
Madonna Thunderhawk, an activist and long time American Indian Movement advocate, sits watching the girls as they learn how to bead their small leather medicine bags. “As a grandmother and great grandmother, I just wanted to come and spend a few hours,” she says. “This is part of what I need to do. At one time, all of this was underground. We only got the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act in the late ’70s. So we had to stand our ground to have these things out in the open again.”
The Fourth Day
On the last day, each girl spends time with her mother or an auntie in the tipi. The older woman bathes the girl in sage water and talks to her about her birth, her young days — and her future. Kiari World Turner says her mother washed her hair and told her about when she was a little girl: “Good stories. I guess we found each other.”
In the late afternoon, dressed in their ribbon dresses, moccasins, and beaded regalia, the girls are introduced to the community as women and members of the Brave Heart Womens Society. More than 90 girls have taken part in the Isnati Awica Dowanpi Coming of Age Ceremony in the Ihanktonwan territory over the past 13 years.
“When I went through Isnati, my grandmother gave me the name Gray Eagle Woman,” remembers Marissa. “My sister’s name is Stand Strong Woman. She’s the baby girl and she’s lived a hard life as well, and she’s been able to stand strong. It only seems fitting that you would change your name with where you are in your life. The Brave Heart Society, these grandmothers, this connection with these girls I’ve made. This is my sixth year into it. I’m like a 6 year old trying to live a new life. I’m still pretty new to a lot of things.”