Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (2023)


    Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (1)Sara Alvarez Kleinsmith Updated: Jan. 06, 2023

      To celebrate Native American Heritage Month, here are the traditions and beliefs that some Indigenous people hold dear.


      Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (2)BAO/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

      Native American Heritage Month

      November is Native American Heritage Month, which is also referred to as American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. There are more than 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States. The National Geographic Encyclopedia of American Indian History and Culture gives an inside glimpse into the past and present of North American Indigenous tribes and the practices they hold dear. While all of them have different rituals, there are several traditions that cross boundaries and have meaning to members of multiple nations. Here are a few examples of the traditions that are treasured by some in the Native American community. Chances are, you didn’t learn these 15 other facts about America in school.


      Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (3)Patrick Frilet/Shutterstock

      Pow wows

      Pow wows began as a way for nations to come together to celebrate success in hunting or battle. Today, they are an opportunity to share tradition and reconnect to culture and family; dance plays a big role in pow wow ceremonies, as does drum music. The term “pow wow” comes from the Narrtick word for “medicine man,” pau wau. (Narrtick is the language spoken by the Algonquian people of Massachusetts.) In the 20th century, pow wows were advertised to be “authentic” displays of Native American traditions for non-Native spectators. After World War I and II, the pow wow became a way to honor American Indian veterans of war. Today, intertribal pow wows are an opportunity to reconnect with family, other tribes, and the earth and they are intended to reclaim the of pride and power, as well as a celebration of life. The Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque is the largest pow wow in North America, with over 700 tribes gathering to celebrate.

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      Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (4)Patrick Frilet/Shutterstock


      With so many different tribes of Indigenous people in the United States, traditional foods vary from region to region. But certain favorites have emotional and historical significance; one such food is frybread, a 144-year-old traditional Navajo recipe that has a painful origin. When Navajos, or Diné, as they call themselves, were being forced off of their land by the U.S. Government, they were given meager supplies to prevent starvation while on their 300-mile relocation. Flour and lard were given as rations on the “Long Walk” from Arizona to New Mexico. Those ingredients led to fry bread, which is a large, fluffy, plate-size piece of fried dough. Although it’s a traditional food that is found at pow wows and around kitchen tables, it has been the focus of some controversy. Frybread is not nutritionally healthy and is rooted in oppression. So those in the indigenous community may have different feelings about whether or not it’s comfort food. Healthy or not, comfort food is hard to resist—here’s your guide to the best American comfort food in every state.


      Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (5)Patrick Frilet/Shutterstock

      The stomp dance

      The stomp dance is a beloved tradition practiced primarily by Eastern Woodland and Southeastern tribes, including the Muscogee, Euchee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Delaware, Miami, Ottawa, Peoria, Shawnee, Seminole, and Natchez tribes. They take place during the height of crop season and are often practiced on stomp grounds around a fire if weather permits. It’s called “stomp” dance because the pattern of movement is a stomp and shuffle in a circle. Like many Native American traditions, there is quite a bit of symbolism with the stomp dance. The fire in the center represents the light of the sun, which is considered life-giving and sacred. Dancers arrange themselves in a circle and move counter-clockwise, alternating men and women like links in a chain, with children trailing the end. The dance is almost like a moving prayer, bringing together generations and uniting the community. Find out how every state got its name; many are rooted in the Native American language.


      Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (6)Special Auction Services/Bournemouth News/Shutterstock

      Governing principles

      Each tribe had laws, leaders, and policies before the colonizers forced them to integrate beginning in the 18th century. Few know that the United States Constitution is based on the Iroquois Constitution, also known as The Great Law of Peace, shares the Field Museum in Chicago. Our Founding Fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, were in contact with the leaders of the Iroquois Confederacy, and they were invited to speak to the Continental Congress in 1776. In 1988, the U.S. Senate recognized the Great Law of Peace as an inspiration for the United States constitution, stating, “The confederation of the original 13 colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself.” Learn the truth behind 10 other myths about the Constitution most Americans believe.

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      Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (7)Bill Manns/Shutterstock

      Gender roles and leadership

      Although each tribe has their own views on leadership, patriarchy is not always the prevailing hierarchical model. In fact, many tribes are matriarchal, placing important significance on the roles of women in leadership, counsel, and battle. Mother Earth is regarded as sacred. Diana Parton, a citizen of the Caddo Nation and a descendant of the Euchee tribe, says it’s important to her that people realize that women in many tribes are not subservient to men. “Women hold leadership positions and share equal amounts of responsibility within the tribe,” says Parton. She mentions this is one reason it’s so disturbing that there is ongoing violence against Indigenous women. She points to the importance of the Coalition to Stop Violence against Native Women. The Department of Justice states that Native American women experience murder rates at 10 times the national average. These are 16 unavoidable facts about domestic violence.


      Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (8)Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Shutterstock


      Wampum is a beaded belt that serves as both a work of art and a recording of history. The belt is not to be worn, it is instead a symbol of events, treaties, and union between two nations. Wampums were originally constructed of purple and white clamshells but were later fashioned from beads after the European settlers brought them to the colonies. Intricate beadwork is now a cultural artform crafted by Native American tribes throughout North America, but the wampum holds special significance for what it represents. Native artwork and artifacts give us clues about how Indigenous people lived as these 10 stunning examples show.


      Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (9)Everett Collection/Shutterstock

      Grape dumplings

      A traditional dessert prepared by citizens of several nations is grape dumplings, a deep purple, juicy pastry dish. Wheat flour creates the dough that makes the dumplings, which are rolled out to be thin. They are then doused in hot concord grape juice and sugar for 10 to 12 minutes and served hot often with a side of ice cream. These dark purple dumplings have a sweet taste that is reminiscent of home for many Native Americans. They sound like a delicious dessert after a big turkey meal with all the trimmings.


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      Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (10)Patrick Frilet/Shutterstock

      Drum circles

      Drum circles are common in ceremonies for many nations and people. The rhythmic beat of the drum represents the heartbeat of Mother Earth. Native Americans believe that the beating of the drum is a uniting force, bringing together people of different tribes, as well as uniting a person’s spirit to their body and mind. The drum is treated with high respect and is considered sacred. “If you take care of the drum, it will take care of you. It’s like going to church. You sit down and pray to God, the creator,” says Rusty Cozad, a citizen of the Kiowa tribe. Traditionally, men do the drumming, but women often participate in the singing within the circle.


      Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (11)Bloomsbury/Bournemouth News/Shutterstock

      The rise of Indigenous People’s Day

      Although Native American Heritage Day is a standing civil holiday that has been recognized since 2009, the rise of Indigenous People’s Day as a federal holiday also has great significance to some in the Native American community. It’s celebrated in place of or alongside Columbus Day, which has become controversial as more people recognize that Columbus was not the hero he was lauded to be.


      Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (12)Special Auction Services/Bournemouth News/Shutterstock


      Although different tribes and nations hold different beliefs and principles, the practice of kinship remains important for many Native Americans. Kinship ties are the system that determines what gets passed down from generation to generation. This includes things of a practical nature, like land ownership and succession in leadership roles, but also includes the passing on of wisdom and teachings. Parton says that aunts and uncles have a special responsibility to their nieces and nephews. For example, her aunt instilled in her the traditions of the Caddo Nation and their meaning. “It’s kinship that has sustained our community,” she says. “This is a beautiful part of our culture because it means that everyone has support.” Damon Clark, a member of the Navajo tribe, agrees. He emphasizes the idea that relationships and kinship are necessary for overall health. “Relationships provide the structure within our lives. It’s important to have relationships with our family, with our people, with the animals, with the earth, and with ourselves.” Clark says that holding elders in high regard is also a beloved and important tradition of many Indigenous people. “It’s important to know your place in your family and on the earth.” You’ll want to know the 17 secrets of happy families.


      Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (13)Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock

      Agriculture and connection to the earth

      Many Native tribes emphasize the importance of closeness with nature and a reverence for the earth and all its creatures. The Zuni people of the Southwestern United States hold a long lineage of successfully farming and raising livestock introduced by the Spanish. Curtis Quam, cultural educator at the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni New Mexico and a member of the Zuni tribe, shares that agriculture has sustained the culture of his ancestors for years. “This is a part of our history; this is a part of who we are. Seeds are an important part of life, of culture, of everything.” Quam says that the purity of seeds, soil, and the conditions with which crops are grown are important factors to food production that many overlook today. The Zuni people consciously plant heirloom seeds to grow crops. With 92 percent of corn now being genetically engineered, Quam says it’s important to teach future generations about the benefits of growing and planting food at home. “We hold corn and seeds in high regard,” he says. He’s teaching his daughters to plant and to appreciate the food that the earth offers. “It’s important to know how fresh food tastes and I want my daughters to have that experience.”

