Native American Rituals and Ceremonies

Incense over a medicine bundle, by Edward S. Curtis, 1908

Incense over a medicine bundle, by Edward S. Curtis, 1908

Healing Rituals – 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 afterlife. 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.

In 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

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, fire and incense were also used 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 roadmen, 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 diethylamide, 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 1880s and 1930s, 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

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.

Fill Your Medicine BagVision Quests – Numerous Native Americans 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 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 October 2019.

See our Rituals, Ceremonies & Dances Photo Gallery HERE

Also See:

Native Americans – First Owners of America

Native American Photo Galleries

Symbols, Pictographs & Petroglyphs

Totems & Their Meanings

6 thoughts on “Native American Rituals and Ceremonies”

  1. I remember sharing a dream with my Father as a small child. The dream made him nerves. He took us to what he called the Cherokee Reservation not long after that. On one of the nights we were there he came to get me (just me). It was the first time I had ever seen a teepee. Remember sitting in a circle in, my Father’s lap with a group of older men. There was younger one’s standing behind them. My Father was talking to an older man to his left. He was telling him about my dream and its meaning ( which i had told to my Father when telling him my dream). The older man tried to talk to me but i was extremely shy back then. Before we left this man told my Father that it was important to bring me back when I was older. Sadly this never happened. My Father has passed on now and I wouldn’t know who to even talk too. However, I do believe that I have had a dream as described above in my late teens. In this dream there was a circle of pure white sand in the middle of the woods. Standing at the edge of this circle was a deer, a wolf and an owl. I was told to take from the middle of the circle. There before me was the most beautiful marble of a White Wolf. Just before I could touch it i woke up. I know the deer, the wolf and the owl is me through different times in my life.

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