Rites of Passage in Indigenous Cultures Report

Rites of Passages of puberty followed by Eskimo and Australian Aborigines.

The indigenous cultures of the past have always held a great regard for the traditional and superstitious. Elaborate rituals are associated with each aspect of life and the people celebrate these rituals as a community. The community being patriarchal in most circumstances the dominance of the male hierarchy is clearly seen and that the rituals are associated then with the male gender is no surprise. Yet, today, we are fascinated with what to the generations of the past was a common issue. Researchers have taken the time to separately understand the ceremonies associated with the cultures and none is as elaborate as the rites of passage as the adolescents-especially the male-enters adulthood. Around the world the transition is celebrated with fervor amongst the different cultures, and though today forgotten, its importance is still acknowledged amongst the remaining indigenous communities of the past.

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Rites of Passage in Indigenous Cultures

Take here the case of the Australian Aboriginal. Being the First Nation of Australia they arrived in this nation almost 40,000 years ago when the two continents of Australia and Asia were connected through a piece of land. Through geographical changes the continents separated and the Aborigines began to develop their own unique culture. Adapting to the environmental and societal conditions the populations grew and by the time the Europeans brought civilization to the lands there were almost a million of the First Nation inhabiting the area.

The Aborigines were like most indigenous cultures oriented towards nature and lovers of the environment. They worshiped nature in its various forms and in their own ways and modes had a sophisticated system of living. Though today we may in our superiority of technical knowledge scoff at their way of life in conducting elaborate rituals, the fact is, it was not the actual ceremony that was important. Rather, it was the symbolic separation of the different phases of life that allowed a discipline and organization to develop within the society. The rites of passage then gave the individuals undergoing it a marked sense of importance and allowed the different roles assigned to the people to be changed. Today, we find it hard put to realize and understand where an adolescent ceases to be a kid and becomes an adult. This confusion is most important in our criminal justice system as it contemplates trying juveniles as adults. The Aborigines had no such problem, each phase of life was marked by the rites of passage and as soon as the children transcended through to adulthood they were treated according to the adult laws and had duties that were related to the same. There was no confusion of the social roles between adults and children etc.

Turning now from the importance of the rites of passage to the actual ceremony we see that as the Aboriginal children grew up they were initiated into adulthood. Boys especially were treated with royal care as they were aided from one part of life to another. Subjected to rituals that varied from circumcision, to blood letting or tooth pulling the boys waited for their time to come-regardless of the pain for it was a test of their strength of will if nothing else to bear the discomfort the ritual gave them. [1]

For the Aborigines there are two phases of life. The first is the DreamTime where the individual merely passes time and learns and then there is the Now where the individual actually begins the journey of life. These phases differentiate the passage of adolescents into adulthood.

Charlesworth (1984) stated, “The rite of circumcision and its attendant ceremonies firmly and unequivocally establish a youth’s status in Walbiri society. Should he fail to pass through these rites, he may not enter into his father’s lodge, he may not participate in religious ceremonies, he cannot acquire a marriage line, he cannot legitimately obtain a wife; in short, he cannot become a social person.” [2]

Thus, we see how the rites of passage became a social condition. They symbolized the esteem of the person and his very presence as a productive part of the community.

According to Mercea Eliade in Rites of Symbols and Initiation [3] the transition from puberty into adulthood is the most important while studying the pre-modern people. These rites for the Aboriginal were considered obligatory for the members of the tribe and only after the performance of the ritual could the male youth be accepted into the adult group. Through these initiation rites the youth was able to differentiate spiritually and socially his changing role and responsibilities in life. Eliade also states that, “In a great many cases puberty rites in one way or another, imply the revelation of sexuality…” (Rites… page 3)

Male initiation is conducted by the older men as a community and usually led by a member of the secret shamanic code, which is one where the individual has reached a higher level of spiritual and social understanding through specific meditative ways. The shaman in one who has endure pain beyond imagination and thus, been lifted to a greater level in the community. The elements of the male rite of passage for the Aborigines are associated with wounding, and communing with the sacred entities of the Dream Time. Although details vary, another important facet is separation from the mother. Older men spearing their way around him force the boy from the home and the young man is taken to a distant location. Here the boy is taken into a cabin shaped like beast and stripped down to his skin, painted the color of an ash white ghost and forced to lie in trenches within the cabin covered with animal skins. Left with limited food and utilities the youth is abandoned for a few days and when the older men return he is given a new name– a new identity and accepted into a different social order.