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      Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (14)Sipa/Shutterstock

      Preparing for winter

      The Navajo people, or Diné, value the survival skills that come from living off of the land, especially in the cold winter months. For Diné, the New Year begins in October or Gháájí’. During the fall of the first snow, young people are taught to roll around in the snow, a ritual that prepares them for the cold winter months ahead. “Rolling in the snow prepares our bodies, minds, and spirit for what we must endure during the winter,” says Clark. As a recent college graduate of Harvard, he admits that his classmates had questions about the ritual when he first did it in Cambridge, but Clark didn’t mind. “That connection to the earth, family, and community is a privilege.” These 14 winter survival tips from the coldest part of the country will help you survive the season.


      Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (15)Ted S Warren/AP/Shutterstock


      One ritual that remains dear to Indigenous people of many nations is the ritual of “smudging.” Herbs like sage are burnt and placed in a smudge bowl. This is a way to offer a blessing and to spiritually purify an area or gathering. Asha Frost, an Anishinaabe medicine woman who practices some of the teachings of her ancestors as a healer, says that smudging is an important way to begin a healing gathering. She says she often does circle work with her clients to help them “come home to themselves.” “When we sit in the circle no one is better or worse than anyone else,” she says. “We belong to the earth, we belong to the animals and nature.” This and other rituals have also helped her reclaim the aspects of her culture that previous generations of her family were discouraged from embracing because of racism and the need to assimilate. “I’m guided by my ancestors. I remember who I am and I walk without shame.” If you like the sound of that, you’ll want to know the best essential oils for every room of your home.

      Originally Published: October 30, 2019

      Native Americans Share the Meaning Behind Their Most Important Traditions and Beliefs (16)

      Sara Alvarez Kleinsmith

      Sara Alvarez Kleinsmith is a writer and wellness professional whose work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and We Are Mitu. She's written countless articles on health and wellness and contributed to the book "The Handmaid Mama" by Mary Helen Leonard as a prenatal yoga expert.

      (Video) Native American Spirituality and Practice


      What are American Indian beliefs and traditions? ›

      American Indian culture emphasizes harmony with nature, endurance of suffering, respect and non- interference toward others, a strong belief that man is inherently good and should be respected for his decisions. Such values make individuals and families in difficulty very reluctant to seek help.

      What are the traditions in Native American culture? ›

      Fasting, singing and prayer in the ancient languages of their people, and sometimes drumming, and dancing are also common. The Midewiwin Lodge is a traditional medicine society inspired by the oral traditions and prophesies of the Ojibwa (Chippewa) and related tribes.

      What was the most important thing to Native American? ›

      Kinship. Although different tribes and nations hold different beliefs and principles, the practice of kinship remains important for many Native Americans. Kinship ties are the system that determines what gets passed down from generation to generation.

      What are the beliefs of Native American about nature? ›

      Native Americans hold a deep reverence for nature.

      Native Americans operate under the conviction that all objects and elements of the earth—both living and nonliving—have an individual spirit that is part of the greater soul of the universe.

      What are the beliefs and values of Indian culture? ›

      Indian culture is based on respect for elders, family unity, honesty, and hard work. Indian values also emphasize education, both formal and informal. India is a land of great opportunity, and its citizens are known for their entrepreneurial spirit.

      What are some beliefs of Indian culture? ›

      Reincarnation is a mainstream teaching in Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. But fewer than half of Indians in each of these groups say they believe in reincarnation. For example, 40% of India's Hindus believe in reincarnation.

      What are Native Americans known for? ›

      American Indians are generally known for having the spirit of warriors, being good hunters, and having great respect for nature. Nevertheless, their customs and languages are very different among the various tribes.

      Do Native Americans have a culture? ›

      There are 574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages in the United States, each with their own culture, language and history. Every tribe has unique traditions and distinct styles of housing, dress, and food.

      Who were the most important Native Americans? ›

      It includes the most famous Native American chief and Native American leaders:
      • Sitting Bull – Lakota.
      • Crazy Horse – Oglala.
      • Red Cloud – Lakota.
      • Geronimo – Chiricahua.
      • Cochise – Chiricahua.
      • Chief Joseph – Nez Perce.
      • Benito Juarez – Zapoteca.
      • Canon Mataweer – Kumeyaay.
      Nov 25, 2021

      What are the beliefs of native spirituality? ›

      Native spiritual life is founded on a belief in the fundamental inter-connectedness of all natural things, all forms of life with primary importance being attached to Mother Earth. The symbol of the circle holds a place of special importance in Native beliefs.

      What are tribal religious beliefs and practices? ›

      Tribal religion is based on oral traditions. The tribes express their beliefs in everyday language. Their rituals are aimed at solving day to day problems of life. Objects of worship are things of nature such as trees, rivers, mountain, sun, moon and earth.

      Does the Native American culture believe in God? ›

      We further believe that many of our Native traditions affirm the presence of God, our need for right relationship with our Creator and the world around us, and a call for holy living.

