Celebrating the Transition to Womanhood

The Kinaaldá Ceremony in the Navajo Nation

Figure 1: Map of "Four Corners" Region and the Navajo Reservation. (Source: http://www.bible.ovc.edu/missions/indians/navajres.htm)



The Kinaaldá ceremony is one which combines the rich and dynamic cultural heritage of the Navajo people to mark the transition of a girl to adulthood while celebrating the common background that binds the community together. It demonstrates the commonly recognized stages of the “rite of passage” and includes social, public, and systematic elements that tie the ceremony not only to the initiate, but to Navajo society in general. While the celebration persists today, influences from the outside world and the acculturation of the Navajo youth will test the ceremony's longevity during the coming generations.



Figure 2:  Monument Valley, Utah, sitting on the northern edge of the Navajo Nation. (Source:http://www.americansouthwest.net /utah/monument_valley/mvbutte.html) Figure 3: A  traditional Navajo hogan.  (Source: http://www.nmmagazine.com/NMGUIDE/navajo.html)


In every culture, people have developed unique means to symbolize, reconcile, and celebrate important transitions in life. For the Navajo people, these have been shaped by their habitat and the diverse cultural heritage of their surrounding neighbors. The female puberty ritual represents such an event. Combining aspects of creation myth, fertility celebration, and lifetime transition, the Kinaaldá rite of passage is one of the most celebrated of Navajo ceremonies. It marks the beginning of Navajo womanhood while paying homage to their deities and honoring the sacred fertility of nature. Melding influences from many external cultures and experiences, the Navajo have developed a unique ceremony, providing an exquisite example of the religious rite of passage as well as the continuity with which these rituals seem to occur across cultural boundaries. As we shall see, from the ritual structure outlined by Van Gennep (Turner and Turner, 1982) to the more refined framework described by Markstrom (2003), Kinaaldá displays a basis that is common throughout many other rites of passage.


Context of the Navajo Nation

Situated along the borders of the “Four Corners” region of the United States (Figure 1), the Navajo Nation and its geography have experienced considerable change since first arriving some 450-600 years ago. (Dobyns, 1972) Originally descendent of Athapaskan-speaking peoples of north-central Canada , they migrated across the North American continent to their eventual home in the Southwestern United States . As Navajo culture has evolved, the influence of this extreme, arid, and at times breathtaking environment (Figure 2) has helped shape their way of life, from myth and legend to basic subsistence.

  The Navajo represent a relatively new ethnic group to the American Southwest. They are believed to have originally established their home in this area during the 15 th century CE, where they existed as nomadic hunter-gatherers until the late 16 th century. At this time, they began to establish contact with Spanish explorers and missionaries moving northward into the Southwest. (NavajoArts.com, 2004) It was during this period that a distinct Navajo culture would begin to develop, emerging from their economic raiding of the Spaniards. (Dobyns, 1972) It could also be said that Navajo culture was born of a broad amalgamation of native cultures long since passed. While many neighboring peoples found themselves at the fringe of a rapidly expanding European and American frontier, the Navajo had safety in the isolated expanse of their homeland. (Acrey, 1982) Here they developed a strong pastoral economy, thanks to livestock raided from the Spaniards. At the same time, they began to assimilate new cultivation techniques from other tribes waning under the pressure of the United States and Spain . (Dobyns, 1972)

  Following a violent American onslaught, destruction of their livelihood, internment, and subsequent release, the Navajo became one of the first peoples to be given land of their own. (Curran, 2004) Soon, they began absorbing other native cultures as they searched to regain the life they knew before internment. (Dobyns, 1972) Today, with a population over 200,000, reflecting the largest reservation based Native American tribe in the US , the Navajo have a rich tradition and way of life expressing elements of many varied sources. As one Navajo teacher says, “My students hear ‘tradition' and they think of old things. Our adaptability is our tradition.” (Trimble, 1993)



Origins of Kinaaldá

As with many other words of the Navajo language, there is no clear translation of Kinaaldá to English. In fact, even among the Navajo people, there is disagreement regarding the exact meaning of the word. For some, it is a term generally used in reference to a girl's first menstruation. To others, it is simply synonymous with any pubescent female. Actually, the roots of this word may be traced back to the Alaskan days of the Athapaskans, where the phrase “kin ya shidáh”, or sitting alone, was first used. Further derivatives of this phrase over many generations eventually led to the Navajo word which may most literally describe the isolation that one was once forced to endure throughout menstruation. (Frisbie,1993)

  The chronology of the ceremony's existence is rather hazy. For most of their history, the Navajo did not make use of a written language, so recorded dates were not possible. In addition, conflicting accounts of their presence among other Southwest tribes further obscure any precise date for the emergence of this ceremony. The earliest accounts of these people place their arrival as a distinct group some time around the end of the 16 th century CE, although they may have been living in the “Four Corners” region as early as the 11 th century CE. (Acrey, 1982) With refugees from outside tribes, new religious ideas and forms of cultivation poured into the Navajo region. When coupled with a burgeoning pastoral economy, these ideas allowed the Navajo to explore and define their own spiritual world. By the beginning of the 18 th century, this religion had blossomed into a unique creation. (Acrey, 1982)

  The Kinaaldá itself is rooted in the myth of one of the Navajo holy people, Changing Woman. She was, among other things, the diety responsible for creating the Navajo and ensuring fertility of humans and nature. (Rissetto, 1997) She was also a representation of the ideal Navajo woman. When Changing Woman was 12 days old, upon experiencing the first Kinaaldá, she entered womanhood. She would later mandate that all females observe the same sacred rite after their first menses. From that point forward, the procedures she prescribed would mark, for Navajo women, the transition from childhood to womanhood. (Frisbie, 1993)




