Significance of Ritual in
North American Indian Religion
November 12, 1996
Dr. John X. Xxxxxxx
When scholars study religion, the tendency exists to focus on the mythological aspects of the religion in an attempt to understand the major underlying concepts present. However, an equally rewarding study often can be accomplished through the careful analysis of the religion's ritual aspects. This is especially true when studying North American Indian religions where there is an abundance of elaborate rituals that play a significant role in their culture. By closely examining the details and symbolism of ritual movements, we can gather some basic understanding of what is seen to be of value in a certain theology. While most Native American rituals tend to be mono-cultural, there are a few rituals that frequently appear in many different regions and tribes across North America. Two of these widespread rituals are the ritual of the "sacred pipe," and sweat lodge ceremonials. The sacred pipe ritual is loaded with symbolic meaning, and offers a generous insight into Native American belief systems. This essay will first look at the dynamics of the sacred pipe ritual and offer some explanation into its religious significance, then draw some parallels to the more common sweat lodge ceremony. If a recurring spiritual theme appears in separate rituals, it can be considered evidence of a consistent, structured belief system.
The use of smoking pipes in Native American cultures is a popular and very ancient practice. Direct predecessors of the modern pipe appear 1,500 years ago, and other less relevant pipes can be found as far back as 2,500 years ago. The distinguishing characteristic of the sacred pipe is that the bowl is separable from the long stem, and the two parts are kept apart except during ritual use. The pipe is seen as a holy object and is treated with much respect. This type of ceremonial pipe was used by tribes ranging from the Rocky Mountain range to the Atlantic, and from the Gulf of Mexico to James Bay. It did not penetrate into Pacific coast or Southwest cultures, where tubular pipes were preferred. Inter-tribal trading helped the practice of this particular ritual spread rapidly, because in order for peaceful trade relations to take place some form of ritual had to be observed. Respect for the sacred pipe ritual, as well as a gift exchange, was central to peaceful trade in North American culture.
The whole sacred pipe ritual revolves around the pipe itself, and as the pipe passes around the circle, so passes the center of attention. Fundamental to the spiritual understanding of the ritual is the pairing of female and male powers which when combined, results in creation. The pipe itself consists of two parts; the bowl which is symbolically female, and the stem which is male. The pipe is potent only when the two components are fitted together, and for this reason it is only joined at the beginning of the ceremony, and its separation indicates the end of the ritual. With only a few exceptions, the pipe bowl is made of stone or clay, because the Earth and all things Earthen are also seen to be of a female nature. Similarly, the stem is usually wooden, made from trees that were procreated by the joining of the male Sky and the female Earth. The pipe stem can be decorated with a striped design symbolic of the trachea, and eagle feathers may be hung from the stem to further symbolize the sending of the smoke, songs, and chants to sacred ancestral and nature spirits.
During the course of the ceremony, the pipe is seen as the center of the cosmos, and all directions radiating out from this center each have their own symbolic significance. East traditionally represents birth or beginning, originally taking this meaning from the rising of the sun. The significance of the direction west also is derived from the sun, this time the path the sun follows represents the path of life. The interpretation of these two directions seldom varies from tribe to tribe, since the sun is always of great spiritual importance to primitive cultures. Most commonly the direction south is seen as representing growth and nurturing, which implies a female gender. The primary smoker in the ceremony offers smoke in all directions by pointing the stem of the pipe towards each spiritual recipient, which can be done either before or after lighting the pipe. In addition to the four horizontal directions, smoke is also offered in an upward direction which represents the male spirits of the Sky, the Sun, the West Wind, and the Thunder Beings. The smoke is also offered in a downward direction, and the bowl of the pipe is touched to the ground. This is appropriate since the bowl of the pipe is seen as female and as having come from the earth. Direction is not the only concept of spirituality at work in the sacred pipe ritual however. There are four 'spheres of being' that center around the pipe, the first one containing the concept of self which refers to the person holding the pipe. The next sphere is comprised of one's family, clan, and nation. Further out from the center is the sphere of animal relations which contains "those who walk the earth in the four directions, those who fly in the sky above, and those who crawl through the earth below or swim in the sea." The furthest sphere contains the most powerful spirits which are the four directions and winds, the sky, and the earth and sea.
The bowl of the pipe is a sacrificial vessel in which the sacred plants are burnt as an offering. The plant mixture is made up primarily of tobacco, with some other additives such as bearberry leaves, sumac leaves, and the inner bark of red willow. This tobacco mixture is added pinch by pinch, and each pinch is explicitly dedicated to the sacred directions as well as the animals and spirits to which it is being offered. This initial smoke offering is done by the primary smoker who is the leader of the ceremonies. He directs the smoke by pointing the stem of the pipe in the direction of the spiritual recipient. Subsequent smokers may offer the smoke with their mouths as well as by raising the pipe skyward, touching it to the ground, and turning the pipe in a circle. The nature of the sacred pipe ritual is surprisingly consistent throughout many Native American cultures, and this can probably be attributed to the trade relationships between tribes. Even though the language and specific culture may vary, the common factor present throughout is the great importance placed on the sun, the earth, and all of nature in general. This would help explain how cultures with little or no common linguistic ground could so easily adopt rituals from each other as well as maintain the basic ritual of the sacred pipe.
The sweat lodge ritual was even more widespread across North America than the sacred pipe ritual. For years, most Europeans misinterpreted the sweat lodge ceremony as a hygienic practice, rather than as a powerful religious ritual involving direct communication with the spirits. The sweat lodge ritual is similar to the sacred pipe ritual in respect to the great spiritual importance given to physical directions, and to the masculine Sun and feminine Earth.
The sweat lodge is a dome-shaped structure, and every part has a symbolic significance. The number of poles that are used to form the dome is always a multiple of four, which is derived from the four horizontal directions. There is a low entrance facing the East, the direction of the rising sun, which is symbolic of the beginning of life and understanding. In the center a round pit is dug, and the earth that is removed is used to build an altar east of the sweat lodge. A fire, symbolic of the Sun, is built between the altar and the sweat lodge, and is used to heat the rocks that are needed for the sweat lodge. The sweat lodge is then covered in such a way that the interior is completely devoid of light.
The participants sit on evergreen branches or sage laid on the Earth. If enough people are participating, four of them are delegated as gatekeepers of the Four Directions. The pit is symbolically the womb of the Earth, and in the very center of the pit the red-hot rocks are placed. Even though rocks are from the Earth and traditionally a female symbol, in this ritual they are thought of as the Grandfathers. This is easily explained by the fact that they store the energy from the fire, which is a very masculine symbol representing the Sun. The rocks are then sprayed with water, which is traditionally a female life-giving element of nature. The coupling of the male energy and the female water results in the spiritual regeneration of the participants. When the ritual is complete, the participants crawl from the symbolic womb, and consider each other to be 'reborn' individuals who have been spiritually cleansed.
In these two ancient Native American rituals there is evidence of recurring spiritual symbolism which suggests that there was a structured, consistent belief system. For this reason, these two ceremonies make fairly good examples of how knowledge of a culture's religious aspect can be gained through the analysis of not only its myths and legends, but also of its rituals. In both rituals there is evidence of great respect for nature, and the tendency to give natural objects and forces a specific gender. Much significance is placed on directions, especially east and west which is obviously derived from the path of the sun. Also important are the upward and downward directions representing the male sky and the female earth, and the joining of the two to give life. The simple fact that these symbols are so widespread and evident in separate rituals suggests that the North American Indians had a strong religious foundation long before Europeans arrived and attempted to 'teach' them religion.
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