      What are the values and beliefs of the culture? ›

      The definition of cultural values is the core principles or ideals that an entire community or society is based around. The community revolves around these concepts and forms a harmonious, interconnected relationship around these shared values.

      What are the cultural values and beliefs? ›

      Cultural values are a culture's core beliefs about what's good or right. We all have cultural values. These are sometimes called 'cultural value preferences'. They're informed by the cultures we most associate ourselves with.

      What are values traditions and beliefs examples of? ›

      Culture is the beliefs, values, mind-sets, and practices of a group of people. It includes the behavior pattern and norms of that group—the rules, the assumptions, the perceptions, and the logic and reasoning that are specific to a group.

      What are the 5 basic beliefs? ›

      The 5 are: 1) Uniqueness of Jesus (Virgin Birth) --Oct 7; 2) One God (The Trinity) Oct 14; 3) Necessity of the Cross (Salvation) and 4) Resurrection and Second Coming are combinded on Oct 21; 5) Inspiration of Scripture Oct 28.

      What are 5 examples of traditions? ›

      20 family tradition examples
      • Swim on the first day of spring. ...
      • Make homemade gifts for Christmas, Hanukkah (or birthdays) ...
      • Go hiking in the same place or at the same time. ...
      • Have a movie night. ...
      • Visit the same restaurant. ...
      • Do a family digital detox. ...
      • Take up a new activity as a family. ...
      • Start a gratitude jar.
      Dec 17, 2021

      What are the 5 cultural beliefs? ›

      Cultural value was assessed by disaggregating it into five components: aesthetic, social, symbolic, spiritual and educational value.

      What did Native Americans focus on? ›

      While these features vary greatly by religious community, practitioners of Native religions often emphasize the significance of land and the environment, their cultural heritage, and relationships between humans and non-human entities, spirits, and ancestors.

      What is important to Native American families? ›

      Our research indicates that Native American families pride themselves on their identity, as well as their cultural and emotional connection to their home, their people, and their land. These beliefs support and reinforce their overall commitment to homeownership.

      What does Native American stand for? ›

      The U.S. Census defines American Indian or Alaska Native as “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.” Individual American Indians are, by legal definition, citizens of their federally ...

      Why is Native culture important? ›

      It is the basis of traditions, customs, protocols, values, spirituality, ceremonies, language, ways of knowing and being, and connections to the land and the life-sustaining resources of the land. Culture permeates all aspects of life and is essential to the overall well-being of Indigenous communities and individuals.

      What religion do Native American believe in? ›

      Early European explorers describe individual Native American tribes and even small bands as each having their own religious practices. Theology may be monotheistic, polytheistic, henotheistic, animistic, shamanistic, pantheistic or any combination thereof, among others.

      Did Native Americans have religion? ›

      Thus, there was also a large diversity of belief systems. Still, broadly speaking, it can be said many Native-American religions feature a creator as well as other deities. Place, land, and nature are important, with some locations, including burial grounds, being held as sacred.

      What are the 3 main Native American groups? ›

      Tribal groupTotalAmerican Indian/Alaska Native alone
      Latin American Indian1180,940106,204
      15 more rows

      Who was the most important person in the tribe? ›

      A tribal chief or chieftain is the leader of a tribal society or chiefdom.

      Who was the most important Native American leader? ›

      Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotanke)

      Sitting Bull is one of the most well-known American Indian chiefs for having led the most famous battle between Native and North Americans, the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.

      What is one fact about Native American? ›

      There are over 9 million Native Americans and Native Alaskans living in the United States today. And with over 500 federally recognized tribes, there are hundreds of different cultures that are as unique as the people they represent.

      Did Native Americans have a language? ›

      Native American tribes have lived and thrived upon the North American landscape for thousands of years—since long before there was a United States. Historically, about 500 distinct Native languages were spoken in North America. All Code Talkers were fluent speakers of their tribes' languages.

      Is Native American culture still alive? ›

      Visiting reservations and museums, you can see the spirit of Native American culture being kept alive. Even now, tribes across the country are still practicing the customs and traditions that have existed for centuries including their spiritual beliefs, clothing and appearance, food, song and dance, and more.

      Why is religion important to Native American? ›

      The religion and spiritual beliefs of Native Americans played an important role in their everyday life. Each tribe and peoples had their own unique beliefs, legends, and rituals, but they all believed that the world was filled with spirits.

      What do Native Americans believe about the soul? ›

      Soul, according to the ideas of American Indians, is capable of transformations. This concerns not only the popular mythological hero of the trickster who can change his appearance (in this case we deal with bodily transformations), but the souls of medicine men and even animals.

