Native American Sacred Pathway Background
Archeological discoveries have revealed that Native Americas have been living in the Americas for at least 25,000 years. Their population prior to 1492 was in the millions. Although the different tribal cultures vary from prehistoric to modern times, Native Americans have been grouped into the following areas: Eastern Woodland, Northern, Northwest Coast, Plains, Plateau, and Southwest. These cultural groupings are based on the agricultural and hunting traditions, values, carvings, and crafts that developed over time as a byproduct of living in a certain area. For instance, the Eastern Woodland tribes were renown for their elaborate grave offerings of cooper plates and shell beads; and, the Great Plains tribes made clothing and tepee covers from buffalo skins. Other crafts developed along similar lines with the Plateau tribes who made noteworthy advances in basketry; while, the Southwest tribes made them in rug weaving.
Over the millennium Native Americans have faithfully and stalwartly held to a starcore of common beliefs and customs which include: respect for Elders; the Clan System; Animal Totems and Power Animals; the Sacred Hoop or Circle of Life; responsibility to the family, the village, and the tribe; reverence for Mother Earth, Father Sky, and the environment; the willingness to share with others; and the sacredness and interconnectedness of all life and all children of the earth.
For Native Americans, their beliefs and ceremonies are an integral and impeccable aspect of their existence. For them all creatures are kin (two legged, four legged, winged, and finned); everything in nature is imbued with Spirit; and guardian spirits empower, teach, guide, and assist everyone. Native Americans have made many valuable contributions to society including: food staples (corn, beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and squash), the kayak, the toboggan, the snowshoe, as well as, increased environmental awareness. More than two hundred drugs are derived from Native American healing remedies.
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All Are Relatives
All people are related and all things connected in the great mystery of Spirit. All beings are sacred and worthy of respect and to be treated with reverence and dignity.
There are animal totems for the tribe, for the clan, for the family, for the country, and for the state. Each animal totem has certain characteristics, qualities, strengths, and weaknesses that can be utilized to learn valuable lessons and to increase harmonic understanding of life's circle dance. For those who live in the United State of America, the tribal animal totem is the bald eagle; for those that live in the state of California, the clan animal totem is the state animal, the Grizzly Bear. Personal Animal totems for an individual are called Power Animals. They are spirits which protect, help, and guide one everyday. Animal totem objects when placed in the environment or worn or carried, create positive energy and result in a blessings and remembrance linkage with the animal totem that results in constructive lessons and actions.
The Clan that one is a member of has profound meaning which impacts all areas of one's life (vocation, marriage, responsibilities, duties, and familial and societal relationships). Each person belongs to a clan which is represented by a Totem Animal. Clans usually have Totem Animals which correspond to where the tribe lives. For example, Deer for Woodland tribes; and Buffalo for Plains tribes. There are many ways to determine one's clan based on tribal customs. In some tribes a person takes their mother's clan; in some tribes a person takes their father's clan; in some tribes a person undergoes a visionquest or a fast until the personal clan is known; in some tribes, one's clan is verified by a Medicine Person with the Gift of Clans; and in some tribes a child feels connected to and drawn to a clan from infancy.
Although there are many concepts about the Earth and its dance in Creation among the various tribes, one common theme is that the universe is comprised of multiple planes linked to a World Tree with the natural world being in the middle sphere. This tree's roots go far underground and reach upwards into the sky. Most creation myths were part of the oral tradition and feature a Master Spirit who assumes many diverse forms, including both the masculine and feminine. There are also many spirits who control the weather and act as guides and caretakers of humanity. Besides the oral tradition, some tribes preserved their spiritual beliefs in sacred texts
The Dream Catcher consists of a perfect circle web with a hole in the center which symbolizes the Web of Life and Future Destinies. It is hung above beds to sift through dreams, ideas, and visions, catching the good ones so that people may be helped and goals may be attained; and, purging the bad ones by discharging them through the hole in the center of the web
Drums are sacred because they represent the rhythm of the universe and the pulsation of a nation. They come in a variety of sizes based on ceremonial and healing purposes. They also have keepers to protect them from negative influences.
