Rituals, Beliefs and Customs of Native American Culture
NATIVE AMERICAN VIEW OF LAND OWNERSHIP
Many of the native inhabitants of America had no such concept of land ownership. Native belief
essentially held that the land was a gift from the creator, to be used in common by all of the society
for survival and sustenance. In many native societies, no single individual owned the land and no legal
institution existed to exclude certain classes of persons from the land. Land ownership, then, was a
fluid concept, especially among the nomadic tribes who moved from area to area with the seasons of
The native peoples lived off the land. They did not practice wholesale extraction of resources such as
timber, fish, and wildlife as did their European contemporaries. In part this was because the land
could sustain their small populations and because their needs were relatively simple by European
standards of their day.
By contrast, the European settlers wanted the creature comforts to which they had been accustomed
in Europe. These comforts included commercially manufactured food, clothing, furniture, and so on.
Additionally, the new settlers needed to transfer as much wealth as possible, and as quickly as
possible, from the New World to their mother countries.
Many native peoples nourished their spiritual sides by belief in one or more deities, who served them
in many ways. Each Native American culture had its own system of religious beliefs. The European
settlers, like all human beings, viewed the religious practices of others through the lens of their own
experiences. Unfortunately, this, like the land-tenure issue, had dire consequences for the American
Indians, consequences that exist to this day. As part of the acculturation process, Europeans tried to
stamp out native religious practices in America.
HEALING AND RITUAL MEDICINE
Health and healing are among the most important concerns of Native American ritual. It is essential
to understand the concept of health other than in the terms of Western medicine. Many Native
American cultures understand illness not as the result of some biochemical, physiological, or
psychological malady, but as a sign of disorder in society or the world, which is then reflected in the
illness of an individual. Diagnosis thus consists of discerning the status of the community or the world.
Healing requires repairing or restructuring these environmental concerns.
Lakota Plains Indians Healing
Bear Dreamer Society is composed of Lakota medicine people whose specialty is curing the severely
wounded. Anyone cured by these medicine people becomes a member of the Bear Dreamer Society.
The leader of the society is one who has had a dream about the bear and knows the use of the bear
Bear Dreamer Society healing takes place in a tipi whose floor is covered with sage. Society members
sing and beat round drums, while members who may have different types of medicine dance about the
wounded patient. Suddenly the leader comes growling through the tipi entrance. He is painted red
except for his hands, which are painted white. He carries a knife, and if a dog is present during the
ceremony he may kill it and eat it raw. The leader faces all four directions as the other members
move the wounded person to the place of honor at the rear of the tipi and apply healing roots to his
The Ghost Dance was actually a religious revitalization movement started by the powerful healing
medicine person Wovoka (Jack Wilson) among the Paviotso in Nevada. While experiencing a high fever,
Wovoka saw the Christian God and was told to carry the message of end times to his people: the dead
would soon return, and the intruding White people would be annihilated.
The 1890 Ghost Dance spread primarily to tribes who lived east of those influenced by the Ghost
Dance of 1870, never reaching western Oregon. Among the Plains tribes, the Ghost Dance of 1890 was
a factor in the last clash with the U.S. Army at Wounded Knee, where hundreds of Lakota men,
women, and children were massacred. The Wounded Knee Massacre effectively ended the millennial
expectations of the movement, although Ghost Dancing has persisted to the present as a dance form
among some tribes.
Eastern Woodlands Healing
Eastern Woodlands Native Americans used herbs instead of ritual to heal their sick.
The medicine man carried herbs in a bag, much like early doctors did. An anthropologist described the
contents of one such bag: which contained a stone the size of a nut, a bark figure in the shape of a
wolverine decorated with black and white beadwork, a little 1-foot bow, and a 1-foot stick decorated
with red and white porcupine quills that had two dozen dewclaws of moose attached to the end (most
likely a rattle).
Most common are power objects made from animal bones, which can be acquired in two ways. One way
is for a person to take the bones from the desired animal and throw them into a stream. The bones
that travel upstream have sufficient power to aid the shaman in his activities. The other way is for
the likeness of the selected animal to be carved into the bone.
The making and using of bone figures by shamans has not been reported for any other Algonquin people.
The shaman sends forth his ntiómel to do his bidding. From such descriptions, one can assume that
these objects are representations of the shaman's helping spirits.
