Traditional menstruation practices such as seclusion are usually depicted in the mainstream media as backward and superstitious, threatening to women’s health and freedom.
In the case of Amba Bohara, a 35-year-old Nepali woman who died recently during a menstrual seclusion ritual called chhaupadi, this depiction is certainly accurate.
According to a January 9 New York Times article, authorities believe Bohara died of suffocation after building a fire in a tiny, windowless hut as she and her children struggled to keep warm on a cold Himalayan winter night.
In the practice of chhaupadi, menstruating women, believed to be impure, live apart from the family in a separate hut or enclosure. The tradition is associated with Hindu beliefs regarding ritual purity and pollution. Unfortunately in Nepal, a notoriously patriarchal and often misogynistic society, women are coerced into practicing chhaupadi despite a government ban on it.
However, as is often the case with legacy media, reporters take their coverage a bridge too far by painting all traditional menstruation practices as primitive, barbaric rituals enforced by oppressive male regimes. It comes as little surprise given that, from a Western point of view, menstruation is a simple biological function that shouldn’t carry any spiritual or cultural meaning that limits women’s lives.
But not all ancient cultural menstrual practices are alike. Some indigenous women in the United States are working to reclaim tribal menstruation ceremonies and practices as a means to revitalize and empower Native women.
Mostly, women are doing the revitalization work quietly within their communities, offering opportunities for young Native women to gather with female elders and learn the teachings that once guided and supported them.
For instance, Ojibwe women traditionally secluded themselves in a moon lodge during menstruation. Women retreated to a small wigwam, where they slept separated from their husbands and infants. They refrained from sex, food preparation, and ceremony. They were careful not to step over young children, touch babies, men, or communal food. Female friends and relatives ensured the menstruating woman was safe and fed, and they helped care for her family in her absence.
“Traditionally, if you arrived at a woman’s house and saw that her cedar boughs were missing from her front door, it was a sign that she had taken them to create a pathway to her moon lodge,” said Patty Smith of the Leech Lake Band of Minnesota Ojibwe. “Cedar is a medicine to keep women safe. The missing cedar was a sign for other women to visit her, feed her, and check on her.”
To an outsider, these practices may cast menstruation as evil and threatening. But for Ojibwe women, their moon can be a healthy time of rest, regeneration, and recognition of their important roles as life givers and community leaders.
“Women have great power during their moons,” said Smith, whose Ojibwe name is Bagwaji-kwe (woman of the wilderness). “As they bleed, they are sloughing off the accumulated experience and stress of being a woman. Some of those experiences are painful or may contain negative energy, so we want to be careful that we don’t interrupt that process.”
“Our moons are a time of cleansing and renewal. Recognizing this cycle helps keep us healthy in body and mind and reminds the community of our significance as women,” she added.
“I Don’t Want You to Struggle”
Native peoples are turning to traditional ways as a path to heal from generations of U.S. assimilation policies, such as the boarding school era that sought to extinguish Native culture and spirituality and paint them as primitive and shameful.
Participating in moon ceremonies also helps women learn self-respect, according to Cleora White of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.
“Observing and honoring our monthly moons is a way to celebrate our womanhood,” said White, whose Ojibwe name is Aandabiikwe (crane sitting sideways woman).
“During these ceremonies, we learn teachings from elder women about our responsibilities and importance. Bringing back these ways is helping our young women feel pride in who they are as Native women,” White added.
White’s mother, who was raised in an Indian boarding school, had rebuffed White’s questions about Ojibwe language and culture, including moon ceremonies.
“My mother told me, ‘No, I’m not teaching you about any of that; you’re better off without it. I don’t want you to struggle like I have,’ White recalled about her mother, who has since passed away.
Unfortunately, White’s experience is common among Native women.
Those who lived through assimilationist federal policies often distanced themselves from their traditional tribal ways, having internalized these negative colonial attitudes as a survival mechanism.
