Changing Woman, Part One: Kinaaldá

Published: Thursday, September 6, 2018 - 5:00am
Updated: Thursday, September 13, 2018 - 1:32pm

The traditional stories that define Navajo culture revere women. But today, rape and domestic violence rates surge. So what happened? That’s what we set out to answer in this series named after Changing Woman, or Asdzą́ą́ Nádleehé. We’ll meet the women who prove that despite generations of cultural genocide, the heart of Navajo culture still beats.

Jackie Hai/KJZZ

The Navajo are a matrilineal society, where women own the land and pass it down to their daughters. When Navajos introduce themselves, their maternal clan is named first. The stories told in cultural ceremonies revere women.

But today rape and domestic violence rates surge. There are few female council delegates and the Navajo have yet to elect a woman president.

So what happened? That’s what we set out to answer in this series called Changing Woman, named after the deity Asdzáá Nádleehé. We’ll learn about the many attempts to eradicate Navajo culture and quash the matriarchy.

We’ll also meet five women — a historian, a leader, a mother, a healer and a punk rocker — who prove that despite generations of cultural genocide, the heart of Navajo culture still beats.

One.
Kinaaldá

Part 1: Kinaaldá

The first episode of Changing Woman focuses on the Navajo coming of age ceremony for girls, one of the most important and sacred rituals is experiencing a resurgence today. We’ll hear parts of the songs and the rituals from the kinaaldá and learn how powerful an impact it can have on a young woman.

Part 2: The Historian

We’ll meet Navajo historian Jennifer Denetdale. Through her story and the book she wrote about her great-great-great-grandparents, we will better understand how women’s power has been repressed.

Part 3: The Leader

Navajo Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, whose middle name means “warrior,” has started her own #MeToo movement without the hashtags. She’s confronted her colleagues and has written policies about the violence against women that pervades her culture.

Part 4: The Mother

Jeneda Benally is making music that empowers indigenous youth because she wants her daughters to grow up in a world where they feel strong and powerful. She and her brother just released an album called “Fight Like A Woman.”

Part 5: The Healer

Like thousands of other Navajos, Haley Laughter was raised Mormon and had to seek out her people’s spiritual teachings. Today she bridges that cultural gap that so many young Navajos are trying to leap across.

Part 6: The Rockers

The Nizhoni Girls are redefining what it means to be Navajo. They're shaking down their assimilated ways in their songs and holding onto key Navajo beliefs in their activism.

Jeneda Benally never had a kinaaldá.

“And it’s the one thing I really regret,” said the Navajo singer/songwriter. “I wasn’t ever able to have that sacred connection. And so I’ve become really obsessed with all the girls that I know, because I want to make sure they are able to have a kinaaldá and that they understand their important role as a woman.”

After a Navajo girl has her first period, the women (and sometimes men) in her community rally around her in a coming of age ceremony — or kinaaldá. For four days they sing, pray and tell stories to help shape the young woman. She’s expected to run every day, grind corn and make a corn cake offering.

Jeneda Benally and her daughter Dahi. Laurel Morales/KJZZ

“When I was ready to have a kinaaldá, my grandmother died,” Benally said. “It was one of the most difficult times ever for me personally. And so we put her into the ground and we couldn’t put the kinaaldá cake into the ground.”

On a recent sunny day in Doney Park, Benally broke dried corn over a large heavy stone that had been carved and smoothed by her ancestors. Then she used a smaller stone to crush the corn until it became a fine dust to prepare for her daughter’s upcoming kinaaldá.

“I hope that when my daughters have their kinaaldá that they really gain a sense of pride in being a woman, that there’s nothing shameful in being a woman, that your menstruation cycle is not something that’s dirty,” Benally said. “And so I want them to be aware of their power. And I feel like it’s taken me a long time to really fully be aware of my power as a woman.”

Jeneda Benally grinds corn to prepare for a kinaaldá.
Laurel Morales/KJZZ

Jeneda’s brother Clayson said the young woman’s ceremony is stronger today than the sweat lodge ceremony for young men.

“The young women that go through this ceremony and are brought into the community and they’re recognized and acknowledged and empowered,” Clayson Benally said.

“You have higher graduation rates at high school going into universities and college. Oftentimes it’s our male youth population that struggles because that process of being introduced into society once you become a young man, a lot of those practices are gone.”