Northwest Coastal Indian Healing
A shamanic healing ritual that has become part of the annual Spirit Dance ceremonial in the Upper
Stalo region. The ritual "is a vestige of the ancient psychodramatic enactment of a collective
shamanic boat journey to the land of the dead". This ceremony includes a group psychotherapeutic
approach in which the shaman asks the participants to "render active assistance through mental
concentration on the patient in order to 'help him."
The ceremony includes the use of two power boards, called skudilitc, or power sticks that have the
capacity to heal. The power sticks are loop-shaped pieces of naturally twisted cedar branches or bark,
wrapped with scarlet cloth. The power boards are rectangular cedar boards, approximately 30 by 45
centimeters (12 by 18 inches), with slots cut into them by which they are held. Sometimes they are
carved or painted with a face or a skeletal figure. When painted, they are usually black and white or
black and red.
Southeastern Native American Healing- Cherokee Indians
Most Cherokee healers are men, although women doctors do exist. When healing a patient, the first
activity of a medicine man is to diagnose the cause of the ailment—the "seat of the pain." To this end,
the medicine man questions the patient regarding his or her dreams and possible taboo violations.
The diagnosis is very thorough and often investigates dreams from two or three years earlier.
Diagnosis is an individual matter, and some medicine men rely more on physical symptoms, such as
headaches or rings around the eyes, than on the patient's dreams. In any event, it is most important
to discover the real cause of the disease so that the medicine man can work against it and force it to
release its hold on the patient. Almost all diseases are caused by human ghosts, animal spirits, or
If there is a problem making the diagnosis, the medicine man resorts to a divination method known as
"examining the beads." To do this, "the medicine man holds a black bead (called adälön), between
thumb and index finger of the left hand, a white or red bead between forefinger and thumb of the
right hand, and, reciting an appropriate formula, examines what are the chances of the sick man. The
brisk movements of the righthand bead gives an affirmative answer; its sluggish movements, or its
remaining motionless, a negative answer". These beads were considered the preeminent instrument
for determining a true diagnosis and prognosis.
Once the diagnosis is complete, the medicine man prescribes the proper formula. Each ailment has its
own formula that outlines a specific healing ritual, and different medicine men own different
formulas. If the medicine man making the diagnosis does not own the particular formula needed, the
owner of the proper formula is called for. These formulas have been recorded bv the Cherokee
shamans in various ways over the years. For instance, the Swimmer manuscript contains 137 formulas
written in Sequoyan syllabary. Each formula usually involves the use of plants, spirits, and message
techniques, coupled with certain taboo observations. There are also prescribed songs or recitations to
be given by the medicine man at specific points in the healing ceremony.
Although specific plants are called for in each formula, what is most important in determining their
efficacy is the plant's physical appearance. For instance, the formula might call for the plant to have
only one stem, or inverted roots, or branches that incline in a certain way. The time of collecting, such
as during a rainstorm, and the place, such as bark obtained from the sunny side of a tree, are also all
part of the formula. Furthermore, plants are not considered to be efficacious unless they are used in
a prescribed number—usually four or seven, the two most sacred numbers to the Cherokee. Once
gathered, the plants are generally either pounded and steeped in water, or boiled before use.
Navajo Indian Religion and Healing
Among the Navaho of the Southwest, healing rites culminate with the preparation of a picture made of
sand. Through ritual, it is “brought to life,” and then the person seeking healing sits within. The sweat
lodge, in which, along with a sweat bath, religious teachings, prayer, and intimate communion are
shared, has spread from the plains people like the Lakota, Crow, and Ojibwa throughout the Native
Navajo healing is based on the premise that a person's illness is caused by the individual's being out of
harmony with life, and sprinkling a person with corn pollen helps reestablish that harmony. In their
ceremonies, corn pollen is said to be pure and immaculate. As such, this substance has the power to
drive off the forces that produce disharmony. In fact, it is so powerful that it is often carried by
individuals simply for good luck. Within the context of healing, many Navajo shamans claim that corn
pollen is their most powerful medicine—not in the sense of a plant used for healing, but in the sense
of its ritualistic power. For example, during the Blessingway Ceremony, the application of corn pollen
to the hogan being used for the ritual transforms that structure into the original hogan in which
Changing Woman first experienced Blessingway. All the beauty (blessing) that comes into the hogan
during the ceremony is attributed to corn pollen. Corn pollen also serves as a bridge between humans
and spirits; it is spoken of as "the door path of Talking God." Finally, it is seen as a food for spirits
and as a healing food for humans.
