‘Long Line of Ladies’ provides an intimate window into a Karuk womanhood tradition

Long Line of Ladies is a short lovingly-told intimate look at the Karuk’s Ihuk Flower Dance ceremony.

Filmmaker Rayka Zehtabchi follows up her Academy Award-winning short film Period. End of Sentence. with co-director Shaandiin Tome with an inside look at the Karuk tradition with love and care. The short follows Ahtyirahm “Ahty ” Allen as she prepares for the Ihuk Flower Dance. This represents the coming of age in womanhood after the arrival of the first period for the Karuk women.

The Ihuk was revitalized in the early 1990s by a group of Karuk women after 120 years. The reason for the tradition being gone was due to white settlers coming into the Humboldt County region during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. The native women, such as those in the Karuk, were victims of sexual assault losing the tradition in the wake of the settlers’ rampant crimes and assaults.

The revitalization allows keeping the tradition alive with the next generation of Karuk women like Ahty. She herself is excited in preparation talking to her friends and holding conversations with her family. The idea and impact of the tradition are encompassed by the words from the poem written by a family member which serves as the film’s title namesake.

Long Line of Ladies is impactful and intimate in its presentation. It’s shot on film that gives a natural timeless quality harkening to the traditional method of documentary filmmaking. This decision also brings out the beauty of Humboldt in shots of Ahty running along Moonstone Beach and the Redwoods that surround them. It is all thanks to the wondrous cinematography from Sam Davis.

Ahty in ceremonial dress and taav, a blindfold, at the Ihuk prepares for her four days of fasting in the Karuk’s ancestral land.

One shot, in particular, gives those watching a peek into the ceremony as she prepares via an archway composed of trees. It’s a shot from the outside looking in as Ahty wears her taav, a blindfold, to venture into the ancestral land near the Salmon River for the next four days for fasting alongside her spiritual family. It shows how private and personal the moment in time is, giving us a glimpse of what is to happen.

What also adds is we see the preparation for the ceremony. The whole family is ready in anticipation. They prep for the moment by crafting dresses. They practice the ceremonial dance itself, and conversations with the elders. It reminded me a lot of the practice that goes into the Mexican tradition of the quinceanera, another celebration of one’s journey into womanhood. Having been in two quines myself, it brought back memories of my sister being excited for her quince as well as having to waltz in our normal clothes before dressing to the nines for others in attendance to see. I adore seeing families come together for a common purpose of celebration and tradition.

The subject of coming of age and periods themselves is quite refreshing to hear. Every piece of media written or directed by a man seems to think of periods as gross and disgusting,. Here it’s a highlight for the father who is recounting the day he got the call about Ahty’s sister’s first period. Rather than have the typical machismo rection of “Oh no, ugh, someone else deal with this,” he gets out of work that day to go be with her to see who she is. It isn’t taboo to talk about nor seen as too much information, but rather, talked about without snide remarks.

Ahty tries on the handcrafted dress for the Ihuk made of maple strips in front of her family.

With Ahty’s coming of age as well, hearing the poem “Long Line of Ladies” impacts her. It illustrates the importance of being a woman in a beautiful simplistic microcosm. It celebrates the women of the Karuk and the next generation who will keep the tradition with them. The poem is touching to the point one can get misty-eyed when hearing it.

Long Line of Ladies is a shining example of how to cover intimate traditions in documentary form. It delivers by inviting the audience to a personal moment in time with admiration for the Ihuk.

Long Line of Ladies premiered virtually at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20.

Corrections: Shaandiin Tome was credited as the cinematographer. Tome is the co-director alongside Rayka Zehtabchi. Sam Davis is the cinematographer on the feature. I apologize for the miscrediting. The appropriate credits have been given.

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