Tewa Initiation and Clifford Geertz: Story

Clifford Geertz was a well known anthropologist at Princeton University. His gift as a teacher was to help students go against the grain of their own cultural experience and explore other ways of thinking.

The Tewa people in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico have their own cultural perspectives that inform their rituals. Geertz demonstrated this in a recently recounted story about the Tewa initiation rite. (R. Darnton, New York Review of Books 1/11/07 Pg. 32.)


Adolescent boys were awakened unexpectedly in the middle of the night. They were taken into another building, covered with a blanket, and made to climb down a ladder into the most secret room in the pueblo. There was a loud noise above and the elders covered the ladder with a blanket. When the blanket was removed, the chief deity wearing a terrifying mask, stood directly in front of the boys. He asked them if they were prepared to be finished as men. After they agreed, he began to strike them with a whip using full force and raising red welts on their bodies. Finally, when the boys were reduced to terror, he pulled off his mask. The boys saw the face of an elder relative or neighbor laughing at them.

The question Geertz posed to his class: “What was the nature of the revelation?” All the students agreed that the boys were initiated into a confidence game. By removing the mask, the elder exposed the human being hiding behind the false deity.

Geertz did not agree with the students. It was a different culture and worldview. He explained that the boys had learned that the elder was a god, not that a supposed god was only the elder.


Did you agree with the class interpretation? As Geertz noted, the straightforward interpretation from our own perspective may not apply to a different worldview.

These different cultural interpretations are a step to being open to the wisdom that can be learned elsewhere and being able to reevaluate the basis of one’s own perspectives.

How does one begin to learn to think or experience outside of their own culture? The paths may be different for each person.

One Response to Tewa Initiation and Clifford Geertz: Story

  1. […] A different type of thinking limitation,  cultural conditioning, is illustrated in the story:  Tewa Initiation and Clifford Geertz  […]

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