This post explores menarche and menstruation from the perspective of two Native American tribes, the Koyukon and the Lakota. The Koyukon live mostly in Alaska and the Lakota are centralized in South Dakota.
Lise Klein Kirsis earned a graduate degree in social anthropology with a cross-cultural emphasis in birth, death and traditional medicine in 1994. She is a long-time resident of Alaska, where she studied the Koyukon tribe’s beliefs on birth. Though the central focus of her article is on birth and midwifery, the significance of life cycles in Native American cultures ensures that menstruation played a central role in the Koyukon’s social treatment of birth. In Koyukon culture, menstrual blood represented the quintessence of femininity – procreation and life. However, the feminine power of these fluids could overcome and cripple the masculine ability to hunt. Consequently, menstruating females were strictly segregated from men. However, this segregation derived from its perceived power rather than just simple uncleanliness. In fact, hutlaa, or the menstrual blood, was used as a medicinal salve to protect against living-taking forces. Furthermore, the sequestering of menstruating females provided a regular opportunity to prepare young girls for childbirth, and they did this by observing and drawing on nature’s examples. For instance, they observed that porcupines delivered their young as if it were effortless, young menstruating girls were fitted with belts adorned with porcupine pieces. Menstruating women, according to Kirsis, were expected to align with the behaviors prescribed for women who were pregnant. Both menstruating and pregnant women, for example, were prohibited from eating fresh meat besides porcupine. It was considered extremely egregious for menstruating and pregnant women to consume the flesh of an animal that struggled during delivery. Clearly, menstruation was inseparably tied to fertility and aligning with nature’s best life-giving creatures. As opposed to white and black Americans who focused on the sexual aspect of menarche and menstruation, the Koyukon tribe essentially equated menstruation to the female powers of creating life. They highlighted its spiritual power rather than its sinful vulnerability. And though the exclusionary feature of Koyukon culture seemed similar to the stigma of menstruation in the other parts of American society we have looked at, segregation was based on a recognition of the potent power of menstruating women as they exuded the literal lifeblood of femininity.
Nellie Zelda Star Boy Menard, circa 1972
To narrate the Lakota tribe’s ceremony for female puberty, University of Texas anthropology professor Marsha C. Bol teamed up with traditional Lakota woman Nellie Zelda Star Boy Menard. Menard was born in 1910 on the Lakota (Sioux) Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. When she turned fifteen and had her first menses, her family celebrated with the traditional ritual, and she was probably part of the last few generations to experience that ceremonial honor. According to Menard, that practice virtually vanished from the Lakota culture by the end of the twentieth century. Fortunately, she remembered the ceremony vividly. The ritual was characterized by four main events: isolation, the Buffalo Ceremony, Throwing the Ball Ceremony, and the feast and giveaway.
The first part of the ritual involved segregation during first bleeding, called isnati by the Lakota. A tent was constructed about fifty yards away from the family’s residence, where Menard was to stay with her maternal grandmother. Her grandmother prepared a small hole in the ground, a bed, and some sage to alleviate menstrual pains. The tent was also supplied with all manner of beads, quills, sinew thread and other resources for sewing and beadwork. Isolation in the tent was time devoted to learning the traditional arts of Lakota women; she was not permitted to have any interaction with men or boys. Like the Koyukon, the Lakota believed the immense potency of female’s menstrual fluids and even odors could overcome the power of men’s hunting or warring capabilities. Female Indian prisoners were released during the length of their monthly cycles because the men in and guarding the prison feared the supernatural power of menstruation so deeply. But in contrast to the Koyukon’s beliefs, the Lakota believed that menstruation was medicine’s greatest antagonist. Additionally, menarche was powerful as the determining moment of a Lakota girl’s identity. During those few days, a girl chose whether she would be the ideal woman who could quietly sit still and be productive, or if she would be idle. Her choice at that moment would define her character for the remainder of her life. Thus, this time was intensely significant, not only for the girl as an individual, but for her family and community. This is why the time of isolation was not solitary confinement; she was mentored by an older, respected female who taught her what it meant to be a woman. Art, womanhood, and menstruation were inseparably intertwined in the mind of Menard and her fellow Lakota women. At the end of the isolation period, Menard was bathed by her grandmother, her bloodied dresses were burned, and she was declared to be a woman. The Buffalo Ceremony facilitated Lakota girls’ return into society after isolation. In this ritual, men of the tribe sing and pray for the girl’s strength and fertility as she is welcomed back into the community as a newly minted woman. Directly after this ceremonial prayer comes the throwing of the ball, in which the menarcheal girl tossed a sacred ball into the air, and if the girl designated to receive the ball does not catch it, the throwing girl was cursed with bad luck. The ball was constructed to encompass a round stone in layers of sage, buffalo hair, tanned hide, and beadwork. It symbolizes the universe, and Lakota girls are commissioned to handle it as they became women. A feast and gift-giving customarily followed next. Menard’s mother presented the girl who caught the beaded ball with a horse, shawls, moccasins, material, and a quilt. This practice of gift-giving bestowed honor on the initiated woman, who was also celebrated with an elaborate feast.
Nellie Menard’s recollection of her puberty ceremony in the Lakota tribe demonstrates the overt cultural significance placed on menarche. The instituted isolation in both Koyukon and Lakota accounts, though seemingly negative, actually speak to the revered spiritual power of menstruating women and its potency among earthly things. Though neither of these accounts described the emotional responses of Native American girls to menarche and the accompanying rites, Menard’s retelling of her first-hand experience did not suggest fear like white and black American women explicitly talked about. Moreover, the meanings infused into the elaborate ceremonies prepared for pubescent Native American girls imbued them with a degree of self-worth and feminine value that has not been demonstrated by assessments of other American subcultures’ treatment of menstruation.
Kirsis, Lise Lein. “’She Taught Us How to Be’: The Cultural Construction of Birth and Midwifery Among the Koyukon Athabaskans of Interior Alaska.” Artic Anthropology 33, no. 2 (1996): 62-76.
Bol, Marsha C. and Nellie Z. Star Boy Menard. “’I Saw All That’: A Lakota Girl’s Puberty Ceremony.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 24, no. 1 (2000): 25-42.