Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion

By Morton Klass; Maxine Weisgrau | Go to book overview

Menstruation and Reproduction An Oglala Case

Marla N. Powers

The author stresses the necessity for understanding the cultural context within which ritual behavior is embedded. She argues that Western-derived assumptions about the meanings of menstrual- based restrictions in the anthropological literature may obscure a clear understanding of the symbolism associated with these behaviors in a particular culture. --Editors' Comment

THE PURPOSE OF THIS PAPER IS to show the relationship between female puberty ceremonies and so-called menstrual taboos. Anthropologists have usually treated these rites independently and have regarded taboos associated with menstruation as symbols of a woman's defilement. However, in my view, the notion of defilement has more often been based on a priori notions regarding menstruation as interpreted by Western standards than on empirical evidence. Although menstruation may be regarded as symbolic of defilement in some societies, such a negative attitude toward menstruation does not necessarily exist in all of them. Treating one Native American society, the Oglala, 1 I will demonstrate that myths and rituals related to female puberty in general and to menstruation in particular are aspects of the same phenomenon, which emphasizes the importance of the female reproductive role. Often in the anthropological literature ideologies and rituals associated with menstruation are extracted and analyzed separately from their cultural context, a technique which has led anthropologists to focus on negative or polluting aspects of menstruation. Although references to the menstrual cycle are abundant in Oglala cosmology and cosmogony, 2 I will restrict my analysis to, first, myths and rituals related to the puberty ceremony known variously as

____________________
Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 6( 11) (Autumn 1980): 54-65.

-85-

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