Many people have heard of the powwow, the rain dance and other traditional Native American ceremonies, but to truly understand the significance of these events, one must dig a little deeper. Understanding how Native Americans incorporated these activities into their lives may help people have a better understanding of Native American culture, in general.
1. Funeral ceremonies
Modern funerals are performed with an air of sadness and reverence for the dead. Historically, for Native Americans, these ceremonies were actually celebrations for the deceased traveling to the Spirit World. Many Native American tribes also believed that the journey to the Spirit World would be long, so they brought food, herbs and gifts to the deceased to ensure a safe and comfortable trip. The Hopi Indians believed that the soul moves through a particular path in the sky and that the righteous would have the easiest journey to the afterlife.
2. Rain dance
We’ve all heard of the rain dance, but some of its features are distinct from other forms of Native American dance. For example, while many tribal dances were performed by men only, rain dances allowed women to participate, too. Men and women stood in separate lines and danced in coordinated zig-zag patterns. Participants often wore headdresses, jewels and special clothing just for the ceremony, which were often carefully stored throughout the year. Some tribes still perform this dance today.
The term “powwow” today has come to be synonymous with any meeting you have with another person, but its origin is much more involved than a sit-down chat with your friends. In traditional American Indian culture, powwows were celebrations that brought together a group of people for dancing, singing and honoring heritage. The term itself first came about when traveling medicine shows emerged the early 1800s, where local Indians would dance to entertain potential customers.
4. Wedding blanket ceremony
One of the oldest and most touching wedding rituals among many Native American tribes is the blanket ceremony. In this ritual, the bride and groom are individually wrapped in a blue blanket, which represents each person’s pre-marriage life. The couple is then led to a sacred circle of fire where they shed their blue blankets in exchange for a single white blanket to envelop them both. A spiritual leader blesses the union and the couple traditionally completes the ceremony with a kiss. Today, you may see variations of this tradition performed at weddings, even when the bride and groom are not of Native American descent.
5. Honoring returning warriors
When a Chickasaw soldier returns from war, the tribe performs a special ceremonial tribute in his or her honor. Within this ceremony, tobacco is placed on top of hot coals and a prayer is given to thank the creator for the warrior’s safe return. Those who lost their lives in battle are also given tribute by an elder of the tribe. The warrior is then purified using sacred body wash and anointed with cedar smoke to cleanse the body of any bad memories that war left behind.
Rituals and ceremonies offer fascinating glimpses into Native American culture. Discovering the rich symbolic meaning of these rituals can help you better understand Native American culture as a whole, and might even make them meaningful to your own life.