Indian ReligionSignificance of Ritual in North American Indian ReligionSubmitted by: Dan Xxxxxxxx,November 12, 1996Submitted to: Dr. John X. XxxxxxxRELST 110.6.01When scholars study religion, the tendency exists to focus on themythological aspects of the religion in an attempt to understand the majorunderlying concepts present.However, an equally rewarding study often can beaccomplished through the careful analysis of the religion’s ritual aspects. This is especially true when studying North American Indian religions wherethere is an abundance of elaborate rituals that play a significant role in theirculture.
By closely examining the details and symbolism of ritual movements, wecan gather some basic understanding of what is seen to be of value in a certaintheology.While most Native American rituals tend to be mono-cultural, thereare a few rituals that frequently appear in many different regions and tribesacross North America.Two of these widespread rituals are the ritual of the”sacred pipe,” and sweat lodge ceremonials.The sacred pipe ritual is loadedwith symbolic meaning, and offers a generous insight into Native American beliefsystems.
This essay will first look at the dynamics of the sacred pipe ritualand offer some explanation into its religious significance, then draw someparallels to the more common sweat lodge ceremony.If a recurring spiritualtheme 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 andvery ancient practice.Direct predecessors of the modern pipe appear 1,500years ago, and other less relevant pipes can be found as far back as 2,500 yearsago.The distinguishing characteristic of the sacred pipe is that the bowl isseparable from the long stem, and the two parts are kept apart except duringritual 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 Mountainrange to the Atlantic, and from the Gulf of Mexico to James Bay.It did notpenetrate into Pacific coast or Southwest cultures, where tubular pipes werepreferred.Inter-tribal trading helped the practice of this particular ritualspread rapidly, because in order for peaceful trade relations to take place someform of ritual had to be observed.Respect for the sacred pipe ritual, as wellas a gift exchange, was central to peaceful trade in North American culture.
The whole sacred pipe ritual revolves around the pipe itself, and as thepipe passes around the circle, so passes the center of attention.Fundamentalto the spiritual understanding of the ritual is the pairing of female and malepowers which when combined, results in creation.The pipe itself consists oftwo 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 forthis reason it is only joined at the beginning of the ceremony, and itsseparation indicates the end of the ritual.With only a few exceptions, thepipe bowl is made of stone or clay, because the Earth and all things Earthen arealso seen to be of a female nature.Similarly, the stem is usually wooden, madefrom trees that were procreated by the joining of the male Sky and the femaleEarth.The pipe stem can be decorated with a striped design symbolic of thetrachea, and eagle feathers may be hung from the stem to further symbolize thesending 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 thecosmos, and all directions radiating out from this center each have their ownsymbolic significance.East traditionally represents birth or beginning,originally taking this meaning from the rising of the sun.The significance ofthe direction west also is derived from the sun, this time the path the sunfollows represents the path of life.The interpretation of these two directionsseldom varies from tribe to tribe, since the sun is always of great spiritualimportance to primitive cultures.Most commonly the direction south is seen asrepresenting growth and nurturing, which implies a female gender.The primarysmoker in the ceremony offers smoke in all directions by pointing the stem ofthe pipe towards each spiritual recipient, which can be done either before orafter lighting the pipe.In addition to the four horizontal directions, smokeis also offered in an upward direction which represents the male spirits oftheSky, the Sun, the West Wind, and the Thunder Beings.The smoke is also offeredin 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 havingcome from the earth.Direction is not the only concept of spirituality at workin the sacred pipe ritual however.There are four spheres of being’ thatcenter around the pipe, the first one containing the concept of self whichrefers to the person holding the pipe.The next sphere is comprised of one’sfamily, clan, and nation.Further out from the center is the sphere of animalrelations which contains “those who walk the earth in the four directions, thosewho fly in the sky….. above, and those who crawl through the earth below or swim inthe sea.”The furthest sphere contains the most powerful spirits which are thefour directions and winds, the sky, and the earth and sea.
The bowl of the pipe is a sacrificial vessel in which the sacred plantsare 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 innerbark of red willow.This tobacco mixture is added pinch by pinch, and eachpinch is explicitly dedicated to the sacred directions as well as the animalsand spirits to which it is being offered.This initial smoke offering is doneby the primary smoker who is the leader of the ceremonies.He directs the smokeby 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 raisingthe 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 manyNative American cultures, and this can probably be attributed to the traderelationships between tribes.Even though the language and specific culture mayvary, the common factor present throughout is the great importance placed on thesun, the earth, and all of nature in general.This would help explain howcultures with little or no common linguistic ground could so easily adoptrituals from each other as well as maintain the basic ritual of the sacred pipe.
The sweat lodge ritual was even more widespread across North Americathan the sacred pipe ritual.For years, most Europeans misinterpreted the sweatlodge ceremony as a hygienic practice, rather than as a powerful religiousritual involving direct communication with the spirits.The sweat lodge ritualis similar to the sacred pipe ritual in respect to the great spiritualimportance given to physical directions, and to the masculine Sun and feminineEarth.
The sweat lodge is a dome-shaped structure, and every part has asymbolic significance.The number of poles that are used to form the dome isalways 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, whichis symbolic of the beginning of life and understanding.In the center a roundpit is dug, and the earth that is removed is used to build an altar east of thesweat lodge.A fire, symbolic of the Sun, is built between the altar and thesweat 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 completelydevoid of light.
The participants sit on evergreen branches or sagelaid on the Earth. If enough people are participating,four of them are delegated as gatekeepersof the Four Directions.The pit is symbolically the womb of the Earth, and inthe very center of the pit the red-hot rocks are placed.Even though rocks arefrom the Earth and traditionally a female symbol, in this ritual they arethought of as the Grandfathers.This is easily explained by the fact that theystore the energy from the fire, which is a very masculine symbol representingthe Sun.The rocks are then sprayed with water, which is traditionally a femalelife-giving element of nature.The coupling of the male energy and the femalewater results in the spiritual regeneration ofthe participants.When theritual is complete, the participants crawl from the symbolic womb, and considereach other to be reborn’ individuals who have been spiritually cleansed.
In these two ancient Native American rituals there is evidence ofrecurring spiritual symbolism which suggests that there was a structured,consistent belief system.For this reason, these two ceremonies make fairlygood examples of how knowledge of a culture’s religious aspect can be gainedthrough 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 tendencyto give natural objects and forces a specific gender.Much significance isplaced on directions, especially east and west which is obviously derived fromthe path of the sun.Also important are the upward and downward directionsrepresenting the male sky and the female earth, and the joining of the two togive life.The simple fact that these symbols are so widespread and evident inseparate rituals suggests that the North American Indians had a strong religiousfoundation long before Europeans arrived and attempted to teach’ them religion.
WORKS CITED LISTBrown, Joseph Van Epes.The Sacred Pipe:Black Elk’s Account of the SevenRites of the Oglala Sioux.Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953.
Coorigan, Samuel W, ed.Readings in Aboriginal StudiesBrandon, Manitoba: Bearpaw Publishing, 1995.
Hultkrantz, Ake.Belief and Worship in Native North America.Ed. ChristopherVecsey.Syracuse, New York:Syracuse University Press, 1981.
Robicsek, Francis.The Smoking Gods:Tobacco in Maya Art, History, andReligion. Norman, Oklahoma:University of Oklahoma Press, 1978.
Steinmetz, Fr. Paul B., S.J.”The Sacred Pipe in American Indian Religions.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal.8(3):27-80, 1984.
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