5 Facts About Rites Of Passage In Native American Cultures

Rites of passage usually symbolize an important change of status in society, and are thus regarded as important and cherished traditions. And Native American rites of passage, specifically, are generally vibrant, colorful, and joyous affairs rich with sentimentality and merrymaking. However, there's always the odd and perhaps inevitable bloodcurdling exception. A handful of tribes are notorious for implementing harsh tests that men and women must pass. And while many of these rituals unlike a lot of their ultra-violent overseas counterparts have long since been relegated to the distant past, that doesn't make their legacy any less intense. 

Most of the following ancient practices will make jumping into a pit of tarantulas seem almost mild by comparison. Read on for a list of initiation rituals that are enough to make anyone think twice about the benefits of growing up. 

  • The Mawé Tribe Initiation Involves Being Devoured By Ants

    The Mawé Tribe Initiation Involves Being Devoured By Ants
    Photo: Hans Hillewaert / Wikimedia Commons

    Ever wonder what it would feel like to be eaten alive by ants? Ask any male member of South America's Sateré-Mawé tribe, and they'll tell you that the experience isn't exactly reminiscent of gentle nibbling and/or tickling. Being a boy might be all fun and games, but becoming a man involves proving that one is able to endure "the worst that the jungle has to offer." 

    The "Paraponera Clavata" species of ant is native to the Amazon. It's also known as the "bullet ant" because its sting is, according to many victims, on par with being shot. Moreover, said venom causes considerable damage to the nervous system, and the effects of even a single sting can last for days on end.

    To become a man in the Mawé Tribe, a boy must thrust his hands into a pair of gloves that's crawling with enraged, encapsulated ants that are ravenous for human flesh. He must keep said mittens on for at least five minutes (which undoubtedly feel more like five years). And that's not all - the ritual must be broken up into 20 separate installments. If the boy can endure all of the above without passing out or going into hysterics, he crosses the magic threshold from childhood into adulthood.

  • In The Mandan Tribe, You Were Suspended By Hooks (And Had Your Fingers Chopped Off)

    The Okipa ceremony practiced by the Mandan tribe of North Dakota was an intense four-day rite. Its main purpose was to thank the gods for existing blessings, and to petition them for good luck in relation to hunting. However, the tradition entailed far more than the standard singing, dancing, and praying. 

    Before a young man could be "honored by the spirits," he had to undergo an arduous trial. It began with being deprived of sleep, food, and drink for four days. After that, he had to sit motionless as the skin behind his shoulders was cut open. Then wooden skewers were inserted behind his muscles, and he was suspended from the ceiling. Weights were added to his legs, and there he was forced to dangle until he (mercifully) passed out. 

    When the young man awakened, more horrors were waiting: his little finger was ritualistically severed by an elder as an offering to the spirits. Then he had to participate in a race with both skewers and weights still in place. After that, he officially became a warrior. But at that point, the thrill was probably gone.

  • Algonquin Indian Boys Were Caged And Force-Fed Hallucinogens

    Algonquin Indian Boys Were Caged And Force-Fed Hallucinogens
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons

    Few bad trips can compare with those historically suffered by Algonquin Indian teenagers. As soon as they reached puberty, boys were customarily taken away from their families and imprisoned. The goal was to wipe out all recollection of childhood/pre-manhood life, so elders would administer a drug called wysoccan, which sources describe as "a hallucinogen assumed to be a hundred times stronger than LSD." 

    Sometimes, the drug worked too well: some boys even temporarily forgot their own language and how to speak altogether. But if one did happen to retain a vestige of memory and was fool enough to admit it, he was required to suffer through the ritual all over again.

    Moral of the story: sometimes, it pays to play dumb.

  • Aztec Boys Had To Capture And Sacrifice Multiple Hostages Before They Could Become Men

    In the Aztec Empire, becoming a warrior/man was no walk in the park. Though the median age of manhood-transition was about 17, boys could only cross the threshold into adulthood after they abducted an enemy and brought him back to be sacrificed. The process was hierarchical: moving up on the warrior-ladder meant capturing more prisoners and carrying out more ritual killings. 

  • In The Nootka Tribe, You Were Hurled Into The Sea (While Menstruating) And Had To Swim Back

    In The Nootka Tribe, You Were Hurled Into The Sea (While Menstruating) And Had To Swim Back
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons

    Believe it or not, there was a time when the Nootka Natives of the Vancouver Islands routinely hurled menstruating girls into the mighty Pacific. As soon as girls got their first periods, female elders would customarily take them out to sea and abandon them there, completely naked. If the girl had strength and non-shark luck enough to make it back to shore, great celebrations ensued, and her transition to womanhood was officially complete. But if not, ah well, such was life. And the lack thereof.