Raise A Glass. Raise Your Bottom Line.
On the last day of her initiation into womanhood, the rising sun finds Julene Geronimo, a Mescalero Apache, dancing beside the smoldering remains of last night’s fire. She is exhausted. She danced through the night, and soon, she will run towards the sacred mountains where White Painted Woman, the heroine of the Apache creation myth, gave birth to her people.
But the Apache don’t believe that this rite of passage is just a symbolic re-enactment. In the Vice segment featuring Julene, Julene’s grandfather says that through the ritual, both Julene and the tribe are transformed by the rite: “We face challenges every day. But with this rite-of-passage that my granddaughter is going through — it gives us strength. When we sing and pray, it revives us and renews our strength.”
To postmodern, Western ears, this can sound absurd. How could a girl spending the night in a tipi revive a group of people? How does wearing buckskin and sprinkling people with pollen give a girl power? Moreover, what does any of this have to do with the movements you lead?
The answer is more vital than any of us think.
The Ritualistic Instinct
While it might be easy to dismiss tribal ritual as superstitious or irrelevant to modern living, it’s hard to deny the pervasive use of ritual in cultures through history. Rituals have defined nearly every community, as long ago as memory allows. We believe that the use of ritual is pervasive because it satisfies our most fundamental human needs — needs beyond food and shelter.
Humans ache for meaning, to belong in a story bigger than ourselves. Rituals are a way to step into a larger story, and to experience belonging with others who are part of that story too. We’ve lost ritual in our society, and so we are far less satisfied in our daily lives.
“We must learn to think in moments, to spot the occasions that are worthy of investment…In organizations, we are consumed with goals…But for an individual human being, moments are the thing. Moments are what we remember and what we cherish.”
- Chip and Dan Heath, The Power of Moments
The Apache Sun Ceremony initiation gives Julene and her tribe a moment of connection with their deepest beliefs. Rituals can do the same for your community, culture, or organization. In fact, they are one of the most powerful tools a leader has at his disposal for transforming a loosely connected group into a tribe.
We at Sherwood Fellows don’t want to use the word “tribe” lightly, dressing up standard organizational culture in a new wardrobe. When we say “tribe,” we’re describing a group of people who have achieved transcendent purpose and radical belonging by dedicating themselves to a set of shared convictions. Humans evolved in tribes, and though we have forgotten how to live like a tribe, we still desire the belonging and meaning that tribes offer.
Mescalero Apache are one example of a tribe, but there are many modern tribes that share the same foundational habits. Businesses, activist movements, sports teams, coworking spaces, gyms, and a myriad of other communities use ritual to offer purpose and belonging to members.
We believe that rituals are one component of a methodology that any leader can use to tap into the most primal human instincts and build their businesses, organizations, or movements into tribes. All tribes are formed by the following methodology:
- Tribes espouse a distinct and transcendent central belief system, which they codify in a manifesto and take risks to live out, even when it’s difficult.
- Tribes tell a compelling myth that embodies that belief system.
- Tribes use symbols to create a connection with the myth (and, thus, the manifesto).
- Tribes create meaningful rituals to tie the belief system to people’s daily routines.
How to Make a Ritual
With the Apache initiation ritual as a model and a modern-day tradition as an example, we’ll show how a well-crafted ritual offers tribes a path to continued meaning-making, particularly by:
- Enacting the tribe’s myths and symbols so that people can understand the tribe’s transcendent beliefs
- Repeating the ritual so that all members are drawn into a common tradition
- Asking people to put their comfort, convenience, or convictions on the line so that they can be transformed for the better
A new employee’s first day on the job, the way you sit down to lunch together, the yearly commissioning of new followers: what if these moments gave individuals and your whole tribe the strength, purpose, and belonging that Julene’s grandfather described? This blog is here to help you find ordinary moments and turn them into extraordinary experiences for your tribe.
Step into the Story: Apache
Leaders who want to create a tribe around shared beliefs or values face a challenge: Words are abstract and intangible. Reading off a list of values won’t create a tribe, because abstract language is hard to contextualize in real life.