To numerous North American tribes, this staff is a significant symbol of reverence for all of life and for the Creator. The Eagle Staff depicts the supernatural "Thunderbird Spirits" who look after the physical world populace. The qualities of vision, vigor, swiftness, dignity, and benevolence are embodied by the eagle.
During a Powwow, the eagle whistle is blown to honor the dancers, the drums, the spirit helpers, and the spirit of the eagle. Each time the whistle is blown a fitting song is sung
Elders are men and women, regardless of age, who have been infused with Wisdom and other spiritual gifts from the Great Spirit such as: sweat lodge ceremony healer abilities and herbal remedies skills.
Four Directions (Four Powers, Four Quarters)
There are four equally important ways of perceiving things in life and of pursuing knowledge. These are the four cardinal points of the circle, each of which represent different power essences of nature, seasonal rhythms, and stages of life. These four directions are North (Wisdom, White, Buffalo, Maturity, Strength and Stamina); East (Peace, Gold, Eagle, Elder, Clarity and Illumination; South (Expansion, Green, Mouse, Infancy, Wholesomeness and Expectation); and West (Nourishment, Black, Bear, Youth, Introspection and Authenticity).
This tradition exemplifies and embodies the essence of sharing what one has with others. For instance, a Giveaway may be hosted by a family during a Powwow to celebrate a family member's formal entry into the dance circle. Craft gifts, beadwork, and blankets are given to visitors and friends. The gift giving is then followed by dancing and songs.
This circle symbolizes all of life and the lives of individual beings as they express the power of the world through harmonious movements, and, as they are nourished by the spiral of constant circular motion of the wheel of Spirit. Medicine Wheel traditions vary from tribe to tribe. An example of a medicine wheel is one where the center of the wheel is bisected by two paths. The path from North to South is the road everyone travells in life; while, the path from East to West is the road individuals travel as they learn lessons, growing in Spirit.
All positive spirits like mammals and birds are Power Animals. Power animals such as the squirrel, mouse, or bear represent qualities reflective of the innermost self that are needed to enhance daily life but are often obscured or veiled. Personal Power Animal(s) may change several times over the course of a lifetime, as cycles change, and, as new growth patterns emerge.<
Rattles are used by Elders during ceremonies to call the four powers to help those who seek healing, cleansing, and guidance. Rattles are also shaken to summon the Spirit of Life for those who are sick.
The Sacred Hoop symbolizes the Circle of Life and the power of the circle matrix that is the creative foundation of the universe. The sky, the planet, the sun, the stars, the moon, the whirling wind, the nests of birds, the tepees, the seasons, and life cycles follow this circle round pattern. The Four Powers nourish the blossoming World Tree at the center of the Circle of Life. For the people to thrive and blossom, the Sacred Hoop must be whole and unbroken.
The sacred pipe was used by the great chiefs to seal the peace treaties with the white man because it bore the same special ceremonial significance to them as taking an oath on the Holy Bible did to the white man. During private and group ceremonies, prayers are transmitted through the smoke of the sacred pipe. The pipe bowl is symbolic of the female and the wooden pipe stem symbolizes the male. The joining of the two represents the connection between Mother Earth and all the creatures that inhabit Earth. The pipe bowl may be made of soapstone or wood and often resembles an Animal Totem. The bowl may be inlaid with silver, decorated with beads and leather and painted with symbolic colors. There are sacred pipes used only by men or only by women. A sacred pipe belongs to the community so the holder of a scared pipe must spiritually earn the right to be its custodian, usually through cleansing or fasting.
Smudging is a ritual burning of sacred herbs such as Sage (for purity of spirit), Sweetgrass (for healing ceremonies), and Cedar (for dispelling negativity). Bundles of these sacred plants are tied together forming smudge sticks or braided together and then dried. Traditionally a council, central, or cooking fire was used to light the end of a smudge stick or a braid. Today a candle is often used instead; and, then the herbs are put in an abalone shell or a ceramic bowl. Generally, the smoke is first offered to the Four Powers, then to Mother Earth and Father Sky, and then a smudging prayer is recited. Afterwards, the hand or a feather is used to direct a few curls of smoke, imbued with the fragrance and spiritual energy of the sacred herbs, to the people, places, or objects that need cleansing.
