TIDES: contemporary rites of passage in New Zealand

Lien De Coster

'Every human being is driven towards metamorphosis'

For over fifteen years, teenagers from all over New Zealand have been initiated into adulthood during rites of passage programs Tracks & Tides in Golden Bay. When a large flock of teenagers was present in Tui community Jim Horton, who had been involved in men's work for years, felt inspired to start working with boys. Two years later his partner Suzi Jessie became co-founder of Tides, the program for girls. I sit with her and program director Gabby Hollis. 'The ultimate goal for us is to become superfluous as a program because rites of passage has become part of a natural community flow again.

You're both in the business of rites of passage. For a lot of people that brings up tribal images from way back with painted faces and wild animals, things that don't have anything to do with their lives. Could you share something about the relevance of rites of passage in the world we are living in today?

G: The relevance is the same as it always has been: to provide young people and their communities a moment to acknowledge where their futures are and to give them a solid ground to push off from. It is about finding the deeper resources of their being and their understanding of themselves.

S: Regardless of time, we are always moving from one place to another. In this case we are marking the transition from childhood into adulthood, and regardless of the context, that is something that has happened for eons. It is really wonderful and important to mark these moments. It is quite fundamental to acknowledge a shift is happening because by doing it in a conscious way it is informing the child that there is a process and informing the community that there is someone who is making the step.

G: It is also important because every human being is biologically driven towards some form of metamorphosis, especially in that phase of life. There is no other time of life where we go through such a tremendous level of transformation on so many levels; physically, emotionally, chemically. That's a biological essence to our make-up and that is gonna happen regardless of whether you offer rites of passage or not. If the shift isn't guided then we are gonna test out those changes anyway, sometimes more successfully than others.


How hard is it to find appropriate challenges today to initiate teens into adulthood?

G: When you say appropriate for me there is a couple of levels to that. It is not only about the practicalities of taking risk factors into account but about the spiritual application as well. I always consider it a curse and a blessing that we are not a culture that steeps in hundreds of years of tradition. We don't have a map or an elder saying how we should do it. That means we had to experiment and make something that not only works on a practical level but that makes sense for the young people that are engaging with the process.

The key of rites of passage to me is that there is some relationship to the otherness of life, outside of me as a human being. Outside of my consciousness there is a field beyond what I know and see and can understand on an everyday basis. A rite of passage has to engage with that in some way; questioning where I sit in the picture of life. That piece is the trickiest bit, to offer some tangibility within a modern context because it is not based on a religion or a thousand year old tradition. It's about making the intangible tangible without it becoming some weird thing that the teens can't relate to.

The program has been running for fifteen years. Have you seen a shift in the themes and struggles the teens bring and what would be the most significant ones you've observed?

G: Technology and gender. Technology in the last ten years, gender and sexuality more recently. When it comes to technology there is more engagement with it than ever and a parental generation that doesn't know what to do with that and how to create boundaries around it. Around sexuality there are a lot more questions for young people about what their sexual slant is in relationship and in the last two years there are also a lot of questions around gender.

How have you been dealing with that as a facilitator?

G: The last years I have noticed that sometimes the use of words like 'becoming a woman', 'womanhood', 'feminine', 'masculine' is inappropriate in the context that we're working with. I am questioning more what I am saying. For example, to me it makes more sense to use the word 'adulthood' rather than 'womanhood'. I don't like to get into the semantics of it either. We are now at a point in the world where the ideal is to be gender-neutral and non-binary but the reality of it is going to take a lot longer. It requires so much more unfolding, conversation and living it than just having these ideals and thinking that we are really open.

The young people on our programs are at an age where their sexual and gender awareness is still so young and they can be easily influenced by how gender and sexuality is so out there in the public forum, rather than going 'I am just me living my life and I express myself how I wanna express myself'. Actually they are a young person unfolding in the same way that every young person has been unfolding for the last billions of years. We try to let a young person stand there with or without any of those labels and help them to find their own sense of safety and belonging.

A third thing that has been coming up more is stuff like self-harming, anxieties and panic disorder. I would say it has been more prevalent in the last five to seven years.

Teen suicide rates in New Zealand are the highest in the developed world. What is going on?

