Updated: Sep 19, 2019
The Circle of Life
"Have you noticed that everything a Native American does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days, when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished.
The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The East gave peace and light, the South gave warmth, The West gave rain and the North, with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our spirituality. Everything the Power of the World does, is done in a circle. The sky is round and the earth is round like a ball and so are the stars. The Wind, in its greatest power whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same spirituality as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were. The life of man is a circle from birth to death and so it is in everything where power moves.
Native cultures in their traditional nature are authentic and dynamic, fostering distinctive and sophisticated development. A sense of identity, pride and self-esteem are rooted in established spiritual principles. Native spiritual life is founded on a belief in the fundamental
inter-connectedness of all things, all forms of life with the universe and to our Mother Earth.
The Medicine Wheel
medicine wheels represent the alignment and continuous interaction of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realities. The circle shape represents the interconnection of all aspects of one’s being, including the connection with the natural world. Medicine wheels are frequently believed to be the circle of awareness of the individual self; the circle of knowledge that provides the power we each have over our own lives. The lives of men and women, as
individual expressions of the Power of the World move in and are nourished by an uninterrupted circular/spiral motion. This circle is often referred to as the Medicine Wheel. Human beings live, breathe and move, giving additional impetus to the circular movement, provided they live harmoniously, according to the circle's vibratory movement. Every seeker has a chance to eventually discover a harmonious way of living with their environment according to these precepts.
The Four Powers
From tribe to tribe, the details may differ but the basic teachings are the same. They have been followed and shared for many, many years. So we honor the ancestors, the ones that have walked before us, because they’re the ones that sat in circles many times before, and prayed that their children and their grandchildren would follow in their path. When we honor the ancestors, we honor ourselves. The four cardinal points of the circle transcend the mere compass directions. The directions themselves embody four powerful natural forces representing seasonal influences associated with various other powerful attributes.
North represents Wisdom. Its color is white, its power animal is the buffalo and its gift is strength and endurance. From the South comes the gift of warmth and growth after winter is over, a place of innocence and trust. Its color is red, its power animal, the mouse. To the West is the place of introspection, of looking within one's spirit. Its color is black, its gift rain and its power animal the bear. The East is marked by the sign of the Eagle. Its color is yrllow for the sun's illumination, the new dawning sky and enlightenment. Its gift is peace and light.
Understanding the meaning of the Medicine Wheel depends on the concept that a person's life consists of"conquering the four hills: Infancy, Youth, Maturity and Old Age. The four stages are celebrated in ritual as the four prime moments in life corresponding to the four directions.
The first hill is the South (innocence and trust) where the infant's reception into life occurs. The second hill, that of introspection, in the West, becomes the youth's solitary vigil and quest for vision. This first quest seeks the revelation of the Great Spirit's manifestation and continuing presence.
This is the time when a power animal attribute enters a Native individual's soul becoming a part of his or her name. ( Black Elk, Spotted Owl, Running Wolf and so on). It marks the beginning of the dweller within, the dreaming soul that contacts the higher spiritual planes bringing back visions that serve as fundamental guide posts in life. The hill of maturity lies to the North and represents the successful realization of ability and ambition. It is the place of recognition in
which the pursuit of wisdom underlies and nourishes all action.
Sympathy with life itself grows in this quarter.
The final hill is that of old age situated in the East. It represents a quiet, reflective and meditative segment where the old ones now can pass on their knowledge to youth as they have mastered the meaning of joy and sorrow and the many other trials and tribulations encountered over the
course of their existence.
Elders may be either men or women. Their most distinguishing characteristic is wisdom which relates directly to experience and age. There are exceptions. Elders need not be "old". Sometimes the spirit of the Great Creator chooses to imbue a young native. Elders' spiritual gifts differ. Some may interpret dreams. Others may be skillful in herbal remedies or be healers during a sweat lodge ceremony, and so on.
Natives communicate with the Great Creator and spirit helpers through
prayers offered at individual or group ceremonies.
Natural Tobacco, Calamus root, Sweet-grass and Tobacco, Sage, red raspberry leaf,mullein, rose petals, catnip and Red Willow bark.
Cloths; blue for the sky and then the four colors representing humanity; the white, yellow, red and black races.
Pipes are used during both private and group ceremonies, the prayer itself being wafted through the smoke of the burning plant material. Pipes are of no set length. Some stems may or may not be decorated with beads or leather. Others may be elaborately carved with bowls inlaid with silver. Bowls may be of wood, soapstone, inlaid or carved in the form of various totemic power animals (an eagle with folded wings) or another sacred animal.
