By Estelle Nora Harwit Amrani
This was written in 1988 as a term paper for a course
I was taking towards my M.A. degree in American Indian Studies at UCLA.
It has been highly respected and used in high school and university student's papers.
You may quote portions of this article for school papers, journals,
articles, and theses, only with complete attribution. Please send
me a copy of your completed work if you quote this article.
I take copyright law very seriously and I hope you will, too.

A Navajo girl, upon reaching the age of 13 and experiencing her first menstrual period becomes initiated into womanhood by a beautiful 4-day ritual entitled the Kinaalda, which is part of the Navajo Blessing Way Ceremony. The Kinaalda literally translates "puberty ceremony," and this term is interchangeable with both the girl and the ceremony.

The Kinaalda is based on a myth about the first Kinaalda Ceremony performed by and for Changing Woman, who is the female deity identified with the Earth and she is the source and sustenance of all life on the earth's surface, controlling particularly fertility. During the Kinaalda the legendary origin and its transmission to mankind is retold and enacted. Although the Kinaalda ceremony is clearly a bridge, a rite of passage (as defined by Arnold van Gennep, in his term "rites de passage", as rites which accompany every change of place, state, social position and age, the ritual can be described in a new way.

Charlotte J. Frisbee's book, "Kinaalda", describes in-depth accounts of the Kinaalda ritual, yet no mention was made if it could be considered as a dance. Observation and study prove that the Kinaalda has all the elements of dance. This article examines the Kinaalda and explain the symbolism of the movements, the actions, and the Kinaalda's significance in the Navajo culture; how the myth becomes a reality through movement.

Agnes De Mille's states that dance is an arrangement or pattern in space and employs spatial rhythm, movement is the source and condition of life. She further adds that the elements of dance are space, time, human bodies, and that dance is an arrangement in time as music is and employs time and rhythm as music does. Dancing employs rhythm in audible and visual terms. It is time-space art. Dance has pattern, form, symmetry, asymmetry, distortion, stylization and virtuosity.

Judith Lynne Hanna states that dance can be most usefully defined as human behavior composed (from the dancer's perspective) of purposeful, intentionally rhythmical, and culturally patterned sequences of nonverbal body movements, other than ordinary motor activities, the motion having inherent and aesthetic value. Hanna adds that each behavioral characteristic is necessary and the set of four constitutes sufficiency. The combination of all these factors must exist.

Dance is also associated with myth in the ritual setting. Dance is an aid in reinforcing and maintaining knowledge, and teaches everything about a society (its history, philosophical concepts, religious beliefs, etc.) and it also embodies self-identity and world view. Allegra Fuller Snyder states that dance is composed of movement, costume, and paraphernalia and is derived from environment, subsistence pattern and mythic complex.

In order to better understand the symbolism and thought of the Navajo, a brief discussion of the importance of time, cycles, and balance is necessary in interpreting the Kinaalda. To the Navajo, religion means ritual. Ritual is to extend the personality and make it harmonious. The world of the Navajo is characterized by movements in space and transformations in states of being through time.

What concerns the Navajo most is controlling themselves and their environment. They stress activity, creativity, control, balance, harmony,order, and beauty. The Navajo time frame is different from Western thought . Navajos see the past, present and future as one and the same and interchangeable. Navajo rituals are rigidly and statically structured and must be performed perfectly and accurately in order to be effective.

Gary Witherspoon, in his book "Language and Art in the Navajo Universe", says that the primary purpose of Navajo ritual is to maintain or restore 'hozho' - everything that is good, harmonious, orderly, happy and beautiful. Navajo social and economic life is characterized by movement and change, activity and productivity; this area is dominated by the female. The ritual domain of Navajo culture is associated with thought and with the male. The ceremonies are concerned with the restoration of prior states of being and Navajo social and economic life is concerned with the generation of new conditions and new beings wherein fertility, productivity, and reproductivity are especially important.