The ceremony lasts four days and is encouraged to occur soon after a girl's first menstruation. On the first day, the girl is kept inside the traditional Navajo home, the hogan (Figure 3), where her hair is combed and she is dressed in the ceremonial garb of the Kinaaldá. It is during this time, also, that others work her body with their hands in an effort to mold her in the form of Changing Woman. In addition, the girl is expected to run to the east three times (dawn, noon , sunset) throughout the first three days. This can occur as a race, with a number of outside participants involved. She spends the remainder of the first and second days grinding corn in preparation for the ceremonial corncake (symbolizing mother Earth) she must prepare. (Frisbie, 1993)

  On the third day, she excavates a fire pit, prepares the batter, and places it within the pit. At this point the cake must be blessed. Sunset on the third night marks a new stage in the ceremony, characterized by all-night singing and symbolic distribution of corn pollen. The fourth day of the ceremony is interspersed with many more traditional Navajo songs. The girl's hair and jewelry are washed, she runs to the East once again at sunrise, and the cake is distributed to all those that have come to perform. Between nearly every segment of the ceremony, songs are performed. In several cases, the girl leaves for a period of time as this happens. Finally, the ceremony concludes with the combing of her hair, the painting of her body with white clay, and the molding of her body outside the hogan. (Frisbie, 1993)




A Ts'aa'.  This cermonial basket it used in many Navajo rituals.  During Kinaalda, it is used for the washing of the initiate's hair.




Prognosis for [name of celebration]

For the Navajo, Kinaaldá still serves a purpose of introducing girls to the social roles that they will adopt as adults in Navajo society. As long as this relevance persists, the ceremony should continue to flourish in the “Four-Corners” region of the United States . As recently as 2002, sources indicated that the performance of this ceremony is and has been on the rise. (Markstrom, 2003) However, according Nancy Heavilin, a Navajo student at Miami University , the increasing influence of popular American culture, a waning proficiency of Navajo speakers among the current youth, and the growing intent to modernize the Navajo Nation are pushing Kinaaldá, as well as many other traditional aspects of Navajo society, toward its eventual demise. ( N. Heavilin , personal communication, November 15, 2004 ) Some argue that ceremony keeps the Navajo language alive. ( Crystal , 2004) However, it is yet to be seen whether this language continues to exist as a meaningful bridge between modern Navajo and traditional culture or as an archaic reminder of a fading culture. Only time will tell whether today's Navajo youth accept their inherited traditions or reject them on the path to mainstream American culture.



The Kinaaldá ceremony has undoubtedly been an important ceremony in Navajo society. While symbolically carrying young women into adulthood, this rite of passage underscores the new social roles they accept as members of the Navajo Nation. In addition, it ties these women and the rest of the community together in a common cultural bond. However, although this celebration appears to be on the rise, the growing influence of American popular culture may detach the Navajo youth from their heritage and overshadow the significance of such traditional practices. If these forces prevail, the Kinaaldá rite of passage will likely undergo its own transition – to irrelevance.


Internet References Cited

  • Curran, Kathleen F. 2004. "The Navajo (Dineh)." Electronic document. <http://www.nps.gov/nava/nav.htm>. Accessed 30 Oct. 2004. 
    • This is a web-page linked to the National Parks Service information regarding the Navajo National Monument in Arizona . This page provides a brief history of the Navajo people.


  • Crystal, Ellie. 2004. "Navajo Nation." Electronic Document. <http://www.crystalinks.com/navajos.html>. Accessed 12 Nov. 2004. 
    • This page contains a variety of information related to the Navajo, particularly regarding Navajo folklore.


  • Navajo Arts.com. 2004. "Navajo History." Electronic Document. <http://navajo-arts.com/navajo-history.html>. Accessed 13 Nov. 2004. 
    • This page is part of a web-site dedicated to Navajo art and culture. In particular, this page provides information related to Navajo history from the arrival of the Spanish to US involvement in the mid-1800's.


  • Rissetto, Adriana C. 1997. "Changing Woman: Myth, Metaphor, and Pragmatics." Electronic Document. < http://xroads.virginia.edu/ ~MA97/dinetah/change2.html >. Accessed 15 Nov. 2004 . 
    • This page provides detailed information regarding the Navajo creation story and the role of Changing Woman in Navajo religion.


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

  • Acrey, Bill P.

    1982    Navajo History to 1846: The Land and the People . Department of Curriculum Materials Development, Central Consolidated School District No. 22. Shiprock , New Mexico .

  • Dobyns, Henry F.

    1972  The Navajo People . Indian Tribal Series. Phoenix , Arizona .

  • Frisbie, Charlotte J.

    1967  Kinaaldá. Wesleyan University Press. Middletown , Connecticut .

  • Markstrom, Carol A. and Alejandro Iborra

    2003   Adolescent Identity Formation and Rites of Passage: The Navajo Kinaaldá Ceremony for Girls. Journal of Research on Adolescence 13(4), 399-425.

  • Trimble, Stephen

    1993   The Navajo. In The People: Indians of the American Southwest , pp 121-194. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe , New Mexico .

  • Turner, Edith; with Victor Turner

    1982  Religious Celebrations. Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual , pp. 200-219. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington , D.C.


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