Heritage Special: Honoring and Understanding Traditions, Customs and Beliefs

By NAT Staff

(Homepage image courtesy of artist Russ Docken and Wild Wings LLC)

running strong for american indian youth
(Photo Credit: Running Strong for American Indian Youth)

Native American Heritage Month

In 1990, President George W. Bush approved a congressional joint resolution, designating November as "National American Indian Heritage Month," now known as Native American Heritage Month in honor of American's first citizens.

Early Proponents

One of the proponents of an American Indian Day was Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca and Director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, New York. He persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a day for the "First Americans" and for three years they adopted such a day. In 1915, the annual Congress of the American Indian Association formally approved a plan endorsing “American Indian Day”. It directed its President, Rev. Sherman Coolidge, to call upon the nation to observe such a day. Coolidge issued a proclamation, the first appeal for recognition of Indians as citizens.

red fox james
Photo of Red Fox James. Curtesy of Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress Public Domain

Red Fox James, a member of the Blackfoot Tribe, rode horseback from state to state seeking approval for a day to honor America’s first citizens. On December 14, 1915, he presented endorsements from 24 state governments at the White House. However, there is no record of a national day ever being proclaimed.

State Celebrations

The first official American Indian Day celebrated by a state was declared in May 1916 by the Governor of New York, Charles S. Whitman. In Illinois, legislators enacted such a day in 1919, and other states designated Columbus Day as their Native American Day.

Pow Wows and Festivals

A Pow Wow (also Powwow or Pow-Wow) is considered the most popular event held by tribal communities, and Native organizations serving urban and rural populations. Pow Wows are a gathering to meet and dance, sing, socialize and honor traditions. There are generally dancing competitions featuring traditional dances, often with prize money awarded. Pow Wows vary in length from a one-day gathering to well-known Pow Wows which can be up to one week long.

The Gathering of Nations three-day festival is the nation’s largest. It features over three thousand traditional singers and dancers competing for prizes. (Photo Credit: Derek Mathews, Courtesy of Gathering of Nations Limited)

There are six types of dances generally performed. They are the Men's Traditional Dance, Men's Fancy Dance, Men's Grass Dance, Women's Traditional Dance, Women's Fancy Shawl Dance, and the Jingle Dress Dance.

Each one signifies a meaning and is considered a celebration of history. And, there are inter-tribal dances where anyone may join and dance within the arena circle.

The participants who dance are not considered “performers” per se, as their motivation is to honor tradition and pay homage to their ancestors’ beliefs and way of life.

(Photo Credit: Derek Mathews, Courtesy of Gathering of Nations Limited)

Eleanor Spears Dove, Narragansett elder, samples a strawberry from a basket passed at the Narragansett Strawberry Thanksgiving, another popular event.

A Pow Wow is a great opportunity for photographers. However, there are instances where it is not permitted to photograph dancers. Ask the MC or an organizational staffer when it’s appropriate to take pictures. It is also suggested to request the permission of performers, as well.

Honor Thy Family and Elders

Jones Benally Family
The Jones Benally Family (Photo Credit: Rachel Running)

 For Native Americans, family can extends further than parents and siblings. Some families are known to form an extended family. In these extended families, other households come together and represent a separate community within the tribe.  Some family structures are matriarchal and others more patriarchal but being  part of an extended family allows each individual to claim or be delegated responsibilities.

running strong for american indian youth
Young people and others revere elders as mentors and leaders. (Photo Credit: Running Strong for American Indian Youth)

Elders are regarded as highly respected people who provide wisdom and council. One is regarded an Elder when they reach their older years, although the age may vary from tribe to tribe. In some instances, if a person is a source of spiritual and meaningful wisdom, they are considered an Elder regardless of age.

The majority of tribes and Native American urban organizations maintain Elders’ programs, which signifies how much they are appreciated. It is not uncommon to see children serving Elders food at community gatherings, or acquiring comfortable seats for them.



Sacred smoke created from burning medicinal or sacred plants is a footprint of many cultures and religious followings worldwide. In North America, the practice is called smudging. The general purpose of a smudging ceremony is to purify and cleanse the negative thoughts and energy of a person. It is also used to purify a physical location.