There is a mark left that identifies him as a man and can take the shape of ‘extraction of an incisor, circumcision, subincision, tearing out the hair, scarification and/or tattooing.’ [3]

Throughout the ritual there is fearsome chanting and roaring meant to intimidate the youth. Though the actual ritual is specific to a time, the initiation can take place over a period of a few years where the Aborigine youth learns of the tribal traditions. Sexuality is obviously a part of the rites and marks may take the form of the sub-incision wound on the boy’s penis.

To show that the ceremonies and traditions of the rites of passage are not purely associated with the Aborigines lets take into consideration the Eskimos. The ancestors of the Eskimo’s were relatively newer than those of the Aborigines and crossed the Bering Straits between 8-10,000 years ago and spreading through the lands they developed their different cultural presence. [4] Far removed from the Aborigines the Eskimos too, had their own set of rites of passage that guided their youth to adulthood. Like the Aborigines these indigenous people too were worshippers of nature and yet, their livelihood depended on hunting. These people had a simple way of life but a very strong social hierarchy. Yet, their rites of passage were less public and less elaborate mainly due to the harsh habitat in which they lived. The Eskimo’s are unique in that they believe that the child is wiser than the adult as supposedly the spirit of the grandparent’s lives in the child. Thus, the children are the heads of the household until they reach puberty. At the age of twelve, the child reached puberty and ceased being the ‘head’ as the spirit of the grandparent had guided the people as much as he could. This ended the child’s reign of the household. The basic initiation of a male youth to adulthood took place when the boy killed his first seal. It was said that the soul of the seal would be freed into the sky or the land to live eternally.

Eskimos also have a name for there shamans, angakok, they are also capable of flight and they journey to the Otherworld. These shamans were responsible for the main ritual of the initiation and through the mask they wore they represented the changing ‘face’ of the boys. In the different Eskimo tribes the boys had a “gargi” where the Elders showed them how to make tools for hunting. A “gargi” was the community building of the village. An adolescent boy could not hunt but would follow the hunters in any season, providing important “reality checks” so learning wasn’t merely “academic” in nature – learning was practical as well. [5]

In short tribes such the Eskimos have no formal recognition of puberty and religious ties associated with it but certain cultural facets like circumcision (non-bloody) may sometimes be practised.


For most indigenous cultures cultural rites of passage are periods of transition in cultural expectations, in social roles and status, in interpersonal relations, in psychological state and way of being-in-the-world. The typical rites of passage in the two cases presented were male rites. Rites of passage have three phases: separation, transition, and worldly return. Separation is from one’s familiar surroundings, life style and identity. As stated the Australian aborigine children are taken to sacred huts or clearings away from their homes by initiation masters masked and clad like the eternal ancestors of the dreamtime, to make contact with the sacred.

The second phase, transition or liminality, is “betwixt” and “between” social categories and states of being. The novices are “travelers in a transitional area” [6]. The individual, now separated, is no longer what he was before, but not yet what will be once passage is achieved. In puberty rites, the initiation masters perform a sacred operation, typically a form of body mutilation like circumcision, scarification, symbolizing the transition to a new form and way of being. In the Eskimo tribes the young man follows the hunter adults until he is thought fit to hunt alone.

Once the new state of being is imprinted, the novice is reintegrated into the community, expected to fulfill the new role of adult. There is a resumption of ordinary reality, but now others are treated in a new way and new types of interactive patterns emerge, as when the aborigine mother performs a bereavement ritual for her child when he returns to the ordinary world as a man. The concept of the rites of passages are basically similar only their execution differs.


Australian Aboriginal Religion available at http://philtar.ucsm.ac.uk/encyclopedia/westoc/abor.html

Charlesworth, M, Religion in Aboriginal Australia. (ed.). University of QLD Press. 1984. available at http://www.bmezine.com/news/ritcircs.html

Eliade, Mircea Rites and Symbols of Initiation, (page ix – x) taken from Rites of Passage Frank Herbert 2000 available at http://www.geocities.com/uulongviewtx/sermons/rites.html

Eskimo-Aleut Religion Available at http://philtar.ucsm.ac.uk/encyclopedia/nam/inuit.html

Inupiaq [Inupiat] – Alaska Native Cultural Profile available at http://nnlm.gov/pnr/ethnomed/inupiaq.html#rites

Turner, V. Three symbols of passage in Ndembo circumcision ritual. In Essays on the ritual of social relations. M. Gluckman, ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 1962

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