An Apache Girl Comes of Age
by Stephen Trimble

The men's room is elegant, the lighting exquisite. But, as I stood in front of the toilet contemplating the photo on the wall, I kept saying to myself: what would Jeanette Larzelere think about her image hanging here, a focal point for (dare I say it) a parade of well-off white men relieving themselves between courses?

Thirteen years ago, I watched as Jeannette Larzelere became a woman. Like so many other Apache girls on the verge of womanhood, she passed through the four-day coming-of-age ceremony called the sunrise dance. The entire village of Whiteriver, Arizona, on the Fort Apache Reservation, surrounded her with respect and love, dancing her into adulthood.

I have never seen anything more moving.

I am a photographer. My picture of Jeannette Larzelere at the culminating point of this ceremony had been purchased by the owner of this restaurant a few months ago at a fund-raiser. He bid it up, evidently moved by the subject. He received a description of the ritual with the print. I was pleased, and felt he must understand the power of the picture. Now I have found the photo hanging over the toilet in the men's room at his trendy cafe.

This picture captures what well may be the most important, most sacred event in this girl's life. On the last day of the ceremony, a young man dips an eagle feather and a spray of sage in a basket filled with clay and water. He covers the kneeling initiate with this earth paint, to give her the power of the earth, to keep her strong through a long life. With this clay, she also acquires the power of Changing Woman, the first Apache--a holy person, indeed. This is a deeply spiritual moment. Comparable experiences: a beatific child kneeling for a first communion; a young man or woman standing to read from the Torah in a synagogue at a Bar or Bat Mitvah; a young Buddhist leaving his family to don saffron robes and begin his interlude as a monk.

An entire Apache village gave unspoken permission to photograph this intimate moment. In turn, I have the responsibility to speak for Jeanette. Hanging her photo above a toilet demonstrates profound disrespect, demeaning her, the Apache religion, Indian people, and all women.

We non-Indian people still haven't learned. On the one hand, we continue to romanticize Indians. We flock to Dances With Wolves, we root New Age ritual in the more acccessible edges of tribal religions. On the other hand, racism continues. Indians remain "the other." We deny the survival and vitality of contemporary Indian people. We freeze them in 1880, a "vanishing people" with a "lost" culture. We forget that Indian people are just that--people. And that missing act of empathy--attributable to lack of experience, lack of attention--costs us a rich understanding, a resonance, a connection.

Several weeks after the ceremony, I saw Jeannette Larzelere walking in jeans and a t-shirt at the Apache Tribal Fair. She still looked transfigured. I hope she retains a little of that strength today. She will need it.

Copyright © 1997 by Stephen Trimble, P.O. Box 1078, Salt Lake City, UT 84110-1078.

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