For the past several years I’ve been haunted by a young fourteen-year-old girl I never met. Gina Score died in a boot camp training school in Plankinton, SD1. Her family, from a small eastern South Dakota town, was like many families from the Midwest. Generally, we live simple lives here, but Gina somehow got off on the wrong foot—like others of us did at her age. She did some shoplifting, skipped school, and got herself into trouble with the police. In July of 1999, she was put in the boot camp in an attempt to ‘shape her up’ and get her back on the right track. Fashioned after the model of military training, boot camp for teens is not summer camp.
Five days after Gina arrived in Plankinton the girls from Cottage B, fifteen of them in all, went on an early morning run down a road outside the complex. Both the temperature and the humidity were about seventy. Gina, weighing over two hundred pounds, couldn’t complete the run. When she collapsed, the staff counselors thought she was faking it and let her lie there in the sun—for three hours. Eyewitnesses reported that Gina roused herself once, tried to make it the last 100 feet to her cottage, but collapsed again. Her skin was pale, her lips blue, and she had urinated on herself. Still, the staff did nothing.
When the paramedics were called at last, Gina was taken by ambulance to the hospital, but on the way her heart gave out. Paramedics tried to revive her but the damage was too severe—her internal body temperature had topped the thermometer at 108 degrees.
This will be the most depressing and devastating story I’ll tell here because Gina’s story is the reason I finally finished this book. I can’t get her off my mind. After researching kids and culture for over ten years, it was Gina who finally pushed me out of analysis and into action.
Our children suffer. A shocking five million plus have been diagnosed as ADD or ADHD and placed on Ritalin2. Suicide is now the third most common cause of death for young people3. Two hundred thousand young people are incarcerated each year, with 84,000 of them placed in solitary confinement for twenty-four hours or more4.
There is, of course, no easy answer to the challenges our current culture presents to its young. We can’t simply pack a bag and send them off to seek their fortune. Something much more complex is required.
As I began writing this book, I found myself grappling with fundamental questions sweetly reminiscent of my own youth. Why am I here? What have I come to do? Do I have the right or the duty to decide for anyone what is best for them—even my own children? Is it possible to be guide, mentor and eventually Elder to those who now travel the paths I walked earlier? What are the golden links between mind, body, spirit, family, and culture?
It’s as if in searching for the right initiation for my growing children I was, myself, initiated.
This is not just a book but the story of a book which took me over ten years to write. The journey has not been an easy one. It seems we are training our young people to be violent, alone, and dead to the world. They are in the lonely place. From early childhood on our children face a barrage of violent images on television, video games, and the internet. They watch ridiculous programs where the children act big, the parents act stupid and the whole family is clueless. They attend schools where earnest educators attempt to stuff information into their brains without thought of the natural human learning process.
Growing children into conscious, healthy adults is a web which connects to all aspects of our current culture. There are no easy answers. This effort, I hope, will be part of a long, honest cultural conversation about what we need to do to ensure a healthy future for our young people.
The messages of this book will seem confusing or contradictory at times. They will push against the tidal wave of negative energy flowing out toward our young. They will examine the tendency toward pathological diagnoses and the criminalization of the adolescent—as if being a teen were a sickness or a crime. They will challenge us to search our own development for signs of the uninitiated adult within.
I will also contradict myself by suggesting first that we do as the Lakota mothers do for their littlest ones—call them dear, sweet and precious one to pull their little spirits tightly to us. Then I’ll tell suggest that with our teens we must push them hard with strong tests and challenges. And finally, for those on the edge of adulthood, I suggest we bless them—and then get out of their way and stop doing for them what they should be doing for themselves.
Throughout these chapters I will wander through the many fields of science, medicine, psychology, and spiritual thought. At one point I will venture into the Family constellation of the German psychotherapist, Bert Hellinger.5 At another point, I will build a map that orients us to the higher levels of development. The desired end result of all of these seemingly varied topics is to build and strengthen the cultural cradle that contains the child and his family and our culture.
In the chapters to follow there are many references to the public radio series my husband, Milt, and I produced called Oyate Ta Olowan—The Songs of the People.6 This series consists of fifty-two public radio documentary programs on Native American music and stories. Over five years we traveled deeply into Indian country to meet and interview The Oyate, which means “The People” in Lakota. This incredible journey taught me much, and I gratefully acknowledge all the Elders and teachers who have contributed to the information presented here.