Furthermore, even if a tribe has a powerful myth that shares those beliefs in a tangible way, it happened somewhere else, to someone else, at some other time. Rituals bring the mythology and beliefs of the tribe into the present, offering individuals a way to participate in the “bigger story” in their day-to-day routines and habits.
This throughline of belief, myth, and symbolism can be traced in the Apache Sunrise Ceremony.
Mescalero Apache believe that there is a darkness in life that must be confronted, and that harmonious intercourse with nature will conquer darkness. These beliefs spur them to cultivate and honor the natural world so that they can live in harmony with it.
But these beliefs are not explicit: they are embedded in stories, most especially the Apache creation mythology. The White Painted Woman is the Creator of the Apache people. Through her intercourse with the Sun and the Rain atop a mountain, she conceived two sons, Child of Water and Killer of Enemies. These sons killed the Giant Monsters of the night, allowing the Apache tribe to flourish. All light, peace, and environmental provision comes from this victory.
This story acts as the model for the Sunrise Ceremony, with various symbols being utilized to represent the ancient myth in the present day.
She experiences a belonging to the tribe beyond mere temporal acceptance; the girl owns the myth for herself, and she receives a place in the tribe’s past, present, and future.
In the ceremony, the girl puts on a bleached dress, taking on the character of White Painted Woman. From then on, for the rest of the ceremony, she is not referred to by name, but as “White Painted Woman.” She is led by sponsoring godmother, who at times massages the girl to represent her being molded into the White Painted Woman, and a medicine man, who covers her in a cornmeal-and-clay mixture that represents White Painted Woman surviving a flood.
She embodies White Painted Woman’s resistance to the darkness of evil by dancing through the night, then alludes to White Painted Woman’s intercourse with the sun when she runs at daybreak towards the Four Sacred Mountains. Even the number four acts as a symbol — White Painted Woman came to be in the Four Sacred Mountains, so the rite is a four day ceremony, with four stages of each day to symbolize the four stages of life.
But she isn’t just pretending to be a character. She is actually becoming the deity, taking on the sacred role White Painted Woman and all Apache women play. She experiences a belonging to the tribe beyond mere temporal acceptance; the girl owns the myth for herself, and she receives a place in the tribe’s past, present, and future. She tangibly encounters the tribe’s transcendent beliefs: the reality of light and darkness, the way nature provides, the truth that White Painted Woman’s legacy lives in her.
Step into the Story: Aggie Muster
Belief, myth, symbol, ritual: this throughline creates a powerful experience, but it will look incredibly different for every tribe, because no tribe’s history is the same.
Texas A&M University has a reputation for breeding loyalty in its students (to the point where “cult” is not an uncommon term thrown around), and we believe their culture of rituals are a giant reason why. Freshmen become acquainted with the myriad traditions at an extended orientation called “Fish Camp,” practicing for the day they get to participate in the rituals and learning the history behind each one.
One of the most profound beliefs that unites “Aggies” (a nickname for A&M students) is the Aggie Spirit, a transcendent loyalty that binds Aggies through life and death. It’s described this way:
Since the founding of Texas A&M, every Aggie has lived and become a part of the Aggie Spirit. What we feel today is not just the camaraderie of fellow Aggies, it is the Spirit of hundreds of thousands of Aggies who have gone before us, and who will come after us … A&M may change, but the Spirit never will.
Every tradition honors this Spirit, but none more so than Aggie Muster, which finds its roots in A&M’s early years as a military school. Former students would gather — wherever they lived or were stationed — to reminisce on their time at A&M and honor those who had passed.
The story of a 1942 Aggie Muster during Japan’s siege of the Philippine island of Corregidor made its way to U.S. newspapers, and in 1946, Aggie troops returned to pay their respects to the Aggies who fought there. They conducted a “roll call” and spoke each man’s name in the dark cave where the army had bunkered, then crafted a makeshift A&M flag out of a bedsheet.
This central myth guides the Musters that now happen every year on April 21st. The largest Muster takes place on campus, with 12,000 in attendance, and nearly 300 local Musters happen across the U.S. and world.
The Aggie Spirit becomes tangible in names, candles, and songs, renewing Aggies’ convictions to live out the school’s values.