In her recent book, We Are Dancing for You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-Age Ceremonies, Cutcha Risling Baldy claims that European settlers and Christian missionaries framed indigenous menstrual traditions as shameful and primitive. Baldy, of the Hupa tribe in California, makes the case that denigrating women’s power and leadership roles in tribal communities was central to settlers’ goals of controlling Native land and resources.
Prior to European contact, Hupa women’s menstrual traditions were essential to tribal renewal ceremonies, according to Baldy. The Flower Dance, a Hupa coming-of-age ceremony, was viewed as a means to keep the world in balance and tie the community to the health and well-being of the earth.
Young women and their families spent months collecting sacred items, clothing, and food needed for the dance. Over several days, the young woman would run over a series of paths and bathe herself in the river at special places called “Tims.” Men would later bathe in these sites as a means of strengthening their health and power. The entire community would sing in support of the woman during the duration of her dance.
Cunningly, early settlers sought to destroy these ceremonies, according to Baldy. Miners and soldiers kidnapped and raped Hupa women during the Flower Dance. The men are said to have interpreted women’s participation in the dance as an invitation to engage in sex.
Later, according to Baldy, Christian missionaries further shamed Hupa women for celebrating their menstruation cycles. If the ceremonies were performed at all, they were conducted underground, away from public view.
Today, historical trauma continues to contribute to social ills in Indian Country, including violence against women, according to a 2018 report by the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute. In 2016, researchers at the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice released a report examining two samples in the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. They concluded: “Relative to non-Hispanic White-only women, American Indian and Alaska Native women are 1.2 times as likely to have experienced violence in their lifetime and are 1.7 times as likely to have experienced violence in the past year.”
Native American health professionals encourage community and traditional spirituality and ceremony as a means to recover from trauma and build authentic strength and resilience.
The Return of the Flower Dance
In 2014, for the first time in 150 years, Hupa women and communities in Northern California began publicly revitalizing the Flower Dance. The contemporary ceremony, however, is not a rote re-enactment of a historical event, according to Baldy.
Rather, “the ceremony was being reclaimed as a dynamic and inventive building block of our culture,” she wrote in We Are Dancing for You.
For instance, as practiced today, the length of the Flower Dance may be limited to a few days. When Kayla Rae Begay did her Flower Dance in 2014, she decided to wear shoes rather than run barefoot as her ancestors might have done.
“The trails were unused and overgrown. By the time I finished my first run (in bare feet) my feet were really tore up,” Begay noted in Baldy’s book.
“My grandma looked at my feet and said, ‘No, you have to wear shoes,’” Begay said.
The intent of the Flower Dance is preserved with or without shoes. It is the running of one’s trail that is the essential metaphor for life, according to Begay. She did, however, wear a traditional Hupa maple bark skirt and veil made of blue jay feathers during her ceremony.
The veil prevents others from looking directly into the eyes of the dancer. “You’re very powerful during this time, especially as a woman,” Begay noted.
Today, the ways Ojibwe women celebrate their menstruation has also changed, according to Smith. “Some women … can’t stay in the moon lodge for their entire cycle, but many of us try to seclude ourselves for at least part of the time,” she said.
“Our moons are an opportunity to take a break from our everyday lives. This is a time to honor ourselves and spend time with our daughters and other women, a time to pass on teachings and words of support,” she added.
When White’s daughters began menstruating, she turned to her mother-in-law for traditional Ojibwe instructions about how to honor their moons.
“I wanted my girls to feel good about themselves as Ojibwe women,” White recalled.
“I took some berries and offered them to the four directions before feeding the girls. We put down our tobacco and prayed. We had a big feast with family and friends; it was really a special day,” she said. Traditionally, Ojibwe people offer tobacco to the earth during prayer.
“As a girl, I was taught not to talk about our ways, but now Native people want to know about their cultures,” she noted.
The way the media represents these ancient menstrual practices is crucial. There are myriad practices and, for some, they hold the key to healing from ongoing colonial violence in spite of the stigma and shame associated with them through an exclusively Western lens.
“This revitalization is exploding into something beautiful; we are grasping our culture,” White said. “We can be happy and proud again to be Native people.”