I would like to dedicate this book to my three children, Nichol, Lisa, and Thomas who have taught me so much about becoming a human being. Without you guys, my life would have been a desert.
Through The Tipi to the Rising Sun
On a slope of Bear Butte, a gentle mountain in South Dakota, a young man awaits the vision that will organize and guide his life. For four days he will fast, pray, and sleep alone under the night sky. At the base of the mountain, his family and friends wait for him.
On a sandy stretch of land in Arizona just north and east of Phoenix, a young woman dressed in white buckskin wears an abalone shell like a crown on her forehead and carries a crooked staff. For four days she chants, prays, and dances as her family and friends gather around to support her.
On a beach in northern Minnesota, a young woman takes a dare and drinks a quart of Southern Comfort. She nearly dies. In the emergency room, her family and friends wipe tears and pray—that she will live through the night.
On a street in Los Angeles, a young man takes a gun and shoots a rival gang member. His buddies accept him, but two families gather now—one for a trial, one for a funeral.
As unlikely as it sounds, there is a common denominator here. All four young people are performing a ritual, or a rite of passage, that has developed in the culture that surrounds them. All four have responded to something deep within themselves that says there must be a passage from childhood to adulthood. The difference is that the young man on the mountain and the young woman in white buckskin were raised in a culture that recognizes—and prepares itself—for this powerful event.
The need is real. It captures us all, sending us through a second birth canal toward the makings of soul that gives our life meaning. I still remember that gnawing feeling of restless desire, wanting answers, and pushing against constraint. As young people, we walked lonely roads or beaches staring out at starry night skies and wondering what . . . what . . . does it all mean? What have I come here to do? We found all of our boundaries and then tested them. We forced our parents to lie awake far into the night wondering and praying that we would make it home . . . this time.
It happened to all of us, but somewhere along the historical trail, the massive, brilliant energy of adolescence became something to fear and dread rather than to nurture and guide. Society began the nasty game of passing the buck; the church should take care of it, the family, the schools, and the politicians . . . no . . . it’s up to the law. And while we quibbled and blamed, our children stopped becoming young men and women and became teenagers.
This topic was of special interest to me not just as an educator and scholar, but also as a parent. When I first began this book, my three children were moving toward adulthood. I was consumed with the question of “What do they need?” in order to make a strong passage from my home to one of their own making.
During the recording of the Oyate series, we had the opportunity to attend an Apache Sunrise Ceremony1 performed as an initiation ritual for a young girl. This beautiful and complex rite of passage ceremony is filled with small, intricate pieces of which I can only give you my experience as an outsider to that culture.
We arrived at the ceremonial grounds just outside of Ft. McDowell, Arizona at sunrise on the second day of the ceremony. The young girl being initiated was dressed in a beautiful white buckskin dress and tall moccasins with a piece of gleaming abalone adorning her forehead. She looked ageless, a portrait drawn into the lost pages of some beautiful storybook. Family members, mostly women, surrounded her. The sandy, desert ceremonial grounds were filled with her community—there to share her experience and to support her through it.
The ceremony went on day and night with a dozen or more male singers chanting endless repetitive melodies that stir the blood and awaken the senses. At night, a huge bonfire was built. Mysterious crown dancers came out dressed in dark regalia and wearing tall, elaborate crowns. It is said that the crown dancers take on the spirits of the surrounding mountains during the cere-mony, and when it’s over, the crowns are hidden in the mountains and never used again. Throughout the long days of dancing, the girl carries a crooked staff with a feather dangling from it. As she steps the endless beat, she pounds the staff on the earth.
I watch, wondering if she is tired, how long has she danced . . . can she go on? I also wonder what private things her aunties and grandmothers have told her about becoming a woman. It is said that during the time of the ceremony, the young girl becomes a healer. Members of the tribe bring their babies and their ill Elderly family members to be healed by her.
During the ceremony I can see the girl is transformed by this whole experience. She is no longer a girl—and certainly not a teenager or an adolescent—but someone else. Her eyes appear to see far beyond the ceremonial grounds and the people around her.
Toward the end of the ceremony, the girl is placed on her knees facing the sun. An aunt, her mentor, supports her from behind as the girl dances from her knees, raising her hands again and again towards the sky. At last, the Medicine Man brings out a basket of corn pollen paint and a brush, and paints her face and head with this thin yellowish mud. I watch and am transfixed. As the mud dries, she looks ancient, timeless—as if carved on a sandstone wall and left there for eternity. When the painting is completed, the Medicine Man turns to the crowd and flicks the loaded brush into the crowd until we, too, are painted.
