Significance of Ritual in
North American Indian Religion
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...