Ceremony and rituals have long played a vital and essential role in Native American culture.
Lee Obizaan Staples is from Aazhoomog, Minnesota. Obizaan is one of the Spiritual Advisors on the Mille Lacs reservation and extends his help to all the surrounding communities. This series of films explains the ceremonies Anishinaabe go though during a lifetime as they were passed down to him. Other communities may vary in teachings, this is the way Obizaan was taught and wants to share them so he does not take these teachings the grave.
Native American Rituals and Ceremonies
Mandan offering the buffalo skull
Ghost Dance – A Promise of Fulfillment
Kachinas of the Puebloans
Mythology and Legends
Native American Medicine
Native American Religion
Rituals & Ceremonies:
Green Corn Festivals
Lacrosse – Routed in Tribal Tradition
Native American Medicine
Astronomy and Mythology In Native American Culture
Rituals & Ceremonies:
Tribute to the Dead
Death Ceremonies – Native Americans celebrated death, knowing that it was an end to life on Earth, but, believing it to be the start of life in the Spirit World. Most tribes also believed, that the journey might be long, so after life rituals were performed to ensure that the spirits would not continued to roam the earth. Various tribes honored the dead in several ways, by giving them food, herbs, and gifts to ensure a safe journey to the after life.
The Hopi Indians believe that the soul moves along a Sky path westwards and that those who have lived a righteous life will travel with ease. However, those who haven’t will encounter suffering on their journey.
To ensure a safe journey, they wash their dead with natural yucca suds and dress them in traditional clothes.
Prayer feathers are often tied around the forehead of the deceased, and they are buried with favorite possessions and feathered prayer sticks. Traditional foods and special herbs are served and placed at the grave side.
The Navajo perceived that living to an old age was a sign of a life well lived, thus ensuring that the soul would be born again. Alternatively, they felt that if a tribe member died of sudden illness, suicide or violence, a “Chindi, or destructive ghost could cause trouble for the family of the deceased. After life rituals could last for several days with careful thought given to foods and herbs chosen for the celebration, a reflection on how the deceased lived their life. Common herbs used by the Navajo included Broom Snake Weed, Soap Weed, and Utah Juniper.
Many tribes who had been converted to Catholicism, also celebrated All Souls’ Day, each November 1st, which celebrates the dead. Many believe, that on that day, the spirits return to visit family and friends. In preparation various tribes would prepare food and decorate their homes with ears of corn as blessings for the dead.
Green Corn Dance
Green Corn Festivals – Also called the Green Corn Ceremonies, this both a celebration and religious ceremony, primarily practiced by the peoples of the Eastern Woodlands and the Southeastern tribes including the Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Yuchi, Iroquois, and others. The ceremony typically coincides in the late summer and is tied to the ripening of the corn crops. Marked with dancing, feasting, fasting and religious observations, the ceremony usually lasts for three days. Activities varied from tribe to tribe, but the common thread is that the corn was not to be eaten until the Great Spirit has been given his proper thanks. During the event, tribal members give thanks for the corn, rain, sun, and a good harvest. Some tribes even believe that they were made from corn by the Great Spirits.
The Green Corn Festival is also a religious renewal, with various religious ceremonies. During this time, some tribes hold council meetings where many of the previous year’s minor problems or crimes are forgiven. Others also signify the event as the time of year when youth come of age and babies are given their names. Several tribes incorporate ball games and tournaments in the event. Cleansing and purifying activities often occur, including cleaning out homes, burning waste, and drinking emetics to purify the body. At the end of each day of the festival, feasts are held to celebrate the good harvest. Green Corn festivals are still practiced today by many different native peoples of the Southeastern Woodland Culture.
Incense over a medicine bundle, by Edward S. Curtis, 1908
– Symbolic healing rituals and ceremonies were often held to bring participants into harmony with themselves, their tribe, and their environment. Ceremonies were used to help groups of people return to harmony; but, large ceremonies were generally not used for individual healing. Varying widely from tribe to tribe, some tribes, such as the Sioux and Navajo used a medicine wheel, a sacred hoop, and would sing and dance in ceremonies that might last for days.
Historic Indian traditions also used many plants and herbs as remedies or in spiritual celebrations, creating a connection with spirits and the after life. Some of these plants and herbs used in spiritual rituals included Sage, Bear Berry, Red Cedar, Sweet Grass, Tobacco, and many others.