This astounding ceremony has only one purpose—to assist that young girl into her maturity, to guide her in the passage from girl to woman. The weeks of planning, the tremendous expense of feeding the crowds and preparing for the ceremony are all taken on by her family in order that she may have this important experience of the soul.
I was touched to the core by this ceremony. Deep in my heart I longed to offer such a transformation to my own daughters—or to myself. I realized that I was grieving for the young girl in me still awaiting such an event. I wanted feathers and visions and long dark nights in a tipi under a wide, black sky. I was also grieving for the parent in me who wanted heavenly creatures to dance out of the dark and speak to my children in mysterious languages that only he or she would understand. I wanted the mysteries of the universe to unfold their secrets for my children so that they might suffer less from this human condition than I have.
When comparing this beautiful ceremony to my own passage, I found, sadly, that there was no comparison. For me, womanhood brought only an unexplained feeling of shame. Beginning menstruation was a fearful time, and growing breasts brought only disrespect, sexual innuendo, teasing, and crass new words like “boobs” and “tits.” In sixth and seventh grade, we had a gym teacher who would not allow a menstruating girl to swim. She sent us to an open study hall filled with taunting boys who knew exactly why we were there. There was no honor in that moment.
After attending the Sunrise Ceremony, I felt robbed, ripped off by a culture that couldn’t see me at that age. I also walked away from that night determined to discover ways to strengthen the cultural cradle so that my children, and their children, could experience this important transition like the young Apache girl stepping through the tipi to the rising sun.
In addition to the Sunrise Ceremony, our extensive travels into Indian Country gave my husband and me the chance to see what many native people are still doing for their young—rituals and ceremonies with no equivalent in the melting pot of mainstream America. We watched dedicated Hopi girls and boys learn the Butterfly dance. We stood under a star-studded sky on the northern coast of California watching a young Hupa girl perform her first ceremonial dance dressed in buckskin stitched heavily with glowing white shells. We attended small community powwows and watched the young native boys and girls shed their baggy jeans and T-shirts and adorn themselves with the fine regalia of their ancestors.
When I compare all this to the little that we in mainstream America have to offer, it nearly makes me weep. Our culture and, sadly, many remaining indigenous cultures, are no longer connected to their tribal ways. What remains of our rite of passage rituals have been badly diluted, reduced to such minor markers as getting a driver’s license, going to prom, getting a diploma, etc.
Today, our culture is riddled with the shards and pieces of initiation rituals. I view these remnants as an archeologist might view an old city buried beneath a windswept, sandy plain. There, in the humps and bumps that remain, is the record of what was once a living, active civilization.
Exploring the way a youth emerges out of childhood to take his or her rightful place as an adult in the community is not a simple task. It forces us to examine both modern and ancient ways of being, to evaluate and deter-mine what is important—and what is simply flotsam. It also forces us, as adults, to look into the hidden corners of our own development.
As a culture, instead of honoring and teaching our youth, we have fallen into the bad habit of shunning and discounting the vibrant and sometimes aching needs young people have. Adolescence is not an aberration, not just a loud squawk on the human behavior scale but a potent and sometimes agonizing leap toward adulthood. It is an event that crosses all cultural boundaries from country to country, race to race, and past to present. Making this leap requires every ounce of courage and strength we can muster. Michael Ventura (1994),2 a provocative therapist and writer, said of our society:
They fail to understand that a psychic structure that has remained constant for 100,000 years is not likely to be altered in a generation by stimuli that play upon its surfaces. What’s really going on is very different. The same, raw, ancient content is surging through youth’s psyches, but adult culture over the last few centuries has forgotten how to meet, guide, and be replenished by its force.
If the event itself (adolescence) remains unchanged throughout history, then the problems exploding in our young people must come from the way that we greet the event. We won’t erase adolescence by ignoring it or by dismissing it. We must meet it head on. Not only that, we must meet it with great respect and love.
During the early stages of research into this project, I had my seventeen-year-old daughter take a tape deck to her high school and ask her classmates, “What do you think adults think of you?” The responses were shocking. “They think we’re losers. Nothing. Worse than nothing. They think we are worthless.” One young man said that when he walks down the street, adults sometimes cross the street to avoid meeting him head on.
