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 path the sun
follows represents the path of life. The interpretation of these two directions
seldom varies from tribe to tribe, since the sun is always of great spiritual
importance to primitive cultures. Most commonly the direction south is seen as
representing growth and nurturing, which implies a female gender. The primary
smoker in the ceremony offers smoke in all directions by pointing the stem of
the pipe towards each spiritual recipient, which can be done either before or
after lighting the pipe. In addition to the four horizontal directions, smoke
is also offered in an upward direction which represents the male spirits of the
Sky, the Sun, the West Wind, and the