Significance of Ritual in North American Indian Religion

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Significance of Ritual in North American Indian Religion

Submitted by: Dan Xxxxxxxx,
November 12, 1996
Submitted to: Dr. John X. Xxxxxxx
RELST 110.6.01

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...
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