Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Ceremonies of the North American Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



A ceremony is the performance in a prescribed order of a series of formal acts often constituting a drama which has an ultimate object. Ceremonies spring from many diverse tendencies, which are the expres­sion of some phase of religious emotion. Many features of the culture of the North American Indians are regarded as ceremonies, such as the rites which pertain to birth, puberty, marriage, death, war, etc., but in the arbi­trarily restricted sense in which the term is here used a ceremony is understood to be a religious performance of at least one day's duration. These ceremonies generally refer to one or the other of the solstices, to the germination or ripening of a crop, or to the most important food supply. There are ceremonies of less importance that are connected with the practices of medicine-men or are the property of cult societies. Ceremonies may be divided into those in which the whole tribe participates and those which are the exclusive property of a society, generally a secret one, or of a group of men of special rank, such as chiefs or medicine-men, or of an individual. Practically all ceremonies of extended duration contain many rites in com­mon. An examination of these rites, as they are successively performed, reveals the fact that they follow one another in prescribed order, as do the events or episodes of the ritual.


The ritual, or that part of the ceremony which is spoken or sung, predominates among some tribes, as the Pawnee; among others, as the Hopi, it is greatly subordinated to the drama.


In enumerating the rites of the ceremonies it may be noted, first, that they may be divided into secret and public, the secret rites being proprietary, and, as a rule, occupying the major part of the ceremony. The rites of the public performance may be considered as the actual play or drama. The secret rites are almost invariably performed in a specially constructed lodge, room, or chamber, into which none but the priests or initiated may enter, and which is generally indicated in such a manner that the public may not mistake it. Early in point of time in the secret rites is the procession of the priests for objects or raw material to be used in the preparation of an altar, which may be either secret or public, or to be used for paraphernalia or otherwise in the public performance. This procession of priests is generally symbolic, and the uninitiated may not accompany them. The remaining secret performances include such rites as smoking, which may be either fraternal or direct offerings in the nature of a sacrifice to the gods; thurification, similar in origin to the rite of smoking, in which the smoke of some sweet-smelling herb is offered direct to the deity, or the priest bathes his body, or some object of a special ceremonial nature, in the smoke of. the incense; sweat-lodge purification; a ceremonial feast, preceded or followed by a sacrifice of food; the offering of prayers, which may be in the form of a direct appeal to the gods or through the instrumentality of material prayer offerings, upon which, or into which , the prayer has been breathed; and the manufacture or redecoration of ceremonial masks and garments to be worn during the public performance, either by the priests exclusively or by all those taking part in the ceremony.


Occupying in point of time a period between the exclusively secret performances and the public presentation of the drama may be certain semi-public performances, which take place in the open but which are undertaken by priests exclusively. Such is the preparation of the site of the public performance, or the erection of a bower or lodge within which it is to take place. Either within this enclosure, or lodge, or within the secret lodge of preparation, an altar may be erected. This is especially the case with the ceremonies of the Pueblos and of the Plains tribes, among which it is always symbolic, and its explanation must generally be sought in the ritual. It often symbolizes, as a whole, the earth or the heavens, or some god or the home of a god or the gods. The most prominent feature of the altar is a palladium, which may consist of a buffalo skull, an ear of corn, a flint knife, or some other object of supposed efficacious nature, within which it is supposed to reside or which is typical or symbolic of the spirit or deity. On the altar, also, is generally found a recognition in one form or another of the gods of the four or six world-quarters, of the rainbow, of the lightning, of vegetation, etc. Falling within this semi-public period is often a contest, generally a foot race, the winner being favoured by the gods or receiving some tangible object which possesses magic potency.


The public performance is usually ushered in by a stately procession of priests, the singing of traditional songs, rites of smoking, sacrifice of food, and offerings of prayer. The most prominent feature is the dance, which, as a rule, is of a dignified and stately nature, the dancers being appropriately costumed and otherwise adorned. The costume worn in public is often supplemented with paint upon the body, or by masks over the face. The dancer, thus arrayed, generally represents a minor deity, or he places himself, by virtue of the character of his costume, in an attitude of defiance to the deity and thus opposes his magic power to that of the supernatural. Following the dance, which may vary in duration from a few minutes to several days, is generally a ceremonial removal of the costume, whereupon the dancers undergo a purification rite, often in the form of a powerful emetic. This may be followed by an act of self-inflicted torture, which, however, often forms an intrinsic part of the public performance. During the entire ceremony, as a rule, certain tabus are enforced, the most common being a prohibition of the presence of women during menstruation.


