Jacob Golden woke at dawn, feeling refreshed and invigorated once more. His wife was extremely happy again, and he would soon get to fulfill his lifelong dream of moving to California. Life was finally getting better.
But he oddly awoke to the sounds of soft melodious singing and chanting, and he slowly realized that these melodies were coming from inside his own wickiup. Even more peculiar, as he opened his eyes, he soon realized that it was his own wife who was doing the singing and chanting.
"Good morning, Tesh-nay. I never knew you could carry a tune like that. Although I like those pretty sounds you're making, what the hell are they?"
"Ah, mi amor, you are finally awake! I've got to get going, husband. I've got a really busy day ahead. Today is the first day of the celebration!"
"Whoa there, woman! Slow down a minute. Aren't you even going to tell me what's going on?"
"Don’t you remember that I told you that Lagar-tia-nay has asked me to be her attendant?"
"Yes, but you never explained to me what the heck that meant."
"Men! How could you not know what it means? Lagar-tia-nay is preparing for her Rite of Passage! She has asked me to be her attendant, and this is considered to be a great honor for me. I'm so happy that she asked me, of all people. Don't you think that's wonderful?"
"Rite of Passage? Is she going somewhere?"
"Gringo, sometimes I think you’re already living at that ocean of yours in your head and that no one else lives there with you! Not even me. Don't you know anything? When an Apache girl reaches puberty, she goes through her Rite of Passage so she can enter womanhood. She cannot choose a husband until after she completes this important ritual.
“Haven't you noticed how she looks at Too-ah-yay-say and how he looks at her? Neither of them can do anything about that until she completes this sacred ceremony."
"Oh, I guess I understand now. Come to think of it, I have noticed how they eyeball each other. It's sort of how you and I first looked at each other, isn't it?"
"Now you've got it, my smart husband!"
"But about this passage thing. What do you have to do? Is this a ceremony of some sort?"
"Yes, my dense old husband. Actually it’s a four day ritual. There will be much singing, dancing, and feasting. Since I'm her attendant, I have to guide her through it, and stay with her for three days and three nights. Then, when it's over, her people will consider her to be a woman, not a child. She will then be eligible to marry!"
"You mean that you're going to leave me here all alone for three nights? Why didn’t you tell me any of this before, Cecilia?"
"Oh, so now that you’re upset, you use my Anglo name! That must mean that you want to leave right now, too. Please, mi amor, not just yet. This ceremony means so much to Lagar-tia-nay, and to me. You’re not going to spoil it for me are you?”
"Oh, calm down, woman. Of course we'll stay for the ceremony if it means that much to you. But you owe me!"
"Thank you. Thank you, my husband. I will make it up to you. I will! I've got to go now. We're still working on Lagar-tia-nay’s dress and the ceremony starts this morning! See you later, mi amor!"
About an hour later, as Jake sat huddled by his campfire having his morning coffee, he noticed that the whole village seemed to be preparing for Lagar-tia-nay’s big ceremony. A few days earlier, some of the Apache women had even constructed a rather large new wickiup. He had wondered what it was for. Now he could see that they were busily finishing the final decorations on it.
As he sat there intently watching, Gian-na-tah approached him.
“Good morning, Jake! I see that you are watching the preparations. Your wife has received a great honor this day, my friend.”
“That’s what she told me, Chief. But I’m afraid that she’s been too busy to really explain all of it to me. Would you mind telling me what the heck is going on around here?”
Gian-na-tah settled himself down next to Jake by the fire and patiently explained the entire legend surrounding today’s activities and the reason for Lagar-tia-nay’s elaborate ceremony.
“Long, long ago, this ritual was given to our people by the Giver of Life through Esdzanadeha, the White Painted Woman. She lovingly reared and protected her only son, Killer of Enemies, despite several monsters who roamed this earth. Her son soon grew to be a great warrior. One day, he killed these terrible monsters to make the world safe for our people.
“Because of this, White Painted Woman is still revered to this day. During today’s ceremony, which we call Na ih es, every young girl who has reached the age of marriage is likened to the great White Painted Woman. For the next three days, Lagar-tia-nay, your wife, and our old shaman will enter the Medicine Lodge and sing the praises of White Painted Woman.
“Your wife has been selected by Lagar-tia-nay to guide her through this sacred passage. She will paint the young woman’s body yellow with pollen, to make her fertile. She will then paint Lagar-tia-nay’s body red, to symbolize blood and life. She will also guide this young girl in her dances and prayers.
“Once they enter the Medicine Lodge, you will not see your wife again for the next three days! Can you live alone that long, my friend?”