But the real honorees of Muster are those who signify the everlasting Aggie Spirit most: all Aggies who have passed in the year prior. The Spirit of A&M’s mythic heroes — the recently deceased, the Corregidor army, and all other passed Aggies — comes alive in symbols.
The Roll Call for the Absent is the height of the ritual, wherein the names of the recently deceased are spoken aloud. Loved ones of the year’s deceased honorees stand with unlit candles, recalling the dark cave in which the Corregidor army bunkered and the 1946 soldiers paid their respects. As each name is called, the flame is passed among candles: a simple action representing the light that each person leaves behind and that the living will carry forward.
While this is a “roll call,” the dead obviously can’t answer for themselves. It is up to their loved ones and the crowd of Aggies to fill the silence. The group answers “here,” signifying that they will stand in the gap left by the absent Aggie, and that the Aggie Spirit lives on in each of them.
The on-campus event ends with a rifle volley, harkening back to the sound of gunfire that the Corregidor Aggies gathered under, and a special rendition of the mourning dirge “Taps.”
Students begin to realize that one day, their name will be called. One day, they won’t be around to answer for themselves; their Aggie family will stand for them, so it’s up to students to live a life that will make people proud to say “here.”
It’s a solemn event, and it’s strange to see young college students with their heads bowed, many wiping away tears for people they have never met. Yet it’s a solidifying event, too, as the Aggie Spirit becomes tangible in names, candles, and songs, renewing Aggies’ convictions to live out the school’s values. Students learn that they belong to a transcendent Spirit—not just in life, but in death, too. Their individual life is intrinsically connected to a communal life, and they are spurred to support and be supported by their community.
A ritual becomes effective because the participants are invited into the myths and symbols of the tribe. Without these features, a ceremony or ritual will feel forced or shallow. A ritual is momentous because it allows members of the tribe to “own” the story of the tribe for themselves. They’re connected to a history, a lineage, a legend that lives beyond them. Symbolism, like the cornmeal clay or the rifle volley, especially help to make that story tangible.
When people feel connected to a story, they have a purpose much greater than task completion. They play a role in carrying the tribe’s deepest beliefs forward.
When marking a transition or celebration, making use of symbols and myths can elevate temporal moments into resonant events that shape people for years to come. Leaders who take time to weave individuals into a larger story will discover that the investment is well worth it. While you may not have a history that stretches as far back as the Apache or Texas A&M, there are moments that made your tribe what it is. These hold the beginnings of a new ritual.
Reaching the Tribe: Repetition
While most rituals have central participants, they are rarely individual affairs: they necessarily will create a larger experience for all involved. Rituals should have regular and consistent implementation, because the repetition creates a stable, predictable moment that helps people create a common foundation. Even as people grow within the tribe, taking on new roles and positions, they still find shared grounding in the ritual.
The Apache Sunrise Ceremony demonstrates this perfectly: while a girl like Julene can only be the primary participant once, she gets to be part of the ritual every time it happens. As a child, she may have danced alongside the honored girl and eaten at the communal feasts; as a woman, she could become a sponsoring godmother, help teach the next girl the dances and chants, or even prepare her own daughter’s Sunrise Ceremony outfits and meals.
Men and boys of every age are included, too: young boys run alongside the girl, young men build the tipi and bonfire, an older man acts as the instructive medicine man who guides the girl through the event, and everyone sits together at meals.
In this way, the Ceremony reinvigorates the whole tribe — it gives everyone a role to play, reminding them of the myths and beliefs that unite them. Though it’s not repeated on a regular date, its attachment to a girl’s first menstruation gives it a rhythm attached to the life of the tribe.
Symbols re-present vast memories and stories in an instant.
Aggie Muster does something similar. It occurs on the same date each year, giving people an opportunity to reconnect to the Texas A&M “tribe” no matter their state in life.
As a student advances through school, they have the opportunity to take on leadership roles in organizing Muster. This means they’ll be thinking about Muster all year — not just on April 21st — and diving even deeper into its significance. Being on the Muster Committee is a surefire way to create lifelong dedication in an Aggie.
And while the experience may be different at a local Muster, alumni still get to say “here” and light candles. Using symbols and symbolic actions is important, because symbols re-present vast memories and stories in an instant; they viscerally remind Aggies of every other Muster they’ve attended, carrying depths of meaning in a single instant and reminding participants of the intangible beliefs that are tangibly represented. No one needs to retell the story of Corregidor or remind Aggies of past Musters. The symbols say everything.
