Boys To Men: Traditional rites of passage in tribal culture

ArlenJ.com
August 11, 2020

Most American boys prior to the turn of the millennium got the same lecture from their fathers in some form or fashion. A bully was picking on them at school and they came home crying. Dad told them to punch the bully in the nose. No matter what happened from that point forward, the bully knew that you would no longer allow him to pick on you without consequences. He gained your respect. But more importantly, you respected yourself for standing up to him.

The gun lecture scene from the 1995 comedy film “Friday” is a good example of that talk dad gave us all.

Today boys are no longer taught to stand up for themselves. Granted bullying, like everything else, has made a new home online. A 2019 Youth Truth Student Survey found that only 29% of students reported physical bullying, compared to 79% reporting verbal harassment. Cyberbullying was reported by one in four students. Boys are told to call the No Bully Help Hotline and hope someone else solves their problems.

Boys standing up to bullies physically is typically labeled “toxic masculinity” in 2020. The old American tradition of toughening boys up at a young age is quickly becoming extinct. But the past 20 years cannot erase 10,000-plus years of biology and male wiring. The ancient Greeks trained boys to be warriors starting at age seven. Teen boys in 17th century England gained knighthood via jousting matches and joining the Crusade. Virtually all tribal cultures have/had some rite of passage for boys to become men as well.

Musangwe (South Africa)

The Venda Tribe in northern South Africa have practiced this tradition for centuries. A men-only crowd gathers in wooded areas and form a circle. One man enters the center of the circle and raises his fists. This is the indication that he is ready to fight. He could be a well-known fighter or a newcomer seeking respect and self-confidence. Another man enters the ring thereafter. The bare-knuckles boxing match commences. It continues either until one man is knocked out or submits. This is musangwe.

The tradition was originally a way of teaching boys how to become men. The victors earned the right to fight for the tribe as warriors. They were also the most appealing to women and got privileges in society that others could not access. Today it is a way for young men to vent their frustrations in the face of poverty and crime in the streets. It also teaches them to respect women. If you want to hit someone and fight someone, you fight another man. Musangwe instills that and many other values.

The youngest fighters are called “mambibi.” They are as young as nine years old. “Senior” fighters are those over age 35. Many of the combatants are friends who need to fight and work out disagreements. No money is ever exchanged. Gambling on the fights can result in severe punishment by the tribe. You fight for pride, and pride only.

Wiwanke Wachipi (Lakota Indians)

This annual rite, also known as the Sun Dance, was considered a time of renewal for the Lakota and many other Great Plains Native Americans. Two rings of sticks were erected around an area cleared away specifically for this ritual. Tree branches were placed on top of the rings to form a roof and de-facto shelter. Elders selected a large cottonwood tree from the forest for the focal point of the ritual. One man of great accomplishment was selected to count coup on the cottonwood. The tree was then trimmed and decorated.

Men and boys came from miles away to participate in the rite that began the following morning. Holy men purified the participants’ bodies and souls with the Inipi ceremony. They stared at the sun while dancing for four days. The Holy Men, meanwhile, pierced the participants chests with bones. Some men had the bones stuck through their backs, with buffalo skulls attached to them. They dragged the heavy skulls around for days while dancing the ritual.

Most of the men participated in the ritual because it was said to give them better hunting skills, fighting prowess and/or the power to heal. Some were traumatized afterwards and needed the help of Holy Men and medicine men. Those who got through it were respected among the tribe.

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