Native American Traditions


In the 1800’s, the government forcible removed all Native American children. They were made to cut their hair and made them wear white people’s clothes. They were even given white people names. They were told to only speak English and to forget about their religion and traditions. There was strict discipline, verbal abuse, and military. The US Government thought they could save the Indian children, but it was mostly a culture shock, killing their self-respect, spirit, and dignity which resulted to suicide. Majority of the schools were hit by disease, such as tuberculosis, measles, and influenza, killing many of the children.

Out of the 300 federal reservation in the US, over 50% leave to find better employment. Most of the Native Americans that leave the reservation join the military. The way to learn about culture, religion, and tradition is mostly from the elders or from Indian Centers. Major cities have built ‘Indian Centers’ to help Native Americans continue with their culture and traditions, teaching arts and crafts, language classes, dances, and powwows. The Indian Centers also help out with job employment, job counseling, or drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

The word ‘Powwow’ means, “A healing ceremony of spiritual leaders”. Today powwows are a way to maintain Native American history through song and dance. Today it is more of a social gathering of song and dance. Song and dance is the way they maintain their history, it has a connection with their past. The American Indians almost suffered extinction, but today they continue to sing and dance in powwows, that is more like a battle of champions.

Sun Dance and Ghost dance are just a few of the traditional dances. The Ghost Dance began in the 1860’s; created by a Northern Paiute Indian named Wodziwab.  He and his son Wovoka were the first Ghost Dance prophets. They both foresaw that all Indian ancestors will return and that all the whites would die, the Native American’s will be saved and the Great Spirit will return to Earth and live among them.

The Sun Dance has been one of the most sacred ceremonies for thousands of years and is still practiced today by the Lakota, Shoshone, Arapaho, Crow, and Cheyenne tribes. A Sun Dance actually lasts 28 days, but preparation is a yearlong process. The Sun Dance is performed in the summer, starting on a full moon; usually the hottest week of the year. The performer begins his preparation meditating, praying, and spends time in the sweat lodge.

The performers will then sing and dance around the center pole, clockwise, for the first two days. On the third day those that choose to pierce their skin will be pierced and sing and dance for the final two days.

The Sun Dance requires the warrior to dance around a pole they are attached to by a rope. On the end of the rope were wooden skewers that pierced under their chest muscles. They would dance while pulling the rope, causing the wooden skewers to cut and pull on their pierced skin and muscle.

On the fourth and final day the dancers must dance until their skin has been ripped, this completes the sacrifice and the performers become reborn. The performers will then finish the ceremony by sitting in the sweat lodge in prayer.

A sweat lodge is a place some Native American cultures use to help cleanse their spirit, mind, body, and heart, and receive answers or guidance from the ancestors, totem helpers, or Mother Earth. Before entering the sweat lodge, you must smoke a peace pipe. Then they offer tobacco to the sacred fire, say a prayer or ask a question, then the leader smudges them with sage and wafts smoke from sweet grass over them. They will then enter into the sweat lodge, clockwise, followed by the leader. The leader will ask a person that is not in the sweat lodge to bring in the hot stones, then close the door. The leader will begin singing in prayer. A sweat lodge ceremony can last from three to eight hours, depending on each person’s tolerance of the heat that is endured during a sweat lodge ceremony. 

Tobacco is a sacred plant, along with sage, but unlike sage, tobacco has a special meaning. When tobacco is burned, the fire represents the center of the earth. The ashes and smoke carry the message to the Creator, distributing it among the four winds.

Native American church is a mixture of Christianity and Native American traditions. Peyote is used for Native American church ceremonies or recreation by the Great Plains Native Americans. It is a small, hallucinogenic cactus that can be found in south Texas and northern Mexico. When chewing peyote it can cause vomiting, but the person will experience a feeling of great joy, but is not addicting. During the ceremonies is singing, praying and playing drums.

A few other Native American traditions are, Why do Native Americans have long hair? It is a symbol of spiritual health and spiritual strength. It is a symbol of power and a source of pride. In some tribes, to cut ones hair means they are in mourning. Animal totems are spirit guides that usually stay with us for life, depending on which direction we take. They help us choose our path in life. Medicine wheels are a sacred hoop that represents harmony, connecting us with all living things on earth.

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