Ventura (1994) said:
When we don’t have apt words for something, it’s because of an unspoken collective demand to avoid thinking about it. That’s how scary ‘adolescence’ is. Which is also to say, that’s how scary our very own unspeakable adolescence was . . . What we cannot face when we cannot face the young is, plainly, ourselves.
Are we afraid to face our own undeveloped, uninitiated adolescent selves? How many of us are still caught in the cusp between childhood and adulthood, unable to fully make the crossing, stopped by fear, unpolished understanding, and selfish, childish desires? It would explain the current dilemma. Ventura reminded us that, “Tribal adults didn’t run from this moment in their children as we do; they celebrated it. They would assault their adolescents with, quite literally, holy terror; rituals that had been kept secret from the young till that moment. . . .”
Fascinated by what Ventura said about assaulting our young, I thought of the students at the high school my children attended. They drive around in their SUV’s and new Hondas wearing designer clothes and carrying cell phones. This image and the word “assault” clearly don’t line up.
During this same time I also spoke with several classes of juniors and seniors at the local high school. After some discussion of rites of passage, I asked them outright, “Suppose I gave you a task that was so difficult and so challenging that, when you had completed it, you would know without a doubt that you had been completely transformed. How many of you would take the challenge?” Their hands shot into the air. It still raises the hair on my arms to recall that energy. These kids want—no, need—the defining, transformative experience.
The critical question here is how can we create what we did not experience and can no longer recall from our own cultural roots? This question stopped me cold for many years. In America our roots are sometimes shallow or even broken. Ancient rite of passage rituals arise from a deeply rooted traditional culture, and many of us have lost that connection.
Can we recreate what has been lost? And what would a modern day rite of passage ritual look like? How would it take place?
The Cradle of Culture
Culture is a multifaceted word. For some it means such things as art, literature, and theater. For others it means the social structures and morals that bind us, and for still others it is ethnic, tied to our ancestral roots. For most of us, however, our culture is unclear and blurred, like a watercolor painting on which a glass of water has been spilled. If we are to explore, with any effectiveness, the re-building of a strong culture that knows how to respond to its young, we must know first of which we speak. Culture, community, society—what do all these words mean?
In Chevak, Alaska, there is a small Chup’ik village planted up near the Bering Sea that is accessible only by small plane. On a collection trip for Oyate, we stayed in the home economics room of the local school, sleeping on nap mats and cooking our packaged food on one of the many available stovetops. The village children, young and old, followed us at every turn, drilling us about who we were, and what we were doing there. Their trust and openness was astounding. I yearned to know what right combination of community gave them such faith that the world was a good and safe place.
The first evening several of the young teens were preparing to perform a traditional dance at the Alaskan Federation of Natives in Anchorage. We joined the Elders and community members watching them dance. The boys wore white chuspic smocks and jeans, and the girls had on calico chuspics and headpieces trimmed with caribou fur. It was amazing to watch them dance with precise, disciplined moves to the loud thrumming of four wide-rimmed drums. It was graceful, beautiful . . . peaceful.
The image that stayed with me most strongly, however, was the row of Elders against the far wall, all there to train and teach the young people. There was something so right in that image; the young under direct tutelage of the Elders. At the end of the line of Elderly men hitting the drum was a single young drummer following their moves.
A few nights later I lay awake in a hotel in Anchorage thinking about this book on adolescent rites of passage. Oddly, I found myself jealous of the Chupiks, the Inuits, the Athabascans, the Lakotas—so many indigenous people who, in spite of the ravages of the past 500 years, still hold fast to a culture that includes far more than the language and music. They have a sense of identity that stretches back thousands of years. They have their Elders lined up against the wall watching them dance and sing. I thought about my own mixed-blood background and realized that all that remains of my original culture is the knowledge of how to make lefse. There are no Elders, no rituals, no safe borders to define who I am, and no cultural memory beyond my own generation. Rather, I’m liquefied in the great melting pot that is rapidly reaching melt down. I am an American.
Most Americans of European decent are several centuries away from their own indigenous, tribal cultures. There is no memory of the rites and rituals that may have been practiced in small German, Norwegian, or Irish villages, no knowledge of ancestral stories, and no recollection of the mysticism or songs that led their own ancestors into maturity with a sense of identity and connection. With the great migration from Europe to America, often driven by famine, hardship and war, the ancestral, indigenous cultures that were perhaps thousands of years old were shattered as the masses boarded those ships and left their homelands. This is true also for many who left or were forced from their homelands in Africa, Spain, Asia, and on and on.