There are four elements involved in traditional ceremonies. The first is a shell container to represent water. The earth plants which comprise the second element are cedar, sage, sweetgrass, and tobacco. The fire produced from lighting the sacred plants (one or more) represents the third element, and the smoke produced from the fire signifies air, the fourth element.

Elements included in ceremonies are cedar, sage, sweetgrass, and tobacco. (Photo Credit: Mother Earth Essentials)

The smoke which heals the mind, heart and body is wafted over the person (by hand or with an eagle feather) and the person being smudged ushers the smoke toward their direction and gently inhales. Afterwards, the ashes are returned to mother earth by disposing them on bare soil, where all negative thoughts and feelings have been absorbed by the ashes. Some enthusiasts smudge themselves, and others can lead a smudge by holding the container and directing the smoke to cover others.

In recent years, hospitals and health providers have modified their policies and procedures to accommodate smudging, because it is vital to so many Indigenous patients. Some school districts acknowledge smudging is important for Indigenous students, and there are written guidelines and protocols for schools to follow.

Connection to Mother Earth (Unci Maka)

native hope
Photo Credit: Native Hope

Every day is Earth Day throughout Indigenous communities, and the connection to Mother Earth is deeper than that of many conservationists. All life passes through Mother Earth, and perhaps most profound are the words of Chief Seattle in his Treaty Oration of 1854:

"Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event of days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch.”

Painting depicting Native American Harmony stereotype. (Photo Credit: Historic Ipswich)

As Ojibwe legend reads, the Creator sat alone in deep thought and created Mother Earth. From the soil of the Earth, two companions came forth, a man and a woman. Beside the man the Creator placed a bow and arrow. This signified the man was the protector and provider of food. Next to the woman he placed a birch bark basket filled with seeds, representing the natural resources given to the Ojibwe people. Then, the Creator blew life into the woman and the man and proclaimed, "Take care of Mother Earth, and she will take care of you. Take only what you need and remember to put down tobacco before you accept this gift from Mother Earth."


Photo Credit: NAT Archives

Before the age of global positioning systems or compasses, people looked to the stars to find their way. And before civilizations knew what stars were, people formed their own beliefs about their significance. In North America, indigenous tribes had differing ideas about what the stars meant, some believing that the night sky had spiritual meaning, and some attributing human-like qualities to the twinkling objects.

Archaeoastronomy is the study of how people of the past understood the stars and the sky, however this broadly applies to all ancient cultures. The Mayans, Celts, and Egyptians alike all had their own methods for tracking the movement of the stars and heavenly bodies, but all of these cultures have the common belief that the phenomenon above their heads was somehow larger and greater than they were. As such, the vast majority of ancient cultures associated the origins of everything, including the sky, moon, sun and earth with some form of mythology related to the stars. Astronomy played in an important role in early Native American cultures, serving as the basis for governance, agricultural practices and more. And studying the stars also caused tribes to theorize about the beginning of life in the universe.

The Pawnee’s Guiding Principles


The Skidi band of the Pawnee Indians referred to a ring of stars in the sky as “The Council of Chiefs.” The Pawnee believed the circle represented their governance style of elders holding council to resolve important matters. This constellation was paramount to the way the Pawnee interacted daily as well as their religious beliefs. They used the stars to set agricultural patterns and embody their own societal values. The Council of Chiefs was connected to their “Chief Star,” what is now referred to as Polaris, which represented their primary god Tirawahat. They built their lodges with openings at the top – not only to allow smoke to escape from warming fires inside, but to allow a clear view of the “Council” stars. Today, those stars are known as the Corona Borealis.

The Anasazi

crab nebula
The Crab Nebula

In New Mexico, researchers found a cave painting that appears to depict a supernova explosion; the orientation of a crescent moon and stars indicate that the art may represent the Crab Nebula, formed in 1054 A.D. by supernova. The Anasazi way of life remains somewhat of a mystery, but researchers found that the tribe built a solar observatory, suggesting that the sky was extremely important to the Anasazi way of life.