The pipe is disassembled into its component parts while being carried from one place to another. The pipe is never a "personal possession". It belongs to the community. The holder of the pipe is generally considered its custodian. While every native has the right to hold the pipe, in
practise, the privilege must be earned in some religious way. The pipe is usually passed on to another custodian under specific fasting and cleansing rite regulations. There are pipes exclusively used by either men or women. Men's pipes become unclean if touched by women and vice-versa.
Pipe ceremonies constitute the primary group gatherings over which Elders preside. Participants gather in a circle. A braid of sweet-grass is lit and burnt as an incense to purify
worshipers, before the pipe is lit. Burning sweet-grass also symbolizes unity, the coming together of many hearts and minds as one person. The Elder strikes a match, puts it to the end of the sweet-grass braid and fans the smouldering grass with an eagle's feather, to encourage
smoke production. The Elder then goes from person to person in the circle where the smoke is drawn four times by hand gestures toward the head and down the body. The Elder must fan the glowing end to keep it burning properly or the material loses its spark.
Sacred Plants: Red Willow Bark, Sage, Calamus Root, Sweet-grass braid,
Poplar leaves and Tobacco,ceder.
The Elder then places tobacco in the pipe and offers it in the four sacred directions of the compass. Some Western tribes begin by making an offering to the West. Eastern Natives may propitiate the Spirit of the East whence comes the light of the sun at daybreak, who also gives
guidance, direction and enlightenment. Then the Elder faces South where the guardian spirit of growth presides after winter is over. Next is West, the direction of the spirit gateway where reside the souls of those who have left this plane of existence. The spirit of the North
concerned with healing and purification is then addressed.
Spirits will be asked for assistance in the main prayer, which may be specifically for one individual, a participant in the circle or for someone far away or someone who has passed over. The pipe, passed from person to person in the circle, might be offered to all creation, to
those invisible spirit helpers who are always there to guide humanity. The last of the tobacco is offered to the Great Creator.
Fasting is a time-honored way of quickening spirituality in which a growing number of Natives are partaking. An Elder provides the necessary ceremonial setting and conditions to guide the fasting member. Fasting means the total renunciation of food and drink for a specified time
period for vision quests or Sweat lodge ceremonies . Health considerations are evaluated by both the Elder responsible and a physician prior to the fast.
Used mainly for communal prayer purposes, the Sweat Lodge may also provide necessary ceremonial settings for spiritual healing, purification, as well as fasting. Most fasts require a sweat ceremony before and after the event.
Lodge construction varies from tribe to tribe. Generally, it is an igloo-shaped structure about five feet high, built in about one and a half hours from bent willow branches tied together with twine. The structure is then encased in blankets to preclude all light. A maximum of eight participants gather in the dark.
In the center, there is a holy, consecrated virginal section of ground (untrampled by feet and untouched by waste material) blessed by an Elder with tobacco and sweet-grass. There, red hot stones heated in a fire outside the lodge are brought in and doused with water. A doorkeeper on
the outside opens the lodge door four times, contributing four additional hot rocks (representing the four sacred directions) to the center. A prepared pipe is also brought in.
Sweat Lodges may be dismantled after the ceremony is over, but often, they are left standing to accommodate the next ceremony. Lodges may only be entered in the presence of an Elder or Medicine person..
Some ceremonies such as "doctoring" sweat require the participant to eat a meal. There are specific rituals requiring special foods. Sacred food for the Ojibwa for instance consist of wild rice, corn, strawberries and deer meat. Typical feast foods for the Cree from the prairies would
be Bannock (Indian Bread), soup, wild game and fruit (particularly Saskatoon berries or mashed choke cherries). For a West Coast Indian, sacred foods might include fish prepared in a special way. Although foods may differ, their symbolic importance remains the same.
Rattles are shaken to call up the spirit of life when someone is sick. The Elder or Medicine Person also uses a rattle to summon the spirits governing the four directions to help participants who are seeking spiritual and physical cleansing to start a "new" life during a sweat lodge ceremony.
Drums represent the heartbeat of the nation, the pulse of the universe. Different sizes are used depending on "doctoring" or ceremonial purposes. Drums are sacred objects. Each drum has keeper to ensure no-one approaches it under the influence of alcohol or drugs. During
ceremonies, no one may reach across it or place extraneous objects on it.
When a dancer approaches a drum and blows an eagle bone whistle, the drum group responds by singing an appropriate song. The whistle is blown four times to honor the drums, the dancers and the spirit of the eagle. Four verses are sung, one for each time the whistle is blown. Large
pow-wows have strict rules around how often this may occur during a pow-wow session.
