Entering Manhood

A man's life revolved around hunting, diplomacy and trade. Proficiency at these skills determined his rank among peers and enabled him to contribute to the welfare of his family, village and tribe. Games requiring strength, speed, agility and quick thinking prepared a young man's body and mind for the tasks of manhood - including service as an able warrior if necessary. Thus it was that a young Nipmuck man had to prove his wisdom, courage, strength, virility and patience before he could be inducted into manhood with an adult name - and a woman of his own.

Boys were not rushed into manhood at a certain age but were allowed to decide for themselves when they were ready for initiation. Naturally, an especially precocious and magnificently developed young man would be a great source of pride to his family - and the tantalizing subject of many a young maiden's secret fantasies.

To prove his self-sufficiency and abilities a pubertal male would have to spend the winter months alone in the forest at some distance from his home village. Only a small amount of food such as cornmeal or pemmican could be taken with him upon departure. The only accessories allowed to be taken would be his bow and arrows, a spear or knife and the clothing he wore with perhaps a robe or blanket. In most cases all of these items must be of his own making although certain special gifts would be permissible. While gone he could not seek assistance or companionship from anyone except in dire emergency. To do so would postpone his acceptance as an adult for another year.

Before his departure, family and friends would wish him well and perhaps give him some small amulet to take with him. He might boast of his abilities and physical prowess both to assure his loved ones of his sage return and to bolster his own self-confidence. A special girl-friend might wish him well and offer a last minute hint that she would be available if he proved himself ready for a wife. Older brothers and childhood playmates might good-naturedly tease him, insisting that he would never make it on his own for more than one moon at most.

Once off and on his own in the forest, an initiate would have to build his own shelter, provide all of his own meals whether game or vegetation and any tools or utensils would have to be hand-made from whatever materials accessible to him. He would have to gather fire-wood, prepare several days rations in case of blizzards, stretch and tan any skins he chose to preserve and spend much time in reflection and meditation.

This was also a time of vision seeking. These experiences are usually only shared with medicine people and are of an extremely sacred nature. Visions might include insights gained through communion with wild-life or the environment. The winds or a brook might speak. Spirit beings sometimes materialized in the form of an animal or human to give council and share wisdom. During the long cold winter nights a young man had ample time to review and digest the lessons he had learned throughout childhood. Words of the elders would come to him with renewed enlightenment and the instructions received from the furred and feathered teachers would take on a new and vital importance.

Although the initiation often taxed his mental and physical resources, a well-prepared youth was seldom in any real danger during the experience. Competitive sports had developed strength and endurance. Household chores had taught responsibility and self-discipline. Legends, ceremonial rituals and life-experiences had taught him that the environment was not something to be feared but rather was the benevolent and harmonious circle of life of which he, himself, was a part. Knowing his place in the scheme of things precluded fear.

As winter gave way to Squocheekeeswush* and the Sugaring Moon a healthy sense of pride welled up in the young braves spirit. Each day he had given thanks to the Creator - now he would offer tobacco and other gifts in appreciation of his continued well-being throughout the ordeal.

He had proved himself and could soon return to his village for the final testing that would qualify him for recognition as an adult - eligible to marry - eligible to serve as a warrior if necessary - ready to begin the productive and fruitful years of middle life.

His people would have been watching for him and if word of his approach preceded him to his home village there would be cries of "A man returns!" as soon as he was within hearing distance. There would be embraces and congratulations. If he was apparently well-fed, well-dressed and in good spirits everyone could see that he had been able to take adequate care of himself and was ready to accept the responsibility of taking a wife and starting a family.

He would talk with his family and friends. He would share his experiences and visions with the medicine people so that they could advise him and guide him in spiritual things. The medicine people would discuss his abilities, character and vision in choosing his adult name.

For several days he would be given only bitter herbs to eat. His body and mind would be purged of all impurities. If, after four days, the initiate appeared well and of good vigor and complexion the word would be given to prepare a feast. This would often be at the time of Sesquanakeeswush*. During the festivities the "graduate" would be presented to the council of elders who would participate with the medicine men and sachem in giving the young man his new name. If a wife had been chosen and approval by the elders, *a marriage might also take place as further evidence of the candidate's full acceptance into manhood*.

Notes: Squocheekeeswush - Moon of First Thawing, approximately mid-January to mid-February followed by the Sugaring Moon

Sesquanakeeswush - The New Year's Moon, approximately late April to late May.

Marriages were often arranged by parents or other elders but the natural wishes and choices of the eligible young men and women were taken into consideration by the match-makers. Husbands and wives were always selected from different clans, often from different tribes or nations if possible. It was customary for the man to move to his wife's village at least initially although there was no hard and fast rule to that effect. A couple might choose to live in any village where they had close friends and relatives.

Naturally, the talents displayed by the amount and quality of goods be brought back from his winter sojourn would affect his initial rank and standing as an adult.

Appendix: There is evidence that in ancient times numerous monolithic phallic symbols and alters for sacrificial seminal libations played a part in the rituals of puberty and fertility. Anatomically correct female stone figures of carious sizes representing the Earth Mother are also found in New England. These features were no doubt familiar to the Paleo Indian and early Archaic ancestors of the Nipmucks.

Failure to survive or complete the initiation was unusual. However, although it would be somewhat humiliating to admit defeat, a young man would have an opportunity to try and try again until he could pass the test and prove his readiness for adult status within the tribe.

In rare cases a man would choose to live as a woman and if he contributed to the well-being of the tribe through gardening and other women's work he was neither ridiculed nor ostracized