About the Dresses
Native American Women & Regalia
Online Exhibit Tour
Links & Sources
Feedback/ Evaluation Form
Blue Jay Veil
Blue Jay Sings-- The Revitalization of Women's Coming of Age Ceremonies and making Blue Jay Veils
by Cutcha Risling Baldy (Hupa, Karuk, Yurok)
At one time, women’s coming of age ceremonies in Northwest California were public celebrations of a girl’s first menstruation. The influx of settlers included systematic and brutal attacks on Native women. In turn, these ceremonies were no longer commonly practiced. For the past 10-15 years, tribes throughout Northwest California have worked to revitalize their women's coming of age ceremonies. These ceremonies have become living testaments to the power of ceremonies and how they can contribute to healing. The community that comes together in these ceremonies to participate, dance, sing, and laugh are all gaining strength from seeing the continued re-claiming of a ceremony that anthropologists, missionaries and BIA agents called “extinct” and “lost.”
Prior to this revitalization, the story of the Flower Dance was mainly documented and written by anthropologists and ethnographers as one of loss and extinction. White male scholars believed that Native peoples of Northwest California could only truly become civilized once they had stopped practicing their women's coming of age ceremonies. When they wrote about Northwest California tribes, they insisted that those tribes who still practiced their women's ceremonies were "primitive." They did not consider why Northwest California tribes would change the way they practiced this ceremony and they did not talk about about how these changes were reflective of the circumstances that happened during the most violent period of California history (1840-1850).
Gender Violence & Northwest California Native Women
Native women throughout the Americas were systematically targeted for violence during colonization for a number of reasons. They were targeted because of their ability to reproduce (Ines Hernandez-Avila). They were targeted because they were considered “dirty” and “inherently violable” (Andrea Smith). Native women also represented a threat to the European culture because Native women were given more rights than European women. Paula Gunn Allen argues that colonizers realized that in order to take apart and control indigenous nations they would have to control the women of Indigenous nations.
During the Gold Rush, Northwest California Native women experienced horrendous violence. Albert Hurtado notes in his book, Indian Survival on the California Frontier, that California Indian women were objectified and degraded because of the semi-nudity of their traditional clothing. Miners disparaged native women “because they did not measure up to Victorian ideals.” (175) In addition, the violence during this period of time led to increased rates of prostitution among California Indian women, enslavement, and “frequent” sexual assaults (Hurtado 180). This led to increased acts of violence against white settlers. As Hurtado notes “Retaliation for assaults on Indian women was a common cause of violence in gold rush California.” (Hurtado, 182) .
It was because of this consistent and ever present threat of violence that many Native peoples in Northwest California stopped or severely limited the celebration of young women as they came of age. In addition, missionaries assigned to tribal lands were particularly focused on preventing the continued practice of women's coming of age ceremonies. It was for these and many other reasons that women's coming of age ceremonies became rarely practiced among Northwest California tribes.
Menstruation & Women's Coming of Age in Northwest California
Adolescent/puberty ceremonies for girls were common throughout the Indigenous Americas, but they were particularly prevalent among California peoples. This dance means many things to the Native peoples of Northwest California. For the Hupa people, this dance is one of the select few done by their K'ixinay (First People/Spirits) for all time in the heavens above. It is only when the young girl calls this dance down from them that they stop dancing and point their sticks to where the dance is being performed. Essentially, in Hupa culture, there is a perpetual Kinaldung (Flower Dance Girl) in their heavens. Menstruation is not "dirty" or "polluting " as has been forwarded by many anthropologists and scholars, but instead is powerful, healing, and sustaining. Hupa Medicine Woman Melodie George-Moore reflects in a 2014 interview:
...this menstruation, first menstruation, and menstruation in general was celebrated. It was a celebration for people to participate in. ...the girl was showing that she would be able to give life and [would] be able to perpetuate her people for another generation. This is what she was showing and that was a blessed event. (2014 interview with author)
Blue Jay Veil
The Blue Jay Veil is distinct to the women's coming of age ceremonies throughout Northwestern California. Made primarily from Blue Jay feathers, the veil is used to cover the face of the girl as she is running or interacting in public spaces during her coming of age ceremony. Community members note that the veil is to protect those who may see the girl as she is running because she is considered her most powerful during her first menstruation; others have noted that it is also a physical way to remind the girl to be mindful as she is doing her tasks. Running is an important part of the ceremony. The old ones say, how she runs is how she will live her life. This veil, worn over the eyes while the girl runs along the paths of her ancestors, provides a barrier for the girl so that it becomes harder to look back, or to even look too far forward. Instead, she is required to think about the here and now, and to pay close attention to each step that she takes. With the revitalization of women's coming of age ceremonies, there has been a revitalization of the making of this piece of regalia. It is one more demonstration of how Native people continue to rebuild from the attempted annihilation of their cultures, and demonstrate the living culture that still exists to this day.
Blue Jay (the doctor)
Blue Jay is a prominent figure in many Northwest California literatures and histories. In some Karuk stories Blue Jay is a doctor; she is a strong female role model who heals those who call for her.
Uknîi. They were living there. Then all at once one of the people got sick. Bluejay was also living there. She was a doctor and sorcerer. ...Bluejay was dancing hard there. Then she sucked her. She removed the witchery. ...Behold she got home. Then she [the sick one] did the same way again. They went to get her [Bluejay] again. She came over again. Then she said: "Somebody is making it." Then she doctored her again. "Give me hazel nuts this time." Then they gave them to her. She [the sick one] got well. Then she [Bluejay] went home again. ...Behold Bluejay did this way. Bluejay is that way. That is all. -- Phoebe Maddux, "Bluejay Myth" (1929)
In some Hupa stories, Blue Jay is a prominent female figure who features in the creation story of Yīmantūwiñyai one of the central K'ixinay (First People/Spirits) of Hupa Culture. In many of the Northwest Tribes Blue Jay is usually remembered for her songs. This becomes meaningful to women's coming of age ceremonies because during this ceremony the girl is asked to sing a song of her very own. Singing is a central and important aspect of these coming of age ceremonies.
Coming together to sing
Part of re-building these Northwest Native communities came from the resurgence of songs and singing among women. Some of the older women who participate in the ceremony are singing for the first time. Younger women are coming together with older women to teach each other songs. Some women created song groups, who specifically came together to make up new songs, bringing new life to the ceremony. In these song groups many of the women were afraid at first of singing but were encouraged by those older women who remembered when women “sang out.” In this respect, the personal journey of the women was reflected in their journey of learning, creating and singing a song in the ceremony.
The continued growth of new songs, the making of blue jay veils, bark skirts and other types of women's regalia for this dance reflect the vitality, ingenuity, dignity and strength of contemporary Indian culture. This "extinct" ceremony is now, once again, becoming a central part of Northwest California Native peoples lives.
Every veil has a story... click a pic to read more