G: Good question. It's baffling and really tragic. There are a lot of under recognized mental health issues. It would be interesting to look at the demographics of those statistics to see whether it is a high number of Maori and Pacific island people or whether it is pakeha (non-Maori). ('According to the most recent data of 2014, the suicide rate among Maori men across all age groups is 1.4 times that of the non-Maori', BBC) There are a lot of factors such as isolation, lack of sense of community, huge socio-economic inequality.

S: New Zealand also has a cultural habit of not really revealing what's happening.

G: She’ll be right, mate!

S: There isn't a culture of sharing what's happening. People hide that rather than putting it out there in the open. I think that could be changing, or maybe it is just changing in my field.

G: Chief science advisor Peter Gluckman was asked by the prime minister to do a study on why teen suicide rate so high. One of his conclusions was it is connected to the early childhood education system. Child development expert Nathan Mikaere-Wallis also had the theory we send our children to school too early, at age five. He looked at the influence of age zero to three on the teenage brain. The synaptic pathways in the brain aren't ready for aspects of the curriculums that are on offer. It inhibits that aspect of learning and other synaptic pathways to develop because they don't get the time to. When the teenage brain is getting active along with all the hormones and chemicals that causes issues.


I am very curious about your own rites of passage into adulthood. Did you get a formal or informal one? Or did you come up with some kind of self-initiation? What was it like for you to be a teenager?

S: I didn't find it easy. I was a teenager in the fifties in Wellington. I felt awkward and big at fourteen. I was overweight. I started bleeding and wearing a bra at eleven and I got teased by other girls in my class because of this. I separated myself; I spent a lot of time by myself reading and being a bit grumpy and eating too much as a way to move through my emotions. It was only around seventeen that changed a bit. I didn't have anything official. One of the marks of womanhood is starting to bleed but my mum called it the curse. It wasn't like a wonderful celebration. I do remember my excitement being able to drive when I was seventeen. I loved getting in the car and driving around town. That for me was really important, the access to freedom it brought. I was lucky my parents gave me a lot of freedom to get out. They knew if they said no I would do it anyway.

Were there any adults around at all in that period that had the role of a mentor for you?

S: I didn't have one but the way that my family worked was that a lot of their friends were my friends as well. These people were concerned about me and would check in with me. So it wasn't like I felt adults were weird and I didn't have a relationship with them. If I would have been offered a camp – because that is what a rites of passage program would have been called back then – I would have found it weird.

What would have supported you more?

S: I never spoke to anyone who outlined for me what is was to be a woman. What that change involves. That bleeding was all natural. I knew the whole biological thing around it, it wasn't a great mystery from the practical side of it, but from the emotional side it would have been wonderful to have somebody who walked me through. Particularly around sexuality because that's where I let myself down hugely. I lost my virginity at fourteen in a really gross way and that was through my own feeling that I had to do it to be grown up because the people I was hanging out with had already. It would have been helpful to have somebody there to guide me and tell me I didn't have to do that yet to be a woman. I carried quite some shame around it afterwards for giving it away so easily.

Suzi was a teen in the fifties, what about you Gabby?

G: I was a teenager in the late eighties, early nineties. Definitely self-initiated, I didn't have a structured rite of passage in any way. I self-initiated for about ten years: I drank a lot in my teen years, smoked pot, and took LSD regularly, had multiple car accidents, an unwanted pregnancy and had an eating disorder. I kept unconsciously exploring boundaries and taking myself to edges. It was the pregnancy that pulled on the handbrake. I realized I really wanted to have children one day and I wanted to be sane.

So some kind of conscious initiation would have been really helpful. At the same time, it has really given me experience into the other way and the real dangers of that kind of intense risk-taking. I made really bad choices over and over again. In my late teens and early twenties, I did have mentors: people that I found interesting and I felt I could learn from. But in the real crunch years from fourteen to seventeen, I don't really remember there being adults around who could actually explain the difference between being a child and an adult. Me and my friends had ways of keeping our distance from the adults in our lives. Going for a 'sleep-over' actually meant sneaking out a window late at night and going to a nightclub with a fake ID sometimes. I had, and still do have, very loving and supporting parents but in those years they were just trying to get through, maintaining their jobs and relationships, lifestyles and relationships, doing the recipe that was expected of them.


I really like how there is a parallel program for the mothers at Tides. Can you share a bit more about the journey they are going through?