Herbs / lncense
Sweet-grass, sage, cedar and tobacco encompass the four sacred plants. Burning these is a sign of deep spirituality in Native practices. Cedar and sage are burned to drive out negative forces when prayer is offered. Sweet-grass, which signifies kindness, is burned to invite good spirits
to enter. Participants also use these purification rituals to smudge regalia, drums and other articles before taking part in a pow-wow.
The four plants are used in both individual and group ceremonies. Each plant was originally given to a specific tribe. Now they are used together or singly as incense which is generally ignited in an abalone shell or another type of container to be passed from person to person in
Prescribed by an Elder or medicine person, plant material can also be worn in a medicine
pouch by a person seeking the mercy and protection of the spirits of the Four Directions. Elders caution Natives not to conceal any other substances in their pouches. To do so would make a mockery of their beliefs.
Peyote, a hallucinogenic material used by Natives in some parts of the US, historically is usually not considered a part of the Canadian Native culture. Other herbs and dried animal parts (diamond willow fungus, dried/powdered beaver testicles and buffalo droppings) are some other
materials that may be burnt in ceremonial functions.
Some say the name is derived from the Algonquian word meaning "to dream". Pow-wow an ancient tradition among aboriginal peoples, is a time for celebrating and socializing after religious ceremonies. In some cultures, the pow-wow itself was a religious event, when families held naming and honoring ceremonies.
For instance, a family celebrating a member's formal entry into the dance circle, or wishing to commemorate the death of a loved one, often hosts a giveaway during a pow-wow. This tradition embodies the value of sharing with others. Gifts such as blankets, bead-work and crafts are
given to friends and visitors followed by appropriate songs and dances.
Today Sweet-grass Braid
Today's pow-wow is more of a social event, although honor ceremonies and other religious observances remain important parts of the celebration. Dancing, feasting and having fun, the old ways are remembered and pride is taken in traditional heritage as old friendships are renewed and new ones begun. Elders say that coming together in a joyous spirit is an important unifying and healing experience which brings together many nations in a celebration of life.
Honor songs, as their name implies, are requested to honor particular individuals. Spectators should always stand and remove caps and hats when an honor song is intoned. The traditional pow-wow is more conducive to socializing and is not as demanding for participants. The
hosts share the prizes with all registered singers and dancers. Whether competitive or traditional, pow-wows still bring people of all nations together in a celebration of life.
Spectators should always stand and remove caps or hats during Grand Entry, Flag Songs and the Invocation. This beautiful parade of pride and color starts off the pow-wow and each subsequent session of dancing. Preceded by the Eagle Staff, invited dignitaries and various categories of dancers join in the Grand Entry and dance to a special song rendered
by the drum groups, following the path of the sun through the sky. The line-up is as follows: Eagle Staff, Flag bearers, dignitaries and princesses, men's traditional, grass and fancy dancers, followed by women's traditional, jingle and fancy dancers, youth and children in categorical order. All competitors must participate or risk losing points and/or elimination if they don't.
The Eagle Staff is an important symbol to many North American tribes. The eagle represents the Thunderbird spirits of the supernatural world who care for the inhabitants of our physical world. Qualities such as farsightedness, strength, speed, beauty and kindness are attributed to
the eagle, which never kills wantonly, only to feed itself and its family. The Eagle Staff symbolizes reverence for the Creator and all of life
Any significant event is initiated with words of prayer by a respected Elder. Traditionally, First Nations never had "priests" as such but rather spiritual leaders. They are often offered tobacco with a request for prayer indicating respect and honor for that person and the higher power. Hunters and gatherers frequently expressed their gratitude with tobacco to show respect for the life they had taken.
Dancers - Men's Traditional
This dance originated in times when war parties returned to their villages to "dance out" the story of their battles, as well as hunters depicting stalking their prey after a successful hunt. The traditional dance outfit is frequently decorated with bead or quill work and features a circular bustle of eagle feathers. Traditional dancers may also carry objects symbolic of their warrior status such as shields, weapons, staffs or Medicine Wheels - reminders of the wisdom in the four directions, unity and the cycle of all things. Dancers are judged on how well they keep time to the music, follow the beat of the drum and stop with the music, both feet on the ground.
Some of the most beautiful outfits can be found in this category. Long dresses are frequently decorated with heavy bead-work, ribbons or shells. Beaded or concho belts are also worn as well as hair ties, earrings, chokers and necklaces. Most dancers carry a shawl, an eagle fan or a
single feather. The dance consists of bending knees in time to the beat, giving slight up and down movements to the body while subtly shifting the feet to turn.