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Native American Sacred Pathway Overview
For Native Americans all of life is sacred. The land is part of them and they are part of the land. Their primary sacred text is the wind whispering through cedar boughs, the sandy shores, the cry of an eagle, and the ripple of sparkling streams. They commune with the Great Spirit by smoking the scared pipe and by feathering themselves with sweetgrass, allowing the smoke to convey their prayers throughout the Sacred Hoop to Great Spirit.
Storytelling, passed down
through the generations, teaches valuable lessons by example. This precious oral
history of stories, legends, and the teachings of the Elders is now being
written down and recorded in order to preserve it for posterity.
Native Americans communicate with the spirits by singing traditional, ceremonial, and medicine songs accompanied by drums and sometimes also by rattles, flutes, and whistles. Ceremonial teachings are strictly an oral tradition passed down from Elder to Elder to ensure their authenticity and integrity. The ceremonies are a way to commune with Spirit through prayers, offerings, and ritual.
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Native American Ceremonies
Usually undergone during the spring and fall under the guidance of an Elder (who provides the ceremonial surroundings and acts as guide), fasting from all food and drink for a period of time is a time-honored way to quicken spirituality. Fasting takes place at a location envisioned in a dream by the person fasting, a place where the answer to a question will be seen in a dream or in a vision or in an moment of clear understanding. Afterwards a Medicine Person or an Elder or a group of Elders confirms the results.
This is a ceremony to promote peace that reflects the spiritual connection between the Great Spirit and humanity. A strong blood bond is made between two people to establish a relationship that is closer than kinship. Similar to an adoption, once this ceremony takes place, the participants become accountable for one another.
This is a ceremony which an Elder oversees. After the participants gather together in a circle, the Elder lights a braid of sweetgrass to symbolize the unity of the many minds and hearts present and smudges each person in the circle. Then the Elder puts four pinches of tobacco in the bowl of the sacred pipe and offers a pinch to each of the Four Directions. Afterwards the pipe holder asks the Spirits to come and join in the smoking of the sacred pipe and to pass the participants prayers and requests on to Great Spirit and then the sacred pipe is passed from person to person in the circle.
This is an important ceremony in Native American tradition. The date of a powwow, or learning of all nations, is announced in advance. There is an open competition part to the powwow where dance and drum groups compete with each other and then there is a private undisclosed part to the powwow that is sacred. Preparations for the powwow include: constructing a building for the Elders and some special platforms; obtaining gifts for the guests, singers, dancers, and Elders; and, preparing the feasts. The host drum usually sings traditional songs at the Grand Opening and Closing.
This is an annual dance ceremony where the tribe comes together to offer thanks to Great Spirit for the bounty of the previous year; to pray for renewal of the tribe and the Earth; to promote health; and to socialize and renew friendships.
This preparatory ceremony of spiritual renewal purifies and cleanses a person for lengthy fasting, for dancing, for important life events, and for undertaking endeavors. With the assistance of a Medicine Person, the sweat lodge is also a place of sacred refuge where one can receive guidance and answers to questions from spirit helpers, animal totems, Mother Earth, and the Great Spirit. The sweat lodge is usually a small structure with a framework of saplings and a covering of skins or blankets with a small flap to regulate the temperature inside. In the center there is a hallowed space blessed with tobacco and sweetgrass that is filled with hot rocks and then water is poured on them to generate steam. The ceremony (which usually includes prayers, songs, chants, and drumming) releases all impurities and sends them out on the four winds.
The Keeping of Souls
This is a purification ceremony for the Soul of a deceased loved one which enables the soul to return to the Great Spirit. This release of a purified departed soul to travell to the Great Creator can occur as long as a year after death.
This is a private and important coming of age ceremony which requires a preparatory period of fasting, meditation, and physical challenge. Usually undertaken only by boys, this ceremony involves separating from the tribe and going off into a wilderness area in quest of both a vision that will show them their life's walk; and, a guardian spirit who will support them and help them develop throughout their lifetime. An attribute of this power animal enters the person on the visionquest and afterwards becomes part of their name (Sitting Bull, Black Elk).
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