Indigenous ceremonies seek to strengthen a person’s connection to the physical and spiritual world, provide healing or clarity, mark significant life moments, or offer remembrance and gratitude. Each ceremony has a specific purpose and holds an important place in Native history. Though you might have heard “pow wows” or “rain dances” referenced in a way that stereotypes or trivializes these ceremonies, there are far more than what we see in pop culture and each is sacred. We’ve put together a list of just a few important indigenous ceremonies in the hope of shedding light on these important cultural events and their long history.
Types of Ceremonies and Their Significance
The pipe is very sacred to First Nations people and has been historically used to open negotiations between different nations as a symbol of peace and goodwill. The pipe ceremony is a place for truthful, respectful conversation to take place and for agreements to be made. The tobacco in the pipe is traditionally blessed through prayer and then passed around the circle starting with the pipe carrier. The pipe carrier says prayers to the seven cardinal points and then passes the pipe around several times. To close the ceremony, each member of the circle might speak a few words of gratitude. This ceremony is used to encourage truthful, respectful conversation and deliberation.
Traditions vary between tribes, but First Nations peoples have a rich network of rituals that they weave into their wedding ceremonies in order to honor the couple. Two such rituals are the Wedding Vessel ritual or the Wedding Blanket ritual.
The parents of the groom might create or procure a vase or vessel of some kind; traditionally, the parents create the vase out of clay. The vessel has two spouts for drinking and each partner drinks from each spout. This symbolizes their individuality, even though they drink from the same vessel now that they are joined.
In a blanket ritual, each partner is wrapped in separate, blue blankets. A blessing is given and the blankets are removed and exchanged for a single white blanket wrapped around both of them that symbolizes their new life together. Couples often display this blanket in their home.
In tribal communities, people are given a “sacred” name, often at different points in time, depending on the tribe. Traditionally, when a child is born, the family gathers to reflect on who they might become and settle on a name that might guide them throughout their life. The name is presented to the grandfather spirits in the four directions and everyone present at the ceremony recites the name. This ceremony is often accompanied by a feast and giving gratitude. In other cultures, the parents might seek a medicine man to meditate on or seek the name of their child.
At the sunrise ceremony, people come together in prayer and to give thanks for all creation. It is a celebration of the sun and a place to give thanks to Grandfather Sun for providing light and warmth. Participants might smudge with sage or burn other sacred medicines like sweetgrass and cedar.
The sweat-lodge ceremony is practiced by many First Nations people across North America. It can be practiced alone or as a prelude to a different ceremony. A fire-pit is dug at a special location and rocks are heated. The lodge is built around the fire-pit with the opening facing east. Sometimes just the heat from the rocks is used and other times, water will be poured over the rocks to create steam. Either will make it hot inside the lodge so that participants produce sweat. Participants pray throughout the experience and it is meant to be cleansing for all involved, depending on their specific needs. Often, a feast is held following the ceremony.
A Sundance ceremony is traditionally held by a tribe once a year in late spring or early summer as a place for tribes and nomads alike to gather together and reaffirm their basic beliefs about the universe through prayer, rituals, and community. It is an important religious ceremony.
End of Life Ceremony
Death is considered a natural transition from the physical world to the spirit world. As such, the transition is watched over with great care. Families will gather to help the person’s spirit make their journey. Family members might give speeches about the dying person’s wishes or host a repenting ritual which helps release the person’s spirit and comfort the family. Sometimes, tobacco and sacred medicines are burned and a feast might follow funeral rites to ensure the person’s last wishes are fulfilled.
Full Moon Ceremony
The Moon is called Grandmother Moon and is greatly respected because it is believed that the moon cycle is a gift to women. The moon cycle offers mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual cleansing. The full moon is considered a great source of power and women sometimes perform a ceremony to honor and seek guidance from Grandmother Moon. Women might pray, ask for renewed energy, take water for the Moon to bless, perform music and dances, or burn tobacco for cleansing.
The Strawberry Ceremony seeks to honor the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls through payment of respects, speeches, songs, and dances. The strawberry is traditionally a women’s fruit and is often referred to as the heart berry in indigenous culture.
This ceremony was traditionally used to confer status upon members of the tribe and was used to evenly distribute wealth and power among the community. It was historically an integral part to governing and maintaining peace in traditional tribes, giving individuals and families the right to certain names, powers, and territories.
Traditions vary between communities, but most often Indigenous people prefer for their children to be born within their communities so that they might immediately establish a clear sense of identity. Family or midwife assistance would occur at home with additional assistance from the community at large. The entire birthing process is considered sacred and the umbilical cord might be kept in a small bag as a sacred object.
Pow wow Ceremony
The word pau-wau stands for a healing ceremony which is conducted by the spiritual and religious leaders of the tribes. These ceremonies are an opportunity to celebrate, give gratitude, or prepare for various struggles or difficulties. Traditionally, it might help a warrior prepare spiritually for battle or be a place to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. It is a colorful celebration filled with music, food, and socialization and is still an important part of Native culture.
Smudging is used for physical, spiritual, or mental cleansing. Smudging ceremonies might be performed when healing is needed or when one seeks to refocus their energy and their spirit. Sage or other sacred medicines are burned and the smoke is then wafted around oneself to clear the air of any negativity. Sacred plants and medicines are a crucial part of any Indigenous culture and can be attuned to the needs of the user through sacred ritual.