Navajo Creation of the Sky

A Navajo legend describes the Four Worlds that had no sun and the Fifth World, which represents Earth. According to the legend, the first people of the Fifth World were given four lights but were dissatisfied with the amount of light they had on Earth. After many attempts to satisfy the people, the First Woman created the sun to bring warmth and light to the land, and the moon to provide coolness and moisture. These were crafted from quartz, and, when there were bits of quartz that were left behind by the carving, they were tossed into the sky to make stars.

Hopi Blue Star

Like the Navajo, the Hopi believe there were worlds before this one. The modern era is believed to be the Fourth World, and each world that came before this one ended with the appearance of “the blue star.” In carvings created by the Hopi in the American Southwest, it seems what they saw may have led them to a belief in aliens, a belief that certainly retains a place in the culture of the U.S. to this day.

The divisions between Native American cultures were not unlike the divisions between the societies of today, so few myths extend beyond a single tribe. With the same sky overhead, ancient myths from around the world do share much in common. The History & Culture channel of the Chickasaw TV website features the tribe’s myths about Creation and the Great Flood, two stories repeated again and again throughout most cultures of the world, proving that, even when the world seemed impossibly large, many people were not far from each other, in terms of what they believed under the night sky.

R.C. Gorman
Photo Credit: R.C. Gorman. Available at Amazon


Photo Credit: The Stay-at-Home Chef

According to the Navajos, frybread was founded in 1864 at the time the tribe was force-relocated 300-miles to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. It was difficult to farm the new land, as it could not support the tribe’s needs for vegetables and beans. In turn, frybread was created as an additional food source using flour, sugar, salt and lard provided by the government.

The delicacy connects one generation to the next and reminds many of the painful narrative of the past. Served both at home and at gatherings, frybread varies from region to region, meaning there are different recipes. One can generally find frybread at State Fairs and Pow Wows.

the sioux chef instagram
The Annual Honoring Native Foodways event at UNC Pembroke, where many original dishes are celebrated. (Photo Credit: The Sioux Chef Instagram)

The recipe contains flour, water, salt, a small amount of oil, and baking powder. Ingredients are kneaded into dough. It is then rolled into small balls and placed into frying-hot oil. Some variations of this popular recipe include substituting mayonnaise for the oil, which produces a crispy, crunchy texture. In many households, frybread is mixed early in the morning and left in a large bowl covered with a cloth to leaven, and used throughout the day to prepare fresh bread when needed.

Frybread was named the official state bread of South Dakota in 2005.

Death Ceremonies

chris parfitt
Photo Credit: Chris Parfitt

There are 574 tribes across America. Many have their own variation on funeral proceedings, which includes the use of languages, symbols, ceremonial objects and practice. Traditions say the natural world is a sacred place and birth, life and death exist in an endless cycle.

Tree Burial was a Sioux tribal tradition and practiced by other tribes. It was also the custom of aboriginal peoples in Australia.

In traditional funerals, the family attends to the deceased, where they wash and dress the body and place it in a shawl or casket. The body may be honored for days prior to burial and embalming is avoided. Through modern technology, the body is preserved with refrigeration techniques, as well dry ice.

The Shoshone-Bannock protocol is the body lies in state, inside a tipi with a fire burning outside. Women feed visitors and children are taught the manner of how to enter the tipi and other traditional ways. Some families dress the deceased in moccasins, to wear as they travel to next world.

Around the year 1500, the conquistadors of Spain and missionaries introduced Catholicism to the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico. Native Americans added those religious practices to tribal ceremonies, which resulted in a mixture of Indigenous customs and Catholic beliefs.

Historians believe burials similar to this re-enactment may have taken place in Readington Township, New Jersey, in the Cushetunk Mountain area. (Photo Credit: Hunterdon Review)  

In all, every family and tribe follows their chosen way to honor the departed, and the length of mourning can vary by tribe.

