Ceremony and rituals have long played a vital and essential role in Native American culture. Often referred to as “religion,” most Native Americans did not consider their spirituality, ceremonies, and rituals as “religion,” in the way that Christians do. Rather, their beliefs and practices form an integral and seamless part of their very being. Like other aboriginal peoples around the world, their beliefs were heavily influenced by their methods of acquiring food, – from hunting to agriculture. They also embraced ceremonies and rituals that provided power to conquer the difficulties of life, as wells as events and milestones, such as puberty, marriage, and death. Over the years, practices and ceremonies changed with tribes‘ needs.
The arrival of European settlers marked a major change in Native American culture. Some of the first Europeans that the Indians would meet were often missionaries who looked upon Native American Spirituality practices as worthless superstition inspired by the Christian devil. These early missionaries then determined to convert the Native Americans to Christianity.
As more and more Europeans flooded North America, US and Canadian governments instituted policies to force Natives onto reservations and to encourage them to become assimilated into the majority culture.
This also changed their spiritual traditions and when, in 1882, the U.S. Federal Government began to work towards banning Native American Religious Rights, which impacted their ceremonies. At that time, U.S. Interior Secretary Henry M. Teller ordered an end to all “heathenish dances and ceremonies” on reservations due to their “great hindrance to civilization.” This was further supported the following year by Hiram Price, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, when his 1883 report stated:
“…there is no good reason why an Indian should be permitted to indulge in practices which are alike repugnant to common decency and morality; and the preservation of good order on the reservations demands that some active measures should be taken to discourage and, if possible, put a stop to the demoralizing influence of heathenish rites.”
These attempts to suppress the traditions of Native Americans eventually led to the Massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890, when the government attempted to stop the practice of the “Ghost Dance,” a far-reaching movement that prophesied a peaceful end to white American expansion and preached goals of clean living, an honest life, and cross-cultural cooperation by Native Americans.
When the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, was sent into the Lakota Sioux’s Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations to stop the dance and arrest the participants, approximately 150 Native American men, women, and children were killed.
Though some traditions were lost along the way, many others survived despite the ban, and various tribes continue to follow many spiritual traditions. Some Native Americans have been devout Christians for generations, and their practices today combine their traditional customs with Christian elements. Other tribes, particularly in the Southwest, have retained their aboriginal traditions, mostly intact.
Rituals & Ceremonies:
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 afterlife rituals were performed to ensure that the spirits would not continue 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 afterlife.
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 graveside.
The Navajo perceived that living to 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. Afterlife 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 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.