The chief suddenly burst out laughing at his little joke.
“I’ll manage somehow. It’s worth it just to see how happy Cecilia is right now.”
“She has studied hard, Jake. I am very proud of my niece. She has become one of us! Come, let us join them now. They are about to enter the Medicine Lodge.”
As Jake Golden and Gian-na-tah watched, Lagar-tia-nay and Cecilia suddenly came out of the young girl’s wickiup and solemnly walked toward the huge Medicine Lodge. They both looked absolutely radiant.
The young Apache girl’s dress was exceptionally beautiful. It had been carefully sewn from soft brown doeskins and the actual tail of a black-tailed deer was suspended from the back hem. There were also numerous symbols painted on this exquisite dress. Jake soon recognized a morning star, a crescent moon, a circle representing the sun, and even colorful arched lines which looked like huge rainbows.
Cecilia’s dress was much plainer, but it, too, looked absolutely beautiful. He also noticed that his wife was now wearing numerous large necklaces, beads, and turquoise jewelry that he had never seen before.
As they reached the Medicine Lodge, the old shaman, Nah-ka-yen, emerged from within it. Jake quickly noticed that the old man was also decked out in his finest buckskin garments.
As they continued to watch, Nah-ka-yen began chanting some beautiful ancient melody, and then he slowly led the two women inside.
“Come back to this very spot when the sun disappears, my friend. You will really see something then!”
Jake did as he was instructed and met Gian-na-tah outside the Medicine Lodge at dusk. He soon discovered that a huge bon-fire was being carefully prepared by some of the warriors. The chief motioned for him to sit beside him and wait.
After it got completely dark in the canyon, this bon-fire was stoked to an intense heat. Its brilliance soon began lighting up much of the surrounding countryside.
As everyone sat eagerly watching and waiting, there seemed to be an eerie ghostly silence pervading the entire village. No one was speaking at all, not even the usually very chatty women and small children.
Suddenly, five mysterious figures emerged from the darkness at the edge of camp. In solemn single file, these figures marched in and slowly began circling the huge flames.
Jake was totally taken aback by their strange appearance. Each man’s face was completely covered by a large buckskin hood, with only tiny holes cut out for their eyes and mouths. On the top of their heads, they all wore strange looking horns of some sort made of deer antlers and pieces of wood. Bright eagle feathers gently dangled from these horns.
As the five strange figures marched in, some of the pieces of wood on their heads clanked and rattled loudly. The top half of every figure’s uncovered body was also painted in many brilliant colors and they each wore elaborate buckskin skirts and tall, pointed, odd looking moccasins.
Jake looked around him and he could see that every single Apache child’s eyes were intently focused on these figures and that each child hypnotically followed every movement that these strange looking men made.
After the five figures had completely encircled the fire, a shrill cry broke out and the loud beating of numerous drums hidden in the shadows instantly shattered the eerie silence of the camp.
At the sound of the drums, these masked figures started chanting loudly and frantically, and they began dancing faster and faster around the bright red and orange flames.
After watching these mysterious dancers for awhile, many of the Indians sitting around the fire could no longer contain their own excitement. Some of them eagerly jumped up and began feverishly dancing themselves.
The entire camp was now filled with singing, chanting, drum beating, shrill unearthly cries, and utter excitement. The Apache children seemed especially mesmerized by these truly strange proceedings.
After watching for several minutes, Gian-na-tah leaned over towards Jake and whispered, “How do you like these Gahe, my friend?”
“Their costumes are magnificent, Chief. But who are these men?”
“These five dancers represent The Mountain Spirits, or Gahe, as we call them. The Gahe are also revered by our people, as is White Painted Woman. It is said that long ago, these Mountain Spirits freed all of the animals of the world who were being held captive by Crow. If they had not freed these creatures, we would have no game to eat and no warm skins to wear on our backs.
“These Mountain Spirits help to protect us against illness, they cure disease, and they even assist young girls in their passage to become Apache women.”
“Very impressive, Gian-na-tah. Thank you very much for sharing all of these wonderful stories with me.”
Jake, the chief, and most of the Indians in camp sat watching the festivities and dancing long into the desert night. Jake, himself, didn’t head back to his wickiup until after the huge bonfire had completed died out.
He was very impressed with what he had witnessed here today, and he suddenly wondered if Cecilia had been able to catch a glimpse of those magnificent costumed dancers from inside the Medicine Lodge. From what Gian-na-tah had told him, he knew that his very excited wife would be extremely busy for the next few days.
©2004, an excerpt from Gold River Canyon, now available in the AD Bookstore.