Those practices have been wiped out by many efforts to conquer, to assimilate and to kill Navajos and their culture. Starting in the 16th century it was the Spanish Conquistadors, then came the Mexicans, and finally the United States.

In the 1860s the U.S. Army forced 10,000 Navajo to walk 400 miles to an internment camp. Today it’s known as The Long Walk. Thousands died, but many survived and returned home, culture intact.

So the federal government took another approach — infiltrate the youth. In the 1900s the federal government tore children away from their homes, sent them to boarding schools and beat them when they spoke their mother tongue, or prayed to their holy people.

Army Officer Richard Pratt, who opened the first boarding school, summed the effort up this way: “kill the Indian in him, save the man.” Many schools tried to replace their traditions with Christianity.

In Tuba City, Christianity took hold of Adrian Lerma’s family.

Adrian Lerma in Tuba City, Arizona. Laurel Morales/KJZZ

“Because of my family’s connection to the church they didn’t have a kinaaldá for myself or for my sisters,” Lerma said.

But Lerma’s mother and grandmother did teach her what it means to be a Navajo woman — how to be graceful and kind, accepting and loving, how to take care of her body.

“But it wasn’t like this big family gathering,” Lerma said. “When it comes to Navajo tradition, culture, ceremony, it’s a family thing. Your whole family needs to be involved. And so we didn’t have that… I am sad about that. I think when people make decisions for their children, they don’t think it puts them at a disadvantage and how it will affect them later. I’ve turned it into something positive. I’ve let that become something that’s going to motivate me to provide those things for my own daughters.”

Historian Jennifer Denetdale said it’s actually pretty amazing that the ceremony is as strong as it is because of what boarding school did.

“As a child or a young woman you were told or not told about what happens to your body what changes happen and I was never told this is going to happen to your body,” Denetdale said. “And so when it happened, I had no idea what was going on and I was very ashamed because I had no idea what this was. And so I didn’t tell my mom. I mean how do you even talk about something when boarding school education has caused gaps and shame about your body.”

The Benally family frequently give workshops on Native American issues, like this event at the Flagstaff public library, where they talked about and demonstrated Navajo traditions. Jones Benally (right) is a world champion hoop dancer and traditional healer. Laurel Morales/KJZZ

On the last day of the kinaaldá, the young woman works all day mixing the cake out of cornmeal and putting it in the fire pit and staying up all night to listen to the medicine man’s songs.

“It’s incredible these young women that are expected to do this,” Denetdale said. “Sometimes they’re as young as nine years old now when they get their period and then all of a sudden they’re supposed to turn into Superwoman. And four days of incredible endurance. And then in the morning after they’re done, she can’t go to sleep until the sun goes down. And you’re expecting this of nine-year-olds, of 12-year-olds.”

But Denetdale said she has enjoyed participating in ceremonies for her daughters and granddaughters.

“There’s a network of support and encouragement and celebration for the young woman from her community of relatives,” Denetdale said. “And when the medicine man or medicine woman comes and sings the songs of blessing way of all the songs that the holy people sang when they came to the first kinaaldá, it’s inspiring and its revitalization. And I never fail to completely feel so much gratitude for and a remembrance for our holy people.”

 

 

Part 1: Kinaaldá

The first episode of Changing Woman focuses on the Navajo coming of age ceremony for girls, one of the most important and sacred rituals is experiencing a resurgence today. We’ll hear parts of the songs and the rituals from the kinaaldá and learn how powerful an impact it can have on a young woman.

Part 2: The Historian

We’ll meet Navajo historian Jennifer Denetdale. Through her story and the book she wrote about her great-great-great-grandparents, we will better understand how women’s power has been repressed.

Part 3: The Leader

Navajo Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, whose middle name means “warrior,” has started her own #MeToo movement without the hashtags. She’s confronted her colleagues and has written policies about the violence against women that pervades her culture.

Part 4: The Mother

Jeneda Benally is making music that empowers indigenous youth because she wants her daughters to grow up in a world where they feel strong and powerful. She and her brother just released an album called “Fight Like A Woman.”

Part 5: The Healer

Like thousands of other Navajos, Haley Laughter was raised Mormon and had to seek out her people’s spiritual teachings. Today she bridges that cultural gap that so many young Navajos are trying to leap across.

Part 6: The Rockers

The Nizhoni Girls are redefining what it means to be Navajo. They're shaking down their assimilated ways in their songs and holding onto key Navajo beliefs in their activism.

If you like this story, Donate Now!