In his classic study on Navajo witchcraft, Clyde Kluckhohn  described the practice by creating
four technical terms: witchery, sorcery, wizardry, and frenzy witchcraft. Witchery includes all
phenomena that the Navajo call ánti. For example, ántizi means "Witcheryway."
"The classic Witchery Way technique is that mentioned in the emergence legend. A preparation
(usually called 'poison' by English-speaking informants) is made of the flesh of corpses. The flesh of
children and especially of twin children is preferred, and the bones at the back of the head and skin
whorls are the prized ingredients. When this 'corpse poison' is ground into powder it 'looks like
pollen.' It may be dropped into a hogan from the smokehole, placed in the nose or mouth of a sleeping
victim or blown from furrowed sticks into the face of someone in a large crowd. 'Corpse poison' is
occasionally stated to have been administered in a cigarette. Fainting, lockjaw, a tongue black and
swollen, immediate unconsciousness or some similar dramatic symptom is usually said to result
promptly. Sometimes, however, the effects are less obvious. The victim gradually wastes away, and
the usual ceremonial treatments are unavailing".
Sorcery is one aspect of those activities that the Navajo refer to by the -ndzin stem. Sorcery, called
inzid, is essentially an enchantment by spell. Most informants regard it as a branch of witchery way,
but unlike witcheryway, the sorcerer need not personally encounter his victim. Instead, the sorcerer
obtains a personal item from the intended victim such as a piece of clothing, a fingernail, or a lock of
hair. This is "buried with flesh or other material from a grave or buried in a grave or under a lightning-
struck tree". The sorcerer then recites the proper incantation, which consists of a prayer, a song, or
both. There are also rare instances of sorcerers making images of their victims from clay or carving
them from wood and then killing or torturing the victims by sticking pins into the effigies or shooting
projectiles into them.
Wizardry refers to those practices that the Navajo call adagash. "The central concept here is that of
injecting a foreign particle (stone, bone, quill, ashes, charcoal) into the victim. The projectiles are
often described as 'arrows.' English-speaking Navajos will occasionally refer to this kind of
witchcraft as 'bean-shooting,' but the majority of informants stated that actual beans were never
used.... The shooting was apparently believed by a few informants to be carried out through a tube,
but the majority opinion was that the objects were placed in a special sort of red basket or on a cloth
or buckskin and made to rise through the air by incantation. According to some informants, shooters
removed their clothes and rubbed ashes on their body before shooting".
Cornmeal is used in many different ritual ways in these corn-centered, agricultural cultures, including
(1) to draw lines that represent paths along which spirits travel or paths that lead people to places
where the presence of the spirits is actualized, (2) to draw lines on the ground to demarcate sacred
spaces, (3) to accompany prayers to the rising sun, (4) as a reinforcement for prayers in general, (5)
to consecrate sacred objects such as prayer sticks and kachina masks, and (6) to place it in the mouth
of a corpse before burial
When a death occurs among the Shawnee, the relatives of the deceased are responsible for the costs
of the funeral and appointing a funeral director. The body is left alone for a few hours and then
bathed and dressed in new clothes and moccasins provided by relatives. The hair of the deceased is
combed and his or her face painted, a man’s variously and a deceased woman’s with a round red spot on
each cheek. The arms of the body are crossed over the chest, and the body is covered with a robe. If
death occurred during the day, family members gather in the home and keep a vigil beside the corpse
all night. If death occurred at night, the vigil is kept through the rest of the night.
When the time comes for burial, the body is removed from the home feet first. Many native peoples
around the world break a new exit through the home in order to remove the corpse (presumably to
confuse the spirit if it should try to return), but the Shawnee remove the corpse through the
ordinary doorway, sweeping the ground or scattering ashes behind the corpse as they go—which
appears to serve the same purpose. The body is laid on the ground near the home, head pointed west
and feet east, while the grave is dug and the initial funeral ceremonies are held. The gravediggers
(which must include a woman) should not be related to the dead person.
Wearing a special necklace for the occasion, the diggers prepare a plot 3 to 4 feet deep, and when it
is ready, the grave is temporarily “closed” with a shovel or stick laid across it while funeral
ceremonies proceed. A speech is directed at the deceased, praising his or her heroic deeds and
personal attributes, and then the body is carried to the grave. It is laid extended on its back, head
west and feet east, with a pillow underneath the head. (Many other Native American tribes tie the
bent legs up to the chest and bury the corpse in a seated fetal position.)
