Documentary: The Sunrise Dance

Jack David Eller –  WNN Reviews

Scene from the Apache ritual seen in the film.
This documentary shows an ancient, sacred Apache ritual that has never before been filmed. The Sunrise Ceremony, which marks the passage from adolescence to adulthood for young Apache women, is disappearing under the pressures of cultural assimilation. Image: DER

The documentary film, The Sunrise Dance, by filmmaker Gianfranco Norelli, is about the achievement of womanhood through ritual and test in present-day Apache society.

The setting for this film is Whiteriver, Arizona near the site of Fort Apache where the great warrior Geronimo confronted the U.S. government. Whiteriver, a modern town, has invested heavily in tourism yet this investment has not benefited the local Apache people, among whom the unemployment rate is still over 50%.

Nevertheless significant elements of traditional culture survive in this community. Not the least of which is the Sunrise Dance, a ceremony used to celebrate and to help a young girl accomplish her passage to adulthood. The physically strenuous and financially costly aspects of the dance “represent the strongest possible commitment to their family traditions,” the film explains.

In Apache tradition The Sunrise Dance is for individual girls around the age of 13 when they have their first menses. As Maureen Nachu’s father discusses the importance of the dance for her and for their society she prepares.

In preparation for the ritual the parents build a camp for their ‘kin’ where they will live for a week and recreate their former village life. The couple, selected as godparents, also build a camp nearby for their kin. When the two groups meet together every member of the ‘kindreds’ receives a gift, which can amount to a great deal of money.

The film asserts that Maureen’s family spent over $10,000 on the occasion.

One of the more thought-provoking images in the program is the procession to the ceremonial site with Apache folk singing and walking along a highway with cars whizzing by.

Meanwhile, a third hidden camp contains the ‘medicine man’ and his assistants who engage in secret rituals and other preparations in advance of the dance. They build a sweat lodge and construct new drums. Then the father and all of the singers and dancers for the event purify themselves in the lodge.

On Friday evening the actual ceremony begins. A 3-day ordeal of endurance for which young Maureen has trained for two months is ready to begin.

After dancing through the night and getting 2 hours of sleep Maureen is at it again at sunrise on Saturday. She receives a massage from her godmother and then performs the next exercise; running four times (a sacred number to the Apache) around the camp.

Maureen is blessed with a sacred plant which transforms her into the mythical figure ‘Changing Woman.’

The film notes that a similar ceremony exists for boys, but was suppressed by American authorities in an effort to undermine ‘pesky’ warrior societies.

Saturday night contains the most sacred part of the event when masked dancers representing the ancestral mountain gods of the Apache dance around a bonfire. An exhausted Maureen dances on her knees followed by the ultimate test in which she must stand up only aided by two eagle feathers and without falling or crying. With strength she rises to her feet happy as the Apache Sunrise Dance becomes an occasion to “celebrate courage and strength of character.”


This documentary shows an ancient, sacred Apache ritual that has never before been filmed. ‘The Sunrise Dance,’ which marks the passage from adolescence to adulthood for young Apache women, is now quickly disappearing under the pressures of cultural assimilation. Focusing on the Sunrise Ceremony of 13-year-old White Mountain Apache, Maureen Nachu, who lives on the Fort Apache Reservation in Whiteriver, Arizona this film depicts the commitment a young Apache girl must make to take her place in adult society. Lasting four days, the Sunrise Dance is a tremendous physical test. For Maureen her family and her community the ceremony is a reaffirmation of tribal identity and a celebration of the central role of women in Apache culture. This video is a 5:50 min film trailer. ‘The Sunrise Dance’ has been created by filmmaker Gianfranco Norelli and distributed by Documentary Educational Resources.

Reviewer Jack David Eller is the author of the 2010 book, “Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence Across Culture and History.” He is also author of six other books, including, “Cultural Anthropology: Global Forces, Local Lives” and “Introducing Anthropology of Religion: Culture to the Ultimate.” Eller is assistant professor of anthropology at University of Colorado, Denver as well as a book reviewer for Anthropology Review Database.

Eller, Jack David, 2011 Review of The Greatest Silence: Rape in the CongoAnthropology Review Database, February 4, 2011


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