This morning on npr I heard a piece which goes to the heart of my Basics category on this blog. It dealt with a society on an Indian reservation designed for girls entering puberty. It is called the Brave Heart Women’s Society. The story is called Four Days, Nights: A Girls’ Coming-of-Age Ceremony and is one in a series called The Hidden World of Girls. The Kitchen Sisters produced it.
The society is part of a specific culture, the Yankton Sioux, to use the English names, but is universal in the need for all cultures to have a way to bring girls into adulthood and support them. You can listen for yourself at
It almost brought tears to my eyes, not so much b/c these particular girls and this particular culture are in so much danger, danger from outside pressure, from self-destructive behaviors, and lots and lots of exploitation, but b/c their need is so fundamental to making us human.
I think I need to continue on my blog entry about what true conservatism is. This is it. You have a duty to bring the girls of your society into adulthood and carve out a path for them as safe as it can be under the circumstances. Paradoxically to this idea of safety, the traditional role of this society was to retrieve the dead from the battlefield. Nevertheless, in reconstituting this social institution and its function, the founders are doing part of what must be done in all these destroyed and exploited societies.
For the U.S., the exploitation of feudalism was ended with the founding of a new country but the exploitation continued, not only in its most egregious form, slavery, but in hold-overs from the European world with its inchoate industrial revolution and in forms peculiar to America like the rolling back of indigenous peoples. (Russia was doing something like this as well, but meeting with much less resistance – after all, the Sioux gave the U.S. military one of its bloodiest noses at the Little Big Horn – one of the early nails in the coffin of White supremacy) Is there any shelter from exploitation?
What are we doing now with our girls? They are inducted into society via the entertainment business whose model is total exploitation, the profit motive run amok. Instead of prescribed clothing aimed toward making a girl attractive for marriage, she is clothed so as to be attractive to men in general. Instead of being taught how to do well in a circumscribed sphere of activity like home-making and child-rearing, she is told to postpone these life-functions in order to make herself saleable, marketable, in the job market, not the marriage market. Instead of learning a traditional culture, she is asked to move easily among a variety of cultures, social classes, job functions, and so on.
As is obvious, there are positives and negatives in all these alternatives and I doubt any of us would readily give up the more open and flexible alternatives for the prescribed ones. Some groups continue a kind of coming-of-age ceremony: Catholics have First Communion, Jews have Bar Mitzvah (and now Bas Mitzvah as a nod to female equality), African-Americans have the cotillion, Hispanic girls have the quinceanera, and some economic and social groups have debutante or coming-out events. Not a great number of young people take part in these, but at least they still exist.
I’m getting into territory I am unfamiliar with here, but I wonder how many of these extant passage markers retain the same sort of preparation for life that they had traditionally? How many Jewish boys and girls actually learn to read Hebrew? How many Catholics do their catechism classes? How many debutants are coached in how to be a classy lady? We hope such training goes on, but perhaps we are losing the substance and just maintaining the form. I’d love to have responses to this at a personal level, telling us of personal experiences.
More and more Americans outside the traditional island people are turning to syncretic religions like Vodun and Santeria. These imports from the Afro-Atlantic, the Afro-Caribbean world do have induction ceremonies which are exhausting. The patience, the endurance, the concentration required remind one of athletics and other endeavors of intensity. The decision comes first, then the preparation, then the performance, then back to the preparation for the next performance. Familiar institutions like the Catholic Church have well-worn paths to achievement but as more people fall away from traditional institutions like the church, the military, the school, they miss this initiation.
Think of boot-camp, of schools steeped in tradition like the prep schools and military schools, think of church camps, and of the Boy Scouts, all ways of training our youth up in the way an adult performs. Even unions can serve this purpose, and, in some ways, the Mafia (the juxtaposition with unions was unintentional) or street gangs with their jumping-in rituals. Our society does have vestiges of these rites of passage into adulthood but they seem piecemeal, diltued, and…… vestigial.
What replaces them?