Rites of Passage

(Native Americans: A Comprehensive History)

Article abstract: Rite of passage ceremonies mark status-changing events in the life cycle, such as birth, naming, puberty, initiation, marriage, and death

Rites of passage are ceremonies associated with the transformation from one stage of life to another. The four primary events of birth, naming, puberty, and death are celebrated as spiritual occasions. The secondary events of marriage and initiation into societies are considered social by some tribes and spiritual by others.

Three stages can be identified in any rite of passage. In the separation phase one loses the old status; in the marginal phase one has essentially no identity; and in the re-entry phase one takes on a new identity within the community, gaining new rights and obligations. An element of danger exists in the transition. The time between two states has a mysterious quality, during which the individual requires protection from potential harm. This marginal phase is a symbolic death of the old status.


Among traditional people, childbirth was a time of crisis for mother and child, since the mortality rate for both was highest then. Childbirth was also regarded as a time of danger for males in the community. The miraculous new life within the mother’s body held the sacred power of the Creator. It could endanger those not as powerful. This belief, along with the practical concerns of comfort and privacy, plus the need for concentrated attention during birthing, led to the segregation of women in labor. The period of labor represented the “between” phase, requiring protection for both mother and infant through petitions to the spirits for guidance.

A woman in labor was usually assisted in the birthing hut by other women, but a Southwest Caddo woman went alone to a nearby river when labor began. She built her own shelter, delivered her baby, and, even in winter, bathed herself and the child in the river. She returned to the village right away. Among the Nez Perce of Idaho, mother and infant were secluded for as long as three months after delivery, and in the Great Basin tribes the father also stayed in bed and ate special foods.


Anyone without a name was considered powerless, because the spirits would not recognize them. Not all babies received names; some tribes waited until a particular trait suggested a name. A name could be revealed through a parent’s dream, or given in a formal ceremony after months or years of waiting. A person could have several names throughout life: as an infant, a young child, at puberty, and upon a worthy achievement.

Omaha newborns were thought to be just other beings in nature. An infant was presented to the powers of nature with prayers for safety on its journey through life. With its first steps, the baby became a member of the tribe and was given a new pair of moccasins...

(The entire section is 1193 words.)