Origins of the Kinaalda

by Jaclyn Roessel

As a little girl, I never dreamed of my wedding day. I did however, dream of my Kinaaldá. Young women often note how they imagined their wedding day since they were in elementary school.  Some recount with certainty what their wedding dress would look like or the song playing to their first dance. I was never this type of girl.

It was my mom who nurtured my enthusiasm for my Kinaaldá. In future posts I will discuss how we prepared. But here, I want to express the overwhelming thanks I owe my mom. She taught me to be excited for my ceremony. Because of her I would dream of how fast I would run and how I would be an exemplary young girl. I imagined the knife cutting my perfect cake at dawn on the final day. But mostly, I dreamt of how it would feel to be so closely connected with Changing Woman.

Changing Woman is one of the Holy People and the reason we have the Kinaaldá ceremony. In Navajo culture many of the teachings of how we should live our lives as Navajo people is told through our origin stories.

Origin stories are the sacred and powerful stories Navajo people have continued to pass from generation to generation. These stories tell of time when the Holy People were a part of this world, a time, when animals and Diné spoke and understood one another. Since origin stories are sacred and layered many parts are told only during certain times of the year.

The founding of the Kinaaldá ceremony occurs in this era. The Holy People are the spiritual guiders and creators. Navajo believe there are multiple beings or figures that comprise our Creator. Within the group there are certain Holy People who are responsible for different aspects of Navajo culture and religion.

The story of the first Kinaaldá begins within Dinétáh – Navajo holy land.  During this period near the mountain of Gobernador Knob (what is now northwestern New Mexico), First Man and First Woman heard a baby crying and began searching for it. As the crying from the baby began to be more intense they saw this area with a dark mist – low clouds on top of the peak. It was here, folded in the clouds, they saw a little girl.

Talking God – who is the leader of the Holy People – decided this baby would be raised by First Man and First Woman. They would be responsible for rearing the child. Shortly after this, the Holy People noticed this child was special. She was given the name Asdzaan Nagleeii or Changing Woman because she grew fast. For every day the baby grew one year. So after 12 days, Changing Woman was 12 years old. Her body began to change and she had her first menses.

The Holy People decided this was a special occasion and it must be respected and noted. They held the first Kinaaldá to mark the transformation occurring in Changing Woman’s body – the ability to bear children.  The start of the ceremony was marked by the brushing and tying of her hair in a low pony tail with a strip of buckskin. She lay on an unwounded buckskin and was physically molded into the shape of a woman by First Woman.  She was dressed with white shell beaded moccasins, a skirt and leggings as well as wristlets with fringe.

The Holy People said Changing Woman needed to make a cake as part of an offering to the Sun. She was directed to grind and mix the corn to create the batter. Once the cake was cooked and finished it would be given to the Sun first. This is often called the heart of the cake and reserved for the Sun as the most powerful Holy Person because he made day and night.

Changing Woman had four Kinaaldá ceremonies for each of the first four times she had her period. She kept two ceremonies for herself and gave two to future Navajo women. This is why today traditionally, Navajos hold two Kinaaldás out of respect for Changing Woman.

The practice of the Kinaaldá today is viewed as a direct link to this powerful and sacred part of the Navajos’ past. It is because of this story; I have an affinity for this sacred ceremony. I fondly remember writing stories about how various Holy People would help me in my life. Even with menial things like my homework. But the story of Changing Woman and her life is impetus for what it means to be a Navajo woman.

I remember having my ceremony and feeling like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. Not because I was worried or frightened but I felt I wanted to make my family proud. I wanted to follow the direction of Changing Woman so my life would be blessed. Not for myself but so I could help my people, so I could be strong enough to handle the challenges in my life – whatever they might be.