The healing process in Native American Medicine is much different than how most of us see it today. Native American healing includes beliefs and practices that combine religion, spirituality, herbal medicine, and rituals, that are used for both medical and emotional conditions. From the Native American perspective, medicine is more about healing the person than curing a disease. Traditional healers worked to make the individual “whole,” believing that most illnesses stem from spiritual problems.
Native American Rituals and CeremoniesIn addition to herbal remedies, purifying and cleansing the body is also important and many tribes used sweat lodges for this purpose. In these darkened and heated enclosures, a sick individual might be given an herbal remedy, smoke or rub themselves with sacred plants, and a healer might use healing practices to drive away angry spirits and invoke the healing powers of others.
Sometimes healing rituals might involve whole communities, where participants would sing, dance, paint their bodies, sometimes use mind-altering substances to persuade the spirits to heal the sick person.
Peyote Worship – Some southwest tribes have historically practiced Peyote ceremonies which were connected with eating or drinking of tea made of peyote buttons, the dried fruit of a small cactus, officially called Anhalonium or Laphophora. Native to the lower Rio Grande River and Mexico, the name “mescal” was wrongly applied to this fruit by many white observers. The ceremonies were held for specific reasons including healing, baptism, funerals, and other special occasions. Though many have the impression that peyote was smoked, this was not the case, as the peyote button will not burn. Instead, the buttons, either fresh or dried, were eaten or ground into a powder and drank in a tea.
Cheyenne Peyote Leader by Edward S. Curtis
Rites for these ceremonies would generally begin in the evening and continue until the following dawn and were restricted by some tribes only to men. Like other Indian ceremonies, a fire and incense were also used to to cleanse the mind and body. The ceremony also utilized bird feathers, which represented bird power, preferably those from predator birds, which were strong and thought to protect the worshipper.
The ceremonies were guided by healers, also known as road men, as they were thought to guide a person’s journey through life. Most often small drums and rattles were also utilized. The experience is almost identical to taking lysergic acid dyethylamide, better known as LSD.
Called the “sacred medicine,” peyote ceremonies are still practiced today by various tribes who believe that it counters the craving for alcohol, heals and teaches righteousness, and is useful in combating spiritual, physical, and other social ills. Concerned about the drug’s psychoactive effects, between the 1880’s and 1930’s, U.S. authorities attempted to ban Native American religious rituals involving peyote, including the Ghost Dance. Today, the Native American Church is one among several religious organizations to use peyote as part of its religious practice.
Pow-Wows – A relatively modern word, the term derives from the Narragansett word “powwaw,” which means “spiritual leader.” Before the term “pow-wow” became popular, other words were used to describe these gatherings, such as celebration, doing, fair, feast, festival, and more. The closest English translation is “meeting.” Today, it exemplifies all of these events and a modern pow-wow can be any kind of event that both Native American and non-Native American people meet to dance, sing, socialize, and honor American Indian culture. These events might be specific to a certain tribe or inter-tribal.
Native American PowWow
Planning for a pow-wow generally begins months in advance of the event by a group of people usually referred to as a pow-wow committee and may be sponsored by a tribal organization, tribe, or any other organization that wishes to promote Native American culture. These events almost always feature dance events, some of which are competitive and can last from hours to several days.
The Gathering of Nations is one of the largest Pow-wows in the United States. It is held annually the fourth weekend in April, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Over 500 tribes from around the United States and Canada participate. This event is competitive with 32 dance categories, as well as other competitions for singers and drumming, and a pageant for Miss Indian World. The event also features a Traders Market where Native Americans display their arts and crafts.
Vision Quests – Numerous Native American practiced the rite of Vision Quests, which was often taken by older children before puberty to “find themselves” and their life’s direction. How the rite was taken, its length and intensity, and at what age varied greatly from tribe to tribe. In most cases the vision quest was a “supernatural” experience in which the individual seeks to interact with a guardian spirit, usually an animal, to obtain advice or protection.
Much preparation was often taken before the vision quest was undertaken in order to determine the sincerity and commitment of the person. Sometimes the quest required the individual to go alone into the wilderness for several days, in order to become attuned to the spirit world.
Other tribes required the individual to take a long walk, or were confined to a small room. Often the individual was required to fast prior to the quest, and was not allowed to sleep. During this period of sensory deprivation, the individual was to search for a a guardian spirit’s presence or a sign that would be given to them. Once the presence or sign was “seen,” and the individual had realized his/her direction in life, they would return to the tribe to pursue their life’s journey.
© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June, 2017.