Men are associated with the origin and culmination of things, and woman are associated with growth, process and change. This male/female polarity exists throughout the Kinaalda. One example is that the lead singer, who conducts the ceremony, is male. Another example is seen in the importance of the 4 directions and times of day and night during which the Kinaalda is performed, as these are also associated with male and female. The Kinaalda uses male and female energy and power in her actions and in its symbolism, in unison, to create balance. Male is east and north; female is south and west. Dawn and night are male, while the female rules the opposite. Kinaalda races at dawn towards the east - both time and direction are male and the runner is female.

The cycle of life is connected with the path of the sun. Daytime and the earth are associated with activity and productivity. The Navajo believe that life and movement are essential values. Daytime and light are good and beautiful, while night and darkness are not. Navajos are active in daytime and static at night as a rule, except in certain circumstances in which normal order is disrupted and rituals are required to restore the world to its normal and desired condition. The Kinaalda is performed during the day and night, with the heavy physical activity done during the daytime. During the ritual there is a strong emphasis on repetition of the actions.

During the ritual the Kinaalda learns that the universe must be kept in perfect order. She learns that she is to take care of the earth and everything (animal and plant) must be valued and conserved. The earth is the mother of all life - it provides shelter, nourishment, and produces life.

During the 4 days the ritual demands many regulations and taboos. The girl will be on a restricted diet, must refrain from touching her own skin, combing and washing her hair, dressing or undressing herself. Her language and actions will be closely watched as it determines her future - all negativity must be avoided.

Throughout this celebration will be the Kinaalda, her family, and members of her society who are all considered participants and helpers. Kinaalda's duties in action include grinding corn, racing, preparing a cake called 'alkaan,' and these activities are repeated during the day, almost every day. She undergoes body moldings, hair washings and combings by a chosen female aid who will be a lifetime companion who can instruct the girl on proper behavior and procedures. The aide reflects the Kinaalda's intention that the ceremony be one of sharing and caring for others.

Special jewelry is placed on her and the way in which it is put on and removed must be performed precisely. Many Navajo girls are painted with a white clay mixture on different parts of her body and costume. The painting and costume of shells and other ornaments depicting Changing Woman are like a mask enabling her to stand out from the others, to aid in her walk through womanhood.

The ritual (as can be viewed on the film "Seasons of A Navajo") begins with the hair washing and combing done in different postures, or distortions. The girl sits with her legs outstretched and together in front of her body. The hair must be washed and combed according to specific instructions and her hair tied with a buckskin string. The hair must remain in a natural condition to ensure the girl will have natural beauty.

Corn grinding teaches the girl to understand and cater to her people. Corn is their basic subsistence. This motion of grinding is for her to memorize the act so she will never forget it and it makes her strong. She is sitting on her knees, leaning forward and backward while grinding in a particular rhythm.

Racing: the girl races several times each day and the running has its own choreography. It shows a different use of space than the other Kinaalda activities. The area the girl runs may vary from person to person as will the time allotted per race, but the area outdoors is not limiting - there is a sense of freedom. The race has a beginning and ending point which is the hogan, a circular lodge.

The circle is always emphasized in this ceremony. It symbolizes the sun, the cycles of the year and of life. She runs in a large circle. She runs towards the east and turns sunwise to return. Other children usually run with Kinaalda and they are blessed by their involvment. They yell out a Kinaalda shout to call attention to Changing Woman, the sun, and Talking God.

Cake: the 'alkaan,' made from the ground corn, is also circular and represents the sun. It is baked in circular pit, dug outdoors, especially for the ritual and it is baked according to the passage of the sun. On the top of the cake corn pollen is sprinkled to the four directions in a specific order. The bottom and top of the cake have a circular pattern of corn husks. When the cake is cut it is also done in a circular, sunwise direction, the first piece being cut from the east.

Hogan: The people enter and sit in the hogan in a sunwise direction and are seated in a circle. Corn pollen is passed around, in a circle, and used with special motions to signify its powers of fertility, nourishment, beauty and harmony. As each person receives it they enact a blessing with it. A bit is pinched with the fingers and put on the person's tongue. Then the person touches the top of their head with the pollen and then it is sprinkled in the air in front of themselves. All people perform these same motions. The action becomes a movement within a rhythm.