Medicinal Peyote and Worship

Photo Credit: ICEERS

Peyote is a small cactus and Mexican Indians have consumed the plant for over 2,000 years to cure any number of ailments. Over the past 200 years, peyote use has been noted among Native Americans, mostly tribes located in the Southern Plains.

Medicinal uses for Peyote vary. It is applied externally for rheumatism, wounds, burns, snakebites, and skin diseases. The cactus can be boiled in water to produce “peyote tea”, its purpose to help heal medical ailments including tuberculosis, pneumonia, scarlet fever, intestinal diseases, diabetes, and the common cold. The peyote ceremony (or “meeting”) may differ among tribes, but it is always dedicated for healing a chosen individual and during ceremonies, everyone prays for the person who is ill.

Photo Credit: Transpersonal Spirit

It is important to remember peyote is considered a narcotic. Many people feel it is improper, and the healing ceremony should be restricted to pray for the medically challenged. Over the fifty-year period (1880s-1930s), the federal government attempted to ban peyote. But with the establishment of the Native American Church (NAC), they failed in the effort. Federal law now permits peyote use among members of the NAC, and to non-Natives residing in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon.

Vision Quests

A Vision Quest is a “rite of passage”, and generally undertaken by young males entering adulthood. Individual Indigenous communities have their own names for the rite of passage, and "Vision Quest" is the English-language connotation.

Among the cultures who practice this rite, ceremonies are generally led by Elders, and supported by the young man's family, friends and community. The process entails fasting for four days and during the Vision Quest, the young person prays and cries out to the spirits fr a vision, one that will help them find purpose in life, their role in a community, and how they may best serve the People. An elder monitors the participant over the four-day period, and the experience is interpreted by the quester and elder together.

canyonlands national park
A Vision Quest site located at Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah. Most locations feature a circle of rocks about ten feet wide. (Photo Credit: Emaze)

Sweat Lodge

A sweat lodge is a low-profile hut, typically dome-shaped or oblong and constructed with natural materials, for example saplings covered with blankets and animal skins. The structure is called the lodge, and the ceremony is regarded as a purification, or simply a “sweat”.

andrew soliz stands next to his sweat lodge
Andrew Soliz stands next to his backyard sweat lodge. (Photo Credit: Don Leach of Los Angeles Times Coastline Pilot

In all cases, the sweat is intended as a spiritual ceremony – it is for prayer and healing, and the ceremony is led by elders (or qualified parties) who understand the associated language, songs, traditions, and safety protocols.

Many tribes conduct sweat lodge ceremonies. The Chumash of California build their sweat lodges in coastal areas in close proximity to their residences. The ancient Mesoamerican tribes of Mexico, Aztec and Olmec, practiced their ceremonies as a religious rite of penance and purification.

first nations health authority
Photo Credit: First Nations Health Authority

The ceremony often includes traditional prayers and songs and in some cultures, offerings to the spirit world may be a part of the experience. Or, the sweat may be a component of a longer ceremony, like a Sun Dance.

Some key elements associated with sweat lodges include:

Training – It is necessary the leader of a lodge go through intensive training, where they are able to pray and speak fluently in that culture’s language. As well, they understand how to facilitate the proceedings in a safe manner. Leadership roles are generally granted by the Elders, not self-designated.

Orientation – The lodge door may face a sacred fire and be orientated in cardinal directions representing symbolism from that culture. The physical location of the lodge is considered an important factor in the ceremony's connection with the spirit world.

Construction – Sweat lodges are built with care and knowledge, holding respect for the environment and the materials being utilized.

Clothing – Participants usually wear simple garments, like shorts or a loose dress. Modesty is important, and don’t forget to bring plenty of water!

Due to some peoples’ underlying health issues, there have been reports of lodge-related deaths resulting from overexposure to heat, dehydration, smoke inhalation, or improper lodge construction. Before joining a lodge, be certain to ensure the facilitators are spiritually qualified and follow proper safety protocols.

(Editor’s Note: The Mythology section of this article was culled from NAT Archives, and its author is Grady Winston from Legends of America

Homepage image courtesy of artist Russ Docken and Wild Wings LLC.