The time of the performance of ceremonies varies. Some are held annually, or biennially, at stated periods; such are the solstitial or seasonal ceremonies, for which no special provision is necessarily made. Some are held during certain seasons. of the year, but are dependent on the will of an individual who may have pledged or taken a vow to perform the ceremony. Others are held at any season, whenever occasion may demand; such are the ceremonies of the medicine-men.


Inasmuch as ceremonies form intrinsic features and may be regarded as only phases of culture, their special character depends on the state of culture of the people by which they are performed; hence there are at least as many kinds of ceremonies as there are phases of culture in North America. A few characteristic ceremonies may be considered for some of the better-defined areas.


Among the Plains tribes the most spectacular ceremony is the Sun dance. This varied from an annual performance, as among the Ponca and some other Siouan tribes, to a presentation only as the direct result of a vow, as among the Cheyenne , Arapaho, and Siksika. In the Sun dance of all tribes are found certain common features, such as the secret tipi or tipis of preparation; the manufacture of objects to be used on the public altar; the procession of priests in search of an object, generally symbolic of spying out the world; the ceremonial erection of the great lodge, of which the centre pole is the moat prominent feature; the erection of the altar; and the characteristic dance lasting from 1 to 4 days. During the public performance the dancers are symbolically painted and otherwise so adorned that their evolutions are supposed to lead to a distinct result - the production of rain. While the Sun dance varies, from tribe to tribe, not only in its symbolism but also in many important details, it seems primarily to have been a rain ceremony, and its ritual generally recounts the origin or the rebirth of mankind. The second group of ceremonies are those performed by cult societies, generally four or more in number. Each society has its special esoteric songs, its own paraphernalia, and often distinct gradations in rank. The membership is generally exclusively male, although a limited number of maidens are admitted into the societies of the Cheyenne , while the Arapaho have a society which belongs exclusively to the women, of which there are several gradations of rank. The third group comprises the performances of cult societies in which the warrior element does not predominate; these are often spoken of as dances, although they are, strictly speaking, ceremonies. Among the best known of these are the Buffalo , the Bear and the Elk. The basis is usually the acquisition and perpetuation of magic power, which, primarily, was derived from the animal after which the society takes its name and from which it is supposed to have originated. A fourth group comprises those of the medicine-men, and are either ceremonies in which one or more medicine-men perform for the benefit of the sick, or, more often, in which all the medicine-men of the tribe join in a performance to make public demonstration of magic. power through sleight-of-hand. The last group of Plains ceremonies includes those connected with the planting and reaping of the maize, or the first killing of game in the hunting season, or the first coming of the fish - all, it may be noted, connected with the gift of food for the sustenance of life.


On the N. Pacific coast, extending from Columbia r. to s. Alaska, ceremonies of from 1 to 4 days' duration abound. These are performances of cult societies, generally secret, or of chiefs or lesser individuals who make it an opportunity to display personal wealth. In the ceremonies of the cult societies masks are worn. Those of the Kwakiutl of this region are held in winter, at which time the cult societies replace the gentile organization which prevails in summer. Membership into the society is acquired by marriage or through war. The object of the winter ceremony is "to bring back the youth who is supposed to stay with the supernatural being who is the protector of his society, and then, when he has returned in a state of ecstasy, to exorcise the spirit which possesses him and to restore him from his holy madness. These objects are attained by songs and dances." During the performance of these ceremonies special paraphernalia are worn in which the mask, substantially made of wood, predominates, the remainder consisting largely of rings of cedar bark which constitute the badges of the ceremony. The tribes to the N. have societies and winter ceremonies similar to those of the Kwakiutl, from whom they are probably mainly derived.


Among the [Inuit] extended ceremonies, such as prevail over a large portion of North America , are not found. They are rather to be characterized as dances or festivals. These are generally held in winter and are of short duration. The most important of these are the Feasts to the Dead; others among the Alaskan [Inuit] are the Asking festival, the Bladder feast, and the performances of the medicine-men. In some of the festivals wooden masks, representing supernatural or superhuman beings, are worn.


As stated at the outset., the root of ceremonies may be discovered only by taking into consideration universal human tendencies which develop along certain lines according to historical or geographical environment. It may therefore be noted that the need for them among the Indians of North America varied in accordance with the character of their life. Thus it is found that in. those tribes or in those areas extended forms abound where there exists a sessile population or a strong form of tribal government. Hence the greatest number of extended and complicated ceremonies are formed among the Pueblo people of the S. W. and in the village communities of the Pacific coast. Second only in importance to the ceremonies of these two areas are those which are found among the tribes of the Plains among which ceremonies abound, in which the strongest system of government is found. As a ceremony of any extended duration makes great demands upon the tribe, and pre-supposes law and order, highly developed and extended ones are not possible among the [Inuit] or the tribes of California .


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 84-87.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College