Only a few American ethnic cultures still have Elder-based initiation and rituals to support the young person in his or her passage into adulthood. My Internet searches uncovered many movements within the African-American, Latino and Native American cultures to return to the use of these ancient rituals of initiation for the young. I celebrate these movements and demand the same for all children.
The primary question here, however, is can we recreate what has been lost? Is it possible to establish a new traditional and tribal culture where children are valued and not lumped into the amorphous category called teenager? Can we put the Elders back in the position of respect as guides and teachers of the next generation? Can we fashion a culture where adults once again feel connected to the land, to themselves, and to the great mystery and presence that is generically called God or The Great Spirit? Can our modern culture, shattered like a broken mirror, regain or recreate a cultural cradle rich with rituals and traditions that will return us to the natural rhythms of the world? And finally, if such rituals and traditions could be brought back into force, what would they look like? What would this modern day initiation and rite of passage look like?
Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush
Frustrated by all of these very difficult questions, I at last turned to my own adolescent children. I began listening to their struggles and closely watching their movements thinking that, if I am patient, they will show me what they need most.
Over several months, and then years, I stopped giving them the answers and began, instead, telling them more stories about my own rough waters, about the many difficult choices and decisions I’d made in my life. Many nights we talked until late into the night about how a person fashions a life out of the raw materials we are given. Their level of inquiry and interest in philosophical and moral issues impressed me. My daughter was struggling with several friends who were using crack cocaine and ecstasy—into the rave scene. She was worried about them. My son, a pragmatist at heart, wondered why the heck they didn’t just knock it off.
I also began taking the advice of the Elders we’d met in Indian country. “Let the young people do the hard stuff,” they said. Let them do all the little tasks and decisions buried within each day. Don’t do it for them! I started to see that doing it for them was a way of cheating them of their initiation period. Young people need to test their wings, to discover the scope and range of their own abilities. When, as a parent, I take over their tasks, development stops and they become dependent children once again.
One spring I sent my son alone on a road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, to see his sisters. Before heading out he grinned at me and said “Think of it as a rite of passage, Mom.” Thomas was sixteen years old. It was clear that he was excited—making the trip alone was a challenge. Whatever came up, he would have to deal with it. I allowed him to make that trip. Later, he spent the summer working with his father on a construction site, and I saw how beneficial it was for him to be in the good company of his father and other men. He matured greatly during that summer and even more in the following two summers. He was becoming a man.
Sadly, in the fall of 2002, his father was killed in a plane crash. It was the most horrible time of our lives, but I was incredibly grateful that Thomas had had those three summers working with his father.
Over several years I realized something good was happening in my subtle attempts to link my children more closely with their own development. That something was not happening from my studies, or from knowing the research on human development, or even from attending such rich ceremonies as the Sunrise Ceremony. The something good was happening in my own home, swirling around the many hours spent with my children talking and sorting out our daily lives. Of course, I still wanted the wide-rimmed drum, the abalone shell on my daughter’s forehead—but what I was doing was working.
The Initiatory Moment
Finally, during a collection trip to Hupa3 country in northern California, I met a teacher named David. I asked him what their tribe does for the young people in terms of a rite of passage. David was not overly talkative but eventually explained to me that the rite or ritual was not nearly as important as the right initiation. Initiation, he explained, is the intentional teaching of the young by the Elders and parents that must begin at a very early age and continue on until the child is ready to take his or her place in the community. In his culture, David explained, children are valued as holding the future of the tribe itself—but they are also firmly kept in their place by the Elders, grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
Later, as I studied the family constellation work of German psychotherapist, Bert Hellinger,4 it became clear to me how important place is within the flow of generations. Too often our children are out of order, required to care for mom and dad, one moment taking on too much, the next too little. My father used to keep us in our place by saying we were getting, “Too big for our britches.”
Talking to David helped me understand that chasing the pretty ritual or formal rite of passage was not the answer. Without initiation, the ritual is empty.
Wearily, I went back to the hundred-plus pages of this book stored on my computer and deleted all but six pages. I shifted my focus away from the difficult question of what a rite of passage ritual would look like in modern culture and began, instead, to contemplate the full meaning of initiation.
Take me back to the Many Kites Bookstore . . .
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