Wednesday, December 7, 2011

What is in a tradition?

Some Native American ceremonies and traditions that are practiced today are not really traditions because it didn’t originate from that tribe. I see this mostly with southwest tribes taking traditions from the northern, Plains Natives, and practicing them as their own. Some people obviously embrace it and carry it on while others keep away from it and stay truly traditional.
Let me provide some examples from my tribe, the Navajo:

The Sun Dance
I can say little about the Sun Dance, but I can tell you where it came from. The Plains.
Wikipedia says it’s a ceremony with songs, prayer and sometimes piercing the chest or arm skin.
My uncle, aunt, dad and grandpa were talking about stuff like this on Thanksgiving ‘Eve.’ My uncle said the Sun Dance is a growing ‘tradition’ on our reservation and a lot of people do it. He made a look of disgust when he was talking about the piercing.
From our family gathering I learned that Navajo ceremonies traditionally have a patient; someone who is sick, or living in a bad way and needs a ceremony and prayers done. We have the Squaw Dance (we can use the word ‘squaw’ this way, but you can’t because it’s offensive to use it any other way), Yeibichai and sand painting.

Teepee and Native American Church
We do not live in teepees nor is the teepee a traditional housing structure for the Navajo. But every now and then, you will see a teepee constructed on someone’s land or backyard on the reservation.
The Plains Natives used teepees and it became a traditional structure for the Native American Church (NAC), which practices peyote. Peyote also isn’t traditional to Navajo culture and ceremony — it came from Mexico and the Natives there.
The Mexican hallucinogen and the teepee from the Plains met in Oklahoma during the time when many tribes were forced to “Indian Country” — i.e. Oklahoma. The combination produced the NAC which has it’s own songs and customs.
The NAC still has a very strong following on all reservations, including ours. There are certified medicine men who can purchase peyote and perform the ceremonies, which, I heard, costs somewhere between a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousand.

Powwow is a national phenomenon. It came from the Plains Natives too. From, it says the powwow originated from the war dances from the Plains and Ponca tribes. Or it originated from white people making Natives dress up and dance for them (I hope it wasn’t this). The Natives were lined up and made to parade through town before they danced and sang, which was the birth of the grand entry. Either way powwow is awesome and a lot of Navajos do it, sing it and travel across the country to attend powwows — not to mention the cost of dresses, feathers, leather and skins.
I have been to two powwows; the largest powwow in the world, The Gathering of Nations, and the North American Indian Days Celebration in Browning, Mont. on the Blackfeet reservation. They were both awesome.
It’s not just dresses put together, each feather or skin means something. The beads and colors mean something too. Some dancers wear a family design or a tribe design. I once talked to an Ojibwe at The Gathering and asked about a skin he wore on his chest. He said it was otter skin and he wanted to wear otter skin because otters are clean, they’re always cleaning themselves and rinsing their food and being happy. He wanted to be like the otter.
There are different dances too: fancy dance, grass dance, traditional dance, jingle dance and others.  Everyone, from all tribes knows the different songs, dances and all the rules.

Sweat Lodge
The sweat lodge is not traditional to Navajo culture either. It came from the Blackfeet. Many Navajos ‘do a sweat’ to cleanse the body or purify themselves. Like the teepee, you see these every now and then or hear people talking about it.
That’s all I have to say about this one.

These are all traditions from the northern tribes that have influenced what we call and embrace as ‘tradition.’
I really don’t know how these came down to my tribe but I know that a reservation is not a prison. We travel all over the place and there is at lease one Navajo on every reservation (enter laugh here). And we have been traveling since we all have been forced from our land and moved around. The way I see it, we are the same. We all believe in a Creator, Mother Earth and living a good life without waste or bad energy. So we have made connections and embraced each other’s traditions and called them our own — powwow and frybread is a good example of this — while keeping our true traditions alive.

I wonder though, have the northern tribes taken any ceremonies, traditions or songs from us?


  1. Andi, I am learning from you each time I visit your blog. I believe that your voice is an important one, and I look forward to reading more of what you have to say.

  2. Very interesting blog.
    Although new things are starting to mix with the old and other tribes' ceremonies are becoming a big influences, Natives are still strong in the common belief that Mother Earth is sacred, all living things are precious, living a positive life is the most important, love is being with family (love is food), and to be proud of who you are unites us all.
    I like what you said, "we are all the same... we make connections and embrace each other's traditions" This is how we are...Native people.

  3. Wow! there is so much to learn about tradition! I think it's good that other tribes allow us Navajos to use their traditions. Somehow our people get strong from it. Tradition is good to have.