Attaching a ritual to a regular date or event — retirements, employee onboarding, the anniversary of a success — ensures that people of all ranks and statuses get to re-encounter the deeper meanings of the ritual. Even if they’re not participating, every tribe member will recall the purpose for which they’re working and feel a sense of belonging to the community.
Transforming the Tribe: Riskiness
At the beginning of this blog, we posed the question: how could an Apache ritual actually, substantially change a young girl into a woman? We’ve circled around this question, taking note of the way it gives her and her tribe a feeling of belonging and purpose.
Any leader who cares about human flourishing will be glad that rituals feed humans’ need for meaning. But for leaders who also want to start a movement, rituals beg the question: does meeting those desires create a tangible change in the way someone acts, works, and lives?
We say yes, on condition: a ritual’s power comes from the risks it asks participants to take — to put their comfort, convenience, and convictions on the line.
We see this reality in many aspects of life: growth comes when we make a risky commitment, when we dive headfirst into uncharted waters. Opening oneself to a new experience (and the new emotions or ideas that come with it) prompts transformation. When someone chooses this experience of their own volition — without force or coercion — they are choosing to be changed.
Apache girls like Julene open themselves to vulnerable experiences. Being hand-fed by elders, running and dancing through exhaustion, demonstrating new skills: all of this enabled Julene’s grandfather to say that the ritual gives her and her tribe real strength. She knows that she has faced challenges and, with the strength of her tribe behind her, overcome them.
Her tribe, too, prepares painstakingly for the event, investing time and money to ensure the Sunrise Ceremony is properly celebrated. Human psychology tells us that personally investing in something gives us an attachment to it, which perfectly explains why rituals have been important across cultures and societies — they bind people to the group.
Like the Sunrise Ceremony, Aggie Muster asks its participants to open themselves to something risky and new. The somber mood can be uncomfortable, especially for an age group that isn’t familiar with grief, and for American society, which categorically struggles with processing death. Additionally, the commitment to the April 21st date necessarily means that attendees must change their plans for the hours-long ceremony — it requires attendees to put their convenience on the line, even in a small way, to be part of the event.
For a leader who wants to build an unstoppable team or catalyze a movement, the question she should ask is not, what activity can we do together? The question is, how can we craft an experience around the beliefs, myths, and symbols we hold dear, so that our members can experience this Tribe’s purpose? This elevates a moment from ordinary to extraordinary; rather than a fun memory, it becomes a transformative, transcendent event that has long-term effects.
Beyond the Founder
Rituals are vital tools for leaders. The founder or leader of a company can’t be the only one to tell the tribe’s story or remind people of the values. When rituals are meaning-filled and consistent, they perpetuate a culture’s legends, taking the pressure off the leaders to do all the heavy (culture) lifting. Even genius, savant-type leaders like Steve Jobs, who had a powerful grasp on storytelling and symbolic communication, will find their organization quickly losing focus after their exit if they didn’t use rituals to perpetuate their philosophy.
Rituals prove a powerful tool, which leaders must wield with humility, self-awareness, and intentionality. As you craft rituals for your movement, consider how you could encourage people to share a part of themselves they’ve always hidden or push past their self-imposed limits. When imbued with your tribe’s symbols, myths, and central purpose, an action as simple as raising a toast and speaking from the heart can work wonders.
Building a ritual as powerful as the Sunrise Ceremony or Aggie Muster is possible for your and your tribe.We’ve put together resources for people who want to lead families, businesses, communities, and themselves.
There’s the 7-day Tribal Transformation for leaders who want to change their culture from the inside out. Each day of the course will walk you through every step of tribe-building, with case studies that show you exactly how to go from personal belief to team transformation.
We have our proven Core Beliefs Session to help individuals or teams get in touch with the purpose that fuels them. In just 2 days you’ll emerge with a Manifesto of values that can guide a transition, establish a family culture, or define a brand.
You can also take our Leadership Archetype Assessment to find out where in the leader’s journey you are—and where you need to go next.
This and more is available at A Tribe of Me.