The Native Ceremonies
of Life
by Charla Hermann

Here are descriptions of some of the types of ceremonies practiced by Native Americans, which will be helpful to you in understanding the nature and mending of these ancient ways, whether you are thinking of participating, or just would like to know what they are about.

Ceremonial Drumming
Singing & Dancing *

The real emotion of the ancient ceremonies is captured in the singing, drumming and dancing. The sounds wrapped in breath are a healing experience alone. When you add to them the heartbeat of the drum and the natural motions of the body, you begin to form a new prayer. A living prayer. Each dance has it's own history, purpose and ritual. Each dance has it's own songs and motion to reach through the depths of the drum to shake awake the soul. Participating in many of these dances take long months of preparation and require a Vision Quest before they even become a possibility for you. It requires an understanding. Meanwhile some of the other dances may become part of that understanding. The completion of ceremonial dances becomes a victory over self and a beginning of a new motion for living.

Tobacco Offerings *

The very first thing that should be mastered in honoring the Native American ways is the gifting of tobacco. Using pure tobacco with no alcohol additives is a must. Tobacco, like sage, cedar and sweetgrass are a symbol of a form of sacrament of the fruits of the earth. It is offered in many ways. The most basic is a loose pinch offered to the earth as you make a prayer. It may be an offering before you cut a tree or as you pick up a road kill animal or bird. You take it a step further when you make prayer ties. The same pinch of tobacco wrapped in a small square of fabric and tied together with a specific number of ties to be used in ceremony. The other way, and the most important way is the pouch of tobacco wrapped in a large piece of red fabric to be given to a teacher or leader of ceremony. This is a contract and for some cultures an acknowledgment of payment for services to be rendered. This should always be given before you ask for healing, teaching; or direction in a matter of importance. It is showing honor and respect for what is being offered.


The ceremonial burning of sage, cedar, and sweetgrass is another thing you see happening in every ceremony. We smudge, clear the air, so to speak, before we make the connection with the spirits. Burned in smudge sticks or loose in a bowl or shell, the billows of smoke surround your body to purify your thoughts and cleanse your heart. These herbs provide an instant healing vehicle as you open your lungs and begin to breathe and think and connect with the spirits.

The Chanunpa

The Sacred Pipe is used only in ceremonial smoking. it is filled in a ritual manner with a smoking mixture of herbs and pure tobacco.
It is not used to smoke pot!
When one prays with the Pipe it is said that the smoke carries our prayers td the sky to the keepers of health and happiness. A Pipe carrier is one that is selected by the community to honor these ways and take on the responsibility of carrying the Pipe in a good way.
There is much to learn about it's responsibility before picking it up as it carries you to new places and experience. The Chanunpa is a teacher? and protector of all that is good. With it we pray for health and happiness in a sacred way.

Sacred Stone People's Lodge*

This is the oldest ceremony known to mankind. It has been shared in many cultures, but it is the Native American way that has gained so much popularity in the last fifteen years. Each lodge and ceremony is very different, depending on the purpose and the people involved. It is said that the water and the rocks do the work and the water pourer (leader of the ceremony) is merely an instrument of the spirits. It is a ceremony that brings together the power of the elements; the earth, the water, the fire, and the air. The Sweat Lodge, or Inipi, is the return to the womb of the Mother Earth for a release and purification. It provides a mighty healing for those needing to sweat out the toxins of dis-ease. It provides a balance for those wishing to soothe the troubled emotions and get balanced to function again. Today, many doctors, chiropractors and psychologists are sending their patients to the Sweat Lodge to complete the healing process.
The lodge is a small hut that looks like a turtle. It is low and dark. As you get on your hands and knees to enter, it is hard to carry a bad attitude into the darkness of your ignorance. The stones that are about the size of a cantaloupe are heated in a ceremonial fire for about two hours, and glow red as they enter the pit in the center of the lodge. They are brought in to honor each of the sacred powers in a sacred numerology depending on the leader's choice of ceremony to be performed. There are as many styles to how this ritual is performed as there are water pourers. Good water pourers have trained for a long time and have served in each of the four positions of the lodge before they ever take on this responsibility. They have been trained in the healing properties of the body, mind, and spirit and are aware of the potential dangers as well as the positive effects of the lodge. They have a ceremony for marriage, for funerals and blessings as well as preparations for elevated ceremonies such as the Vision Quest. There are four main positions or keepers of the lodge, the fire keeper, the door keeper, the drummer/singer and the water pourer. All work in unison and brings all of their energy into the lodge. For some, the Sweat Lodge is a one time experience out of curiosity, for others it is the gateway to an awakening of spirit that will last a lifetime.

Vision Quest*

This is another ceremony that is observed in as many styles and traditions as the Sweat Lodge. The preparations and completion of this ritual may take from six months to a year and involve many personal healing processes. It may require the participation in other ceremonies such as the Sweat Lodge or fasting with prayer. One should always know the terms and conditions of the Quest before they make arrangements to participate. In the old days it was done at a younger age, now age has nothing to do with the need to stop time and reflect. The prayers made are personal and for all living beings. The vision may be a mere sense of knowing or a Technicolor visit from an ancient one. The Quest may last anywhere from one to four days and nights. Usually in a complete fast with no food or water, and a support circle keeping ceremony going in your behalf. However, for many the Quest is alone in the wilderness with a journal and a jug of water. And that is just as powerful.

Author's Note:

As one who has studied and traveled with Native Elders for many years, I would caution you to be respectful of the power that is being called upon. Many ceremonies are not for the lighthearted or curiosity seekers and can cost you your life if you are not careful and in good hands. Know who to trust. Just because a person says they are from the reservation, don't mean you should blindly trust them with your spiritual life. You can be ripped off or get caught up in the ceremonial "Who's on first." It's not all sunshine surrounded with pink light. These ceremonies push buttons and make you deal with your issues.
It is wise to understand what one is going to participate in and the mechanics of the ceremony before jumping into it.. It is even wiser to understand why you feel the need to participate.
Last but not least, don't be naive about these practices, don't glamorize them and don't. show disrespect by telling a Medicine Teacher that you are doing it because you wanted to experience something different.. You would be better off going to Disneyland. You need to be clear with your purpose and desire for understanding. If it is a power trip that you are looking for, you may miss the joy of completion of the process. Most of all, you can't buy medicine, you must earn it.

Copyright (c) by Charla Hermann. All rights reserved.

Back to Table of Contents