A Closer Look at Indigenous Menstrual Rituals

A Closer Look at Indigenous Menstrual Rituals

Angelin Thipahar

Throughout the life of anyone who menstruates, the connotation of shame around periods is nothing new. As a teenager, I was never comfortable talking about my time of month even among my girlfriends and this does not seem to be something unique. Most menstruators I know view their periods as something that is best avoided for as long as possible. The Western ideology that menstruation is a simple biological function which hinders the daily routine of women has clearly become quite widespread. Outside of the Western world, however, there are cultures where in menstruation is regarded with more reverence than revulsion.


In several Indigenous tribes it is common for menstruation to be celebrated in oral tradition, rituals and ceremonies. While women were generally restricted from cooking or sleeping with men during their periods, this was for practical reasons. Certain tribes believed that women were the embodiment of holy individuals during their periods while others believed that women’s bodies purified themselves over this time. European contact with Indigenous peoples had several regrettable consequences and, sadly, diminishing the importance of these beliefs and rituals was one of them. The Hupa tribe, whose flower dance marked the celebration of a person coming of age, was regarded by colonizers as an invitation to engage in sexual relations. Early settlers approached other rituals with a similar reductive mentality which prompted the suppression of these rituals for a time.


Even now, the concept of menstrual rituals have been subtly mocked in popular media. Traditional menstruation practices are usually depicted in the mainstream media as overly superstitious, threatening to the health of women and freedom. It is true that certain rituals can be detrimental to women's health. An example of such a ritual is the practice of chhaupadi, commonly practiced in Hindu and Nepalese culture, wherein menstruating women live apart from their family in a secluded hut. Two years ago, engaging in this practice is what caused the death of Amba Bohara, a 35 year old Nepali woman. Investigation into her death provided evidence that she died of suffocation after building a fire in a small, unventilated hut where she stayed during her menstrual cycle. It is perhaps for this reason that the Nepalese government has imposed a ban on this practice.However, isolated incidents such as these should not deter one from menstrual rituals altogether.


Just as sex education is vital for the prevention of menstrual taboos, understanding various perspectives about menstruation is vital for understanding where these taboos come from. The isolation aspect present in several menstrual rituals, for example, might be why menstruation is viewed as a secretive ordeal that should not be discussed freely. After all, if we must hide ourselves away when experiencing menstruation, it is obviously not something that is a suitable topic for conversation. This is definitely the way I perceived menstruation as a Southasian girl who took two weeks off school when I first got my period to honour tradition. But, looking into the reasons why women are kept in a secluded location during their time of the month would have you discover that it is really for the women’s benefit. Ojibwe women traditionally secluded themselves in a moon lodge during menstruation where they would be free of usual obligation such as food preparation or childcare. Female friends and relatives would take care of the menstruating women and would care for their families in their absence as well. As you will read in our other articles, menstruation can take a huge biological and psychological toll on a person. Rituals similar to those of the Ojibwe women are meant to ease that burden. These rituals, as they were common and known throughout a community, would likely encourage discussion around menstruation and would open the floor for non-menstruators to be aware of periods as well. Indeed, the Ojibwe women did comment that recognizing their menstrual cycles through these rituals served to remind their community of their significance as women.

Menstruation is a sign of health and it should be celebrated, not shamed. That is the message at the core of these rituals and educating ourselves about them gives us all the opportunity to understand the importance of dialogue around menstruation.