Kinaaldá: Coming of Age
To perform the Navajo puberty ritual called Kinaaldá, Bahozhoni Tso ran eastward and back at dawn, noon and dusk four days in a row. Abstaining from salt, sugar and raw meat, she hand-ground cornmeal for a large, round cake. After singing all night, Bahozhoni distributed the Kinaaldá cake and blessed her guest’s bodies: temporarily a holy entity, she had the ability to make children grow, backs straighten and knees heal.
In performing this ceremony recognizing a girl’s first period, the Tso family is part of a movement to sustain indigenous traditions in the face of ongoing threats to their culture. Mining companies encroach on sacred land; families contend with the damage done by state-run boarding schools that separated tens of thousands of children–including Bahozhoni’s father–from their families, languages and traditions. Despite this, the Tsos and others like them live a contemporary life grounded in traditional knowledge and practices.
The family has a long history of resistance. Bahozhoni’s corn grinding stone has been used for generations, and was brought to Fort Sumner on the Navajo Long Walk. Her grandmother, Mae Tso, has long defied government efforts to remove her from her ancestral land. When a portion of the Navajo Reservation was reclassified as Hopi land, the Bureau of Indian Affairs tried to make Tso and others leave. But their families would not be moved.
During the Kinaaldá, the Tsos' small cluster of hogans and houses was filled with the smell of burning juniper and piñon wood. Family members and friends cooked turkeys buried in coals and ate slices of brisket with thick fatty edges. Puppies whimpered, but the grandmas said not to touch them so they would bond with the sheep they protected. For hours Bahozhoni toasted and ground corn, her bangs hanging over her transition lenses to teach her patience–and to keep her hairline from receding, all as tradition dictates.
Bahozhoni’s mentor Betty Tso wept after slaughtering a sheep, then set to work butchering it. Women cleaned the entrails carefully and cut up the meat by headlamp light before making it into a rich stew with dried corn. Aunties patted and stretched dough into stacks of fry bread, joking in a mixture of Navajo and English.
During the most sacred part of the ceremony, which cannot be photographed, participants sang all night in a hot hogan, drifting in and out of sleep around a wood stove warming strong black coffee and Navajo tea, eating cookies to stay awake. The participants came from as far as Flagstaff, Florida and Japan.
Afterward, everyone went out into the predawn cold to run. Scrubby plants glowed dimly in the moonlight; endless stars glittered overhead. The women and girls’ long skirts fluttered and tangled in their legs as they ran through the desert hills, roots and sands tripping them up in the darkness. They called out into the dark in tones Bahozhoni’s grandmother taught them as the sun began to rise again.
(Published by Photo District News.)