G: It's about learning how to back off. In our society we've become so scared of any child abuse that we've created helicopter parenting communities in which the parent is always there, always there, always there. One of the major challenges for our mums is to stop asking their kids all of those questions like 'are you warm?' and allowing them to go into the earth and get dirty and sweaty. To say, 'this is yours, I can't hold your hand anymore'.

S: Most mums are surprised. They think they come to support their daughter, maybe come for a relaxing holiday. But we throw them right in at the beginning of the program and let them know it is not the time to worry about their daughter because everyone is looking after her. It is time for them to be with themselves.

G: All of a sudden their role is taken away: 'Who am I if I'm not being a caretaker?' That's quite a fundamental necessity to a rite; to understand they are also a person and can put time and energy into that. That's the shift they are making.

S: When a child is moving into adulthood they are wanting more space and for their parents to trust they are gonna be okay out there. If I speak for myself as a parent it is me stepping back and allowing them to go and experiment, and also letting them know that when they need me I'm here.

G: That's the other important piece: the rite of passage isn't just about the girl and her crossing a threshold. I've heard a lot of mums say after the main transition 'I feel okay about getting older now'. They see where their child is and understand what that means about where they are as a mother. Her daughter can't be there if she as a mother is not okay with being here.

That is also why it is so important that a rite of passage is community-led because it is the whole community moving through. The elders and the younger ones are also moving through another doorway. It's like a series of waves, one brings in the next.

Then of course there are the girls themselves turning into young women over the week. What are the biggest changes you observe in them as they go through their initiation?

G: Posture. Face. They hold themselves differently, they look more open.

S: I am amazed at how someone who might not get up to speak in the first circles and is very shy and tentative just stands there at the end of the week speaking words. That's awesome. It really blows me away sometimes.

G: There is a Maori term called turangawaewae which means 'a place to stand'. For me that's the biggest shift I see in the young people. Of course they are in this grand unknown when they arrive on the first day and they don't know anyone – which is another key aspect of rites of passage; separation and being away from what's familiar. Then you see a sense of landing and an acceptance of who they are. It naturally changes through the course of the week as they get to know people and feel more comfortable but it is also the physicality of the challenge and an environment where there is very little judgement going on that allows them to actually be seen and see who they are. 


You already mentioned the importance of the community being involved. The fathers are around at the beginning and the end, there are the young leaders, girls who went through their rite and return, and there is the role of the extended community. Why is that so key?

G: It's about shared experience. If they have some revelation about something in their life that has to change they are generally gonna need some support with that. There are lots of things that can take them off their course again. That is the importance of the threshold at the end where they have the opportunity to say what they are bringing back with their father and friends at the other side listening. So they have spoken the words and the words have been heard. If they don't speak them they can keep them to themselves and just carry on in the same old way as they've always done.

S: It is the community witnessing the young person bringing something back. Because actually it is the young people who keep the community going. Here is someone they feel confident will be able to carry this life, this journey we're on.

G: There is this aspect to a rite of passage of entering non-ordinary states of reality during the physical challenge, where they learn something different about who they are and their place in the world. Then the threshold is bringing those spiritual gifts back to their community. They are actually a person in the community now who has got something to offer. They are not just a person who has always been given stuff to, this is their gift that they're bringing back.

You have been interviewed for the Why Wild blog. What does it mean to be wild to you?

S: What I love is being in a close connection with nature where I feel completely at one with everything. Wildness is bringing that back to being in relationship with human beings and my life, which is nature as well. We used to have some wildness, didn't we Gab? We always used to end up in hysterics on the kitchen floor. Everything would just get so intense that it was this emotional release. Something small and absurd would get us rolling around.

G: Yes, usually after the main challenge. I've got different quite visceral reactions to that question. I think of the insane consciousness wildness can bring. But ultimately, in a more healthy way, wildness is the freedom to express the being and body that I've been born with, within my current culture. That wildness has a right to be cultivated.

15 year old LULA (left) went to Tides as a new girl and came out as a young woman.

Was it how you expected it to be?

The rites of passage weren’t what I expected but at the same time what I expected, there was a sacred side to everything we did but it was also a really relaxed open vibe which made fitting in and feeling comfortable much easier.

What did you get out of it now you look back at it?

I feel more confident in myself and who I am and want to become as a woman, I have met some strong women who inspired me to trust myself.

Would you recommend it to other teens?

Yes, I would. I have told a few of my close friends about it and they say they are interested. My relationship with not only my mum and family but also myself is so much happier.