Rituals and Customs
Although Indian beliefs and customs represent a wide range of sources and have evolved over millennia, many of them are remarkably similar. Most tribes, especially among the Plains Indians, have traditionally practiced some form of potlatch, or give-away ceremonies, highlighted by the lavish distribution of goods and food to members of other clans, villages, or tribes. The potlatch embodies a sense of communal responsibility reaching back to aboriginal times, and the tradition is tied in with the democratic beliefs of The People. Anyone elected to a leadership position was expected to give away all his possessions so as not to be able to profit materially from his new position. Related to that is a belief in stewardship rather than ownership of the land. The Europeans who settled America had difficulty comprehending this as they kept trying to buy land from the Indians.
In many cases, however, tribes differ among themselves as to specific rituals and ceremonies. According to Sioux tradition, for instance, seven ceremonies were taught to tribal elders by the Buffalo Calf Woman, who appeared to two members of the Sioux tribe in a vision and explained that the sacred pipe was to be used in seven rites. She also taught the seven ceremonies to the tribe, the first in person and the other six in visions granted after she departed, leaving behind her sacred bundle, which is still kept on one of the Sioux reservations. The medicine bundle remains a significant element of Indian religion, a collection of sacred objects carried by Native American males of any importance in their community. The bundles’ “medicine” consists of sacred objects that facilitate interaction with the supernatural, especially a pipe and tobacco, which are smoked whenever the bundle is unwrapped and used for religious purposes. Some of the bundle’s contents are incorporeal, such as songs and rituals that go with it when the bundle is bought or sold. Historically, one could own more than one bundle, a sign of wealth or importance within the tribe.
Rituals and ceremonies of special significance, especially among plains Indians, include the Sweat Lodge ceremony (communal spiritual cleansing); Vision Quest (a rite of passage for the young or spiritual quest for adults); Sun Dance Ceremony (an annual tribal thanksgiving to the Great Spirit held in late summer); Making Relatives (entering a relationship with a nonrelative that is stronger than kinship); Preparing a Girl for Womanhood; and Throwing the Ball (a ritual that evolved into a game upon which LaCrosse is based). The sacred pipe, ritually filled with tabacco or tobacco substitute — but never with any psychotropic substance as is often mistakenly believed — is passed among participants at all sacred ceremonies (inhaling is not required of nonsmokers).