      What is the Native American belief in Creator? ›

      Creation Myth. According to the Aztecs, the creation of the earth started with a god called Ometeotl, otherwise known as the dual god, as they were made from the union of Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl, whom the Aztecs believed were the lord and lady of their sustenance.

      What does tribal culture mean? ›

      Theory of Tribal Culture

      Culture is often described as social rather than individual, local rather than universal, learned rather than instinctive, historical rather than biological, evolved rather than planned, distributed rather than centralized, and cultivated rather than coarse.

      What god did the Native Americans believe in? ›

      The Great Spirit is the concept of a life force, a Supreme Being or god known more specifically as Wakan Tanka in Lakota, Gitche Manitou in Algonquian, and by other, specific names in a number of Native American and First Nations cultures.

      Are Native Americans religious or spiritual? ›

      Instead of considering Native Americans' beliefs and practices a set religion, most refer to it as a system of spirituality that permeates every aspect of their lives.

      Do Native Americans believe in more than one god? ›

      Most Native American societies did practice polytheism, but the veneration of a singular god was also performed. As indigenous peoples hailing from different backgrounds and beliefs did regularly communicate with each other, there were also frequent exchanges of thought.

      What are the five Native American cultures? ›

      The term "Five Civilized Tribes" came into use during the mid-nineteenth century to refer to the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole nations.

      What are the 5 Native cultures? ›

      The Dawes Act of February 8, 1887 marks a turning point in determining tribal citizenship. This Act developed a Federal commission tasked with creating Final Rolls for the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma (Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles).

      What are Native American oral traditions? ›

      Oral traditions are a form of shared history in specific Native communities and are a source of historical knowledge. American Indians employed a variety of methods to record and preserve their histories.

      What are some Cherokee traditions? ›

      Today, the Eastern Cherokee maintain traditions of music, storytelling, dance, foodways, carving, basket-making, headwork, pottery, blowgun-making, flint-knapping, and more.

      How many cultures did Native Americans have? ›

      Some scholars estimate that the original population of Native Americans in North America before Columbus was somewhere around 10 million people, representing 600+ tribal peoples, languages, and ways of life.

      What is Native American religion called? ›

      Native American Church, also called Peyotism, or Peyote Religion, most widespread indigenous religious movement among North American Indians and one of the most influential forms of Pan-Indianism. The term peyote derives from the Nahuatl name peyotl for a cactus.

      What are two Native American cultures? ›

      Culturally, the indigenous peoples of the Americas are usually recognized as constituting two broad groupings, American Indians and Arctic peoples.

      Why is the number 4 important to Native American culture? ›

      The most important number is four, the symbol of the horizontal picture of the world, which is most clearly represented among North American Indians: “In its essence, this symbolism stays for a cycle associated with fertility.

      Why is it important to teach Native American history? ›

      The history of Native Americans is incredibly long and significant, dating thousands of years and persisting after the pre-Columbian Era. Learning this past is essential to understanding not only the current state of Indigenous peoples, but the state of our country as well.

      What is the most popular Native American oral tradition? ›

      The most widely studied Native oral tradition is storytelling. Oklahoma tribes classify and tell stories differently, but certain general patterns can be observed. Storytelling can encompass narratives that are viewed as truthful accounts of events in the ancient past.

      What are 3 oral traditions? ›

      Oral traditions can be categorized into different types, including legends, myths, folktales, and memorates.

      What is the tradition of Native American storytelling? ›

      In American Indian communities, people tell legends, folktales, and fables. They tell these stories for many reasons: to recount the history of the people, to tell where they came from, or to relate the exploits of a particular hero. Often stories are told to educate children about cultural morals and values.

      What are Cherokee beliefs? ›

      Today the majority of Cherokees practice some denomination of Christianity, with Baptist and Methodist the most common. However, a significant number of Cherokees still observe and practice older traditions, meeting at stomp grounds in local communities to hold stomp dances and other ceremonies.

      What were the Cherokee beliefs and values? ›

      Their ideas of religion were everything to them. They believed the world should have balance, harmony, cooperation, and respect within the community and between people and the rest of nature. Cherokee myths and legends taught the lessons and practices necessary to maintain natural balance, harmony, and health.

      What God did the Cherokee believe in? ›

      The Cherokee revere the Great Spirit Unetlanvhi ("Creator"), who presides over all things and created the Earth. The Unetlanvhi is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, and is said to have made the earth to provide for its children, and should be of equal power to Dâyuni'sï, the Water Beetle.


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