women conduct a year-long ritual for their girls when they
start menstruation. (Education Images/Universal Images Group
via Getty Images)
The Ojibwe, one of the largest indigenous groups in North America,
with communities from Quebec to Montana, are revitalizing the "berry
fast," a coming-of-age ritual for girls.
Ojibwe women historically conducted
a ritual for their girls when they started their first menstruation,
part of which included fasting from eating strawberry, or heart
berry, known as Ode'imin, for an entire year. This was also a time
to learn valuable wisdom from women elders.
A time for growth
As a scholar of the
environment and indigenous peoples, I have studied how Native Americans
find religious meaning in the natural world. Indigenous people often
view menstruation as a time when girls and women are spiritually
It is also believed to be a time when young women can have visions.
Such stories are often told by the elders within the Ojibwe community.
In one such story, a
girl born in 1830 had a vision of a great bear. The story goes
that as the bear walked toward the girl "it got smaller in size,
and when it was right beside her, she suddenly became the bear.
She felt wonderful powerful and strong."
She became known as "Bear Woman." It is said that she had a long
life and overcame many challenges with "a strong heart and the courage
of a bear."
Historically, women built a small wooden house for a girl to live
in seclusion during her menstruation each month. It would serve
as a place for personal reflection as well as a space for learning
Today, Ojibwe girls do not live in a separate house during menstruation,
but instead seclude themselves from family and community interactions.
For the Ojibwe and other indigenous people, seclusion was seen as
a special time without chores, when the girl worked on personal
growth and learned from elders.
At the end of the year a
feast is held for the whole community to celebrate the girl's
transition. At the feast the girl receives gifts from her community,
and in turn she gives gifts. Strawberries and other berries are
served to the young woman to eat as she ends her "berry fast."
Power of womanhood
Many Ojibwe women discontinued this ritual when most of their religious
and cultural practices were made illegal
by the U.S. and Canadian governments in the late 19th and early
But the knowledge was not lost.
Today, many Ojibwe communities are reawakening
such female-centered cultural practices.
As one Ojibwe cultural leader recently told me, after a berry fast,
the young woman is looked up to as a "leader" by her peers. It is
"a beautiful and intentional year-long consideration of the power
of womanhood," she said.
About the author
Rosalyn R. LaPier - Associate Professor of Environmental Studies,
The University of Montana
Rosalyn R. LaPier does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive
funding from any company or organization that would benefit from
this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond
their academic appointment.