Some Shawnee place items in the grave with the dead, whereas others do not, but in any case many of
the personal items of the dead are given to the gravediggers, cooks, and funeral director after the
interment. The funeral director hands each relative a small amount of tobacco, which is thrown into
the grave as they circumambulate it slowly in single file. After the funeral the mourners head directly
to the home where death occurred, forbidden to look behind as they go. There they wash themselves
with a mixture of water and plant juices for purification and enjoy a large feast provided by the blood
The funeral director and gravediggers initially remain behind with the dead. The director delivers
another address to the dead, and then the gravediggers fill up the grave and build a “grave house”
over the spot. The diggers and anyone who touched the corpse acquire a “death pollution” and are
subject to special purificatory rites, including swimming, bathing, and taking a special tea. They are
then fed by the relatives of the deceased, but separately from the feast for the mourners because
of the temporary pollution they have acquired. After the feast most mourners leave, but a few close
relatives stay with the surviving spouse. One relative lights a fire at the gravesite each night for
three nights after death. The sticks for the fire are laid parallel on an east-west line, and are meant
to guide the spirit of the dead on its journey.
Kachinas are masked figure among the Pueblo peoples and even among other southwestern cultures.
Even when restricted to a single culture, such as Hopi, its meaning is far from simple. It may refer to
anthropomorphic spirit beings who mediate between the human and spiritual worlds, to masked
dancers who personify these spirit beings, or to elaborately carved and decorated dolls of these
beings. Kachinas may be understood as spirits of the dead. The Hopi believe that, upon death, those
who have lived the proper Hopi life go to the west, where they become kachinas, returning to Hopi
villages as clouds. Yet there is no clearly direct link between specific deceased Hopi people and
specific kachina appearances. Hopi kachinas have designated homes in the San Francisco Mountains
near Flagstaff, Arizona, at the spring Kisiwu northeast of Hopi, and other places. The kachinas live in
their homes half the year. During the other half, they live around Hopi villages where they dance and
sing for the people.
Two distinct kinds of Hopi kachinas are recognized: the chief (mon) kachina and the ordinary kachina.
Mon kachinas never dance in groups; ordinary kachinas do. The masks of ordinary kachinas are made by
their owners and redecorated for each performance. Mon kachina masks are permanent and never
duplicated. These masks, considered to be ancestors and objects possessing great power, are handled
with care by the lineage to which they belong. Mon kachinas may compare to the Ones Who Hold Our
Roads (honaawonaawillapona) of the Zuni.
The mask, ku?itu, is the basis for all kachina impersonations. Most masks are shaped like a bell jar and
fit over the head and face of the wearer down to the neck. Each mask is elaborately painted in
designs distinctive to the particular kachina, often incorporating common motifs representing corn,
clouds, lightning, and falling rain. Commonly, feathers and other significant objects are attached to
the masks. When a Hopi man places the mask over his head and wears the appropriate costume, he
becomes the kachina he is representing. Every kachina is identified by name and recognized by
distinctive features of mask and costume. There are several hundred different Hopi kachinas. New
kachinas of the ordinary kind have been added from time to time.
The kachina dance is the most common setting for kachina appearances. By dancing in the villages, the
kachinas summon their "cloud fathers" to come from the six directions and bring rain, the very symbol
of life. This suggests that the kachinas, rather than being literally clouds, are the spirits standing in
close relation to clouds and to the deities that control rain and give life. In the secrecy of the kiva,
from 25 to 60 men belonging to a common society create, learn, and rehearse songs and dances in
preparation for the public kachina dance.
The dances are performed from daybreak to sunset, with intervals of rest. Each performer wears a kilt
woven of white cotton and embroidered along the edge, a woven sash, and buckskin moccasins. Most wear
fox skins hanging from the back of the waist with the tail barely touching the ground. Exposed skin is
covered with paint.
Each dancer wears a turtleshell rattle tied to the calf of his right leg; often a band of sleigh bells is
attached to the left calf. A gourd rattle held in the right hand is also used to accompany the singing. In
line dances all the figures appear identical or with slight individual distinctions. The dancers hold their
bodies erect, with arms close to the sides and hands forward. The dancing is primarily a rhythmic
stepping with occasional synchronized changes in rhythm executed with changes in the step. The songs
and dances performed by the various kachinas are distinctive to the specific kachinas.