Lightning crackled across the Northern Plains night sky and rain pelted lush rolling hills, as six girls took shelter in a tipi they'd just constructed. It was the first one some of them had ever put up, but because they had learned to build it correctly, they were dry and cozy.
The group, which included Ihanktonwan Dakota and Sicangu Lakota 11-to-13-year-olds, was taking part in the Isna Ti Awica Dowan (Singing Over Those Who Live Alone), a female coming-of-age ceremony on the Yankton Sioux reservation, in southeastern South Dakota.
Usually done privately by a family when a daughter reaches menarche or puberty, the rite recently has been performed for groups of girls in order to encourage more people to revive the tradition. This year's late-June Isna Ti included - as teachers, helpers, and initiates - members of the Arrow, Cournoyer, Drapeau, Flying Hawk, Garcia, Gullickson, Hare, Hart, Medicine Horn, Moccasin, O'Connor, Painte, Rouse, Saice, Shields, Sierra, Spotted Eagle, Walking Eagle and White Horse families.
During the four days, the girls were considered sacred beings. They were fed all their meals by older female relatives and taught the arts and virtues of traditional womanhood. Lessons in sewing, medicine collecting, singing, old-time games instilled not just those skills, but brought with it attributes such as compassion and patience, explained Don Moccasin, a Sicangu Lakota educator who taught tipi building and whose daughter, Aske Win Jones, participated. The youngsters developed tremendous admiration for the accomplishments of their grandmothers.
"We also want to give them a sense of self-respect," said Faith Spotted Eagle (Ihanktonwan Nakota), of the Braveheart Women's Society, which organized the event. "Our girls are exposed to many risks: gangs, drugs, alcohol, early pregnancy and can be badly hurt. We want them to feel they have the support of their community in avoiding these things."
On the last day, the mothers tied eagle plumes into the girls' hair and wrapped Sun Dance skirts around their waists as a symbol of the sacredness of womanhood. They then presented the young women and their new names to the camp circle. Finally, the initiates served the assembled company traditional foods, including toasted cornmeal with dried berries, prairie turnip and dried-corn soup, and chokecherry pudding.
Cassandra Painte, Arlene Saice and Mary Frances Sierra, from this year's group, and Latasha Drapeau, Rochelle Garcia and Rachel Fischer, from past years, shared observations about the Isna Ti and its place in their lives:
Collecting medicine: "It was very special to offer tobacco before we picked sage. We gave something back to the earth because we were taking something from it, and I felt strongly about the fact that my grandmothers had picked sage like that. But they stayed out even longer on very hot days and didn't have cars to take them to the field."
Visiting the tribal buffalo herd: "We've always known that we are related to them, and now scientists have discovered it, too."
Putting up a tipi: "It was hard, but every time something went wrong, we got an important lesson. When we finished, the tipi was a happy home, a nest. We made it together; we shared it. It was a part of us.
Homecoming: "When I came here I was Yankton Sioux, but I hadn't lived on the reservation and didn't know how they did things in the old days. I didn't know Indian words or how to put up a tipi-nothing really. Then I came to the Isna Ti, and they taught me so much. Now I feel proud of myself and my culture."
Gangs: "Girls are in the same gangs as boys in our high schools. You have to have sex with the boys to join. A lot of girls go along with it to feel accepted. Gang members also tell you that if you don't drink or do drugs, you can't hang with them. So you have to find other things to do. I've found nice friends through the Bravehearts, and I can count on the girls I went through the Isna Ti with. We have a special bond."
Racism/racial profiling: "When Indian people are driving around here, they get pulled over because of their race. Some of the people who do those kinds of things to us might change if they knew more about our culture. Others may never change."
Domestic abuse: "Some dads drink and get mad and slap their wives and kids around. A father shouldn't hit his kids if they do something wrong. He should explain why it was wrong or how to do it better. If kids say a bad word, a father should tell them it's not a good word to use. Good parents teach lessons, like our Isna Ti teachers did. Parents should still control their children, though. Grounding. Grounding is good."
Future husbands: "When I marry, I wouldn't want my husband to be jealous. A husband should be secure and trust you. He doesn't have to spy on you and be your bodyguard. I'd want my husband to be loving, to respect me and to feel comfortable with my choices. If I want to go to college, my husband shouldn't try to stop me."
Self-image: "I don't act girly-girl to get attention. Everywhere nowadays, girls starve themselves to impress boys and look like models, and it's really scary. When they try to eat, they can't because their stomachs have shrunk. In the old days, whatever you were - chubby, thin or in between was fine, but now everyone wants to be skinny. On this reservation, girls wear comfortable clothes, like big T-shirts and loose skirts. They don't try to be fashionable all the time. That's better."
Advice for other girls: "Be proud of your culture. Listen to the grandmothers. Respect yourself. Make friends with other girls. Don't wear halter-tops and tight clothes. Don't stay indoors, watching TV. Go outside, and do all kinds of things, like they did in the old days."