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A 19th century Apache puberty skirt: east toward sunrise.

The subject of this article is a nineteenth century Apache hide skirt and associated beadwork belt accessories.

Worn in conjunction with a separate hide yoke, the skirt is of the type worn by Apache girls for the traditional Sunrise Ceremony, or na'ii'ees. This important ceremony is a coming-of-age ritual traditionally practiced by many of the Apache groups of the American Southwest, marking an Apache girl's passage from girlhood to womanhood. The ceremony carried out to mark this sacred transformation, encapsulates crucial aspects of the Apache creation story.

Collection History

The skirt and accompanying accessories were collected in Cheyenne, Wyoming, by Colonel Oliver S. Eskridge while stationed at Fort Russell between 1907 and 1912, and passed down through the family. According to family oral history, the items were obtained as repayment of gambling debts.

Oliver Stevens Eskridge (1876-1931) had a rather full and eventful military career, fighting in the Spanish-American War of 1898, later serving as a colonel in New York in charge of the Tanks Corp.

When he left Fort Russell in 1912, he went to the Panama Canal 'Gamboa Cut' as an engineer. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, VA.

White Shell Woman

According to Apache legend, White Shell Woman, (alternatively named White Painted Woman or Changing Woman), survives a flood by floating in an abalone shell, establishing the Apache puberty ceremony to teach the sacred rites of womanhood. When she is old, White Shell Woman walks east to the sun, meets her younger self and, merging with it, becomes young again. Symbolically, every Apache woman meets her younger self when her daughter undertakes the Sunrise ceremony and is thereby reborn, generation after generation.

The Apache Puberty Ceremony

A girl's puberty rite is of utmost importance in Apache society, teaching her endurance and strengthening her ability to bear healthy children. When a girl reaches her early teens, her family prepares special foods and invites relatives, friends and neighbors to attend the ceremony. Early in the morning of the first day, a female mentor bathes the girl and dresses her in special clothing, blessing her with pollen, the symbol of fertility. A male ceremonial singer then takes the girl to a specially erected tipi or lodge, singing a cycle of creation songs while the girl performs ritual dances. In the Mescalero tradition, the girl makes four ritual runs to the east towards the rising sun, circling a basket tray filled with ritual objects. When evening comes, masked dancers appear, after which, men and women dance together. The puberty ceremony continues for four days and four nights, ending with a final ceremony early in the morning of the fifth day.

The Skirt

The precise tribal origins of the skirt are uncertain as this general style of traditional garment was widespread amongst many of the Apache groups in the American Southwest in the nineteenth century. Finely tanned hide skirts of this type were worn by Apache girls in conjunction with a matching poncho style yoke, usually constructed from a single hide. The choice of hide used in the construction appears to be native-tanned buffalo, indicating a relatively early date for the garment, perhaps pre-1880. By the time it was collected by Colonel Eskridge between 1907-12, the skirt may therefore have had two or more generations of previous Apache owners.

Of strongly tapered form, narrow at the waist and wider at the hem, one hide is used for the front, another for the back, with an added piece along the top on each side. The width across the waist, excluding the side fringe, measures 2 1/2 inches. The width across the hem, excluding fringe, is 36 inches. The overall length, measuring vertically from the center of the skirt, is 28 inches, although it does taper and grows slightly longer at the outermost points. At the outer edge of the hem on one side is a fringed hide tab, decorated with tin cone jingles. A similar tab to the other side has obviously become detached and is now missing. Interestingly, several other Apache skirts in museum collections and auction catalogs have been noted by the author with one of the tabs missing.

On each side, along the top edge, there is a total of 14 hide tabs, each with hand-cut serrated detail. The longest of these tabs measures approx 11 inches; some are much shorter. When the skirt is worn, these tabs would hang down as a decorative detail. Between each of these tabs are two long fringes, which may possibly serve as a means of attachment to the separate hide yoke.

The fine self fringe to the outer seam of the skirt measures approx 3" in length. Both front and back hides are fringed, the sides laced together at intervals with a fine hide thong. To the hemline, separately attached, is a dense fringe composed of three layers of hide measuring approximately four inches in length.

Across the center portion, to both front and back, are two densely packed bands of hand-cut rolled tin cone jingles, numbering many hundred in total. The two bands are so closely arranged that they look like one. Below this band of tin cones is a long hide fringe, reaching the hem fringe.

The lower field of the skirt is painted on both sides with yellow ochre earth pigment. The band immediately above this, beneath the dense cluster of tin cones in two distinct parallel rows, is painted in a chocolate brownish-black earth pigment. A large brass or bronze bell is attached to the fringe at one side, making a mellow sound in combination with the tinkling of the metal cones when the skirt is worn and the wearer is in motion.

Beaded Belt Accessories

The awl case measures 20 inches in overall length. The strike-a-light case measures 4 inches in width, 6 inches in length (including the tin cone suspensions). Both items are decorated with lane-stitch beadwork in classic Apache style, and adorned with hand-cut tin cone jingles. Judging by the patina, they probably date a decade or two later than the skirt, perhaps around 1900, so may have had only one previous owner when collected by Colonel Eskridge.

The awl case is a typical Apache example, with tapered tab to the lower end, beaded differently to front and back, sewn with commercial cotton thread. Bead colors are white and translucent dark green, with the addition of a translucent dark blue for the beaded edging around the bottom tab. The top opening is secured by means of a flat brass button threaded on a long hide lace thong which serves as a means of attachment to the wearer's belt.

The strike-a-light case has a rounded flap, secured by a flattish brass button, the main front panel decorated with a design of zigzags in red, white and black beads. The beads are sewn with black commercial cotton thread, which is common practice for articles of Apache beadwork from this period.
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Article Details
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Author:Green, Richard
Publication:Whispering Wind
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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