Molding: the moldings are done on the first and last day of the ritual. This is to express the belief that at this time in her life the girl's body is pliable and can easily be shaped into a desired form. It increases the girl's energy flow and transmits energy from the aide to the girl. The girl lies on her stomach and the aide presses different sections of her body, similar to a light massage. The molding must be done correctly as to ensure the girl will be in the image of Changing Woman.

Lifting: the Kinaalda places her hands on the sides of children's heads and raises them up to a desired height as she is said to have power at this time to help children grow a lot or not. At the end of the Kinaalda, the girl returns blankets that were used for the ceremony to their owners so they will receive good luck and new blankets. The blankets must be caught by the owners with their right hand for their luck to increase.

As we see the Kinaalda is composed of smaller, individual dances within a greater one. There are many performers who have specific styles, movement requirements, patterns and different postures. Each individual who participates in the ceremony has their own individual duty and dance which contributes to the whole dance/ritual.

Music: Music in the Kinaalda is unaccompanied vocal music and it is sung in a style typically Navajo (except for the absence of falsetto singing). The songs serve the primary function to preserve order, to coordinate ceremonial symbols and enjoyment. Song is necessity, hope, protection, and a guide. It is a means of transforming frustration into power.

The music is sung rapidly and the melodies are generally restricted in range. The songs are divided into sets and certain sets must be sung at particular times during the night by the lead singer - these are the fixed songs. Other songs are contributed by anyone who wishes and these are the freesongs. Free songs cannot accompany rites while the fixed songs may or may not. The songs contain power to ensure the ceremony will be free of error. Some of the songs include hogan songs, racing songs, dawn songs, 12 word songs - these accompany the dance and the actions performed by the Kinaalda and the other participants. Other songs are sung at night inside the hogan, while seated.

The tempo of the songs vary according to the rite for which they are sung. The final song for the conclusion is the Painting Song as Kinaalda is painted. The songs are educational (part of the oral tradition) as well as stressing the sacredness of the occasion. The changes in tempo aid the participants in achieving the proper rhythms necessary for the movements or the acts in the Kinaalda.

Although in defining dance music is either not included or is optional (as long as rhythm is present) - it is important in the Kinaalda because it is the way the texts are presented and it provides tempo. The songs can be an aide in defining the Kinaalda as a dance, however the ceremony itself could stand on its own without music.

The Kinaalda ceremony is an integral part of the culture, indispensable for both the girl and the Navajo community. The Kinaalda is a rite of passage and a dance - a dance into womanhood, which expresses the girl's spiritual and physical transformation and her society's acknowledgement and acceptance of her as a woman and beneficial part of society.

The ceremony is primarily educational, and the knowledge is put into direct action by specific movements, with required symbols and paraphernalia. It utilizes different spaces, times, and rhythms, and culturally patterned sequences of extraordinary motor activities, and non-verbal body movements. The rite incorporates ritual, dance, music and costume. The Kinaalda helps reinforce the Navajo's knowledge about culture, society, and expresses self-identity and world view. Items taken from the environment and subsistence are vital to acquire the desired effects and validate the myth of Changing Woman.

Dance in the Kinaalda is not an isolated movement or sequence, separate from the rest of the ritual, but a set of individual dances as part of the ritual. The individual movements would not make sense unless it contributed to the whole. The Kinaalda is an entire, complete experience.

While the Kinaalda is foremost a spiritual/societal/cultural ritual it also does adhere to the definitions given of dance; it has form, distortion, virtuosity, utilizes human bodies, and uses time and space. Each dance is arranged in a specific order and has its own rhythm, unique style, time and place for execution. Many of the sequences are repetitive. The Kinaalda is a complete action, a transformation, that we can see, hear, feel and even smell and taste. The Kinaalda is movement, which is the source and condition of life. It is dance.

© Copyright 1988, 2002, Estelle Nora Harwit Amrani