Native American Wedding Traditions
Many Native Americans desire a wedding which reflects their Indian heritage. You must understand where relatives and ancestors may have originated from to plan the wedding reflecting your heritage.We have included certain traditions and customs that reflect specific tribes in the United States. Please feel free to contact us with your comments, and any other traditions which you would like us to include.
Culture and Spirituality
Native American culture is composed of many tribes, each with distinct traditions and customs. It is difficult to characterize any aspect of a wedding as being "Native American". Some traditions are common to many tribes, while others are unique.Most Native Americans believe that in the universe there exists the Great Spirit - a spiritual force that is the source of all life. The Great Spirit is not pictured as a man in the sky but it is believed to be formless and to exist throughout the universe. The sun is viewed as a manifestation of the power of the Great Spirit.
Some Native American wedding ceremonies are informal, while others are quite formal. When they were not small and informal, they were solemnized with feasts and merrymaking. Evening is the traditional time for the ceremony to occur.
Water is used as a symbol of purification and cleansing. The bride and groom have a ceremonial washing of hands to wash away past evils and memories of past loves.
"Native American legends and myths have existed for thousands of years and are still relevant today. Many stories are moral tales about humankind's relationship with the natural world, as well as several inspiring and poetic tales about love and the ritual of courtship. Indian poems had their roots in the songs and chants of tribal life. The Indians wrote songs and poetry for practical purposes as well as to deal with the invisible forces in their lives. They helped the people to conduct their lives honorably and assisted them through times of great emotion and need". There are many moving stories in this book about marriage, courtship and puberty rites and celebrations, including even some suggested recipes!
Northern California Traditions
A custom among the Northern Californian Native Americans*, which was unique to them, is that of half-marriage and full-marriage.In a full marriage, two kinsmen represented the future bridegroom. After agreeing on a price, in accordance with the family's wealth and social standing, the bridegroom - usually with his father's help - would pay the bride's family. The future social status of the family and the children depended on the price, therefore the bridegroom was willing to pay as much as he could possibly afford.
In half-marriage, the man would pay about half the usual price for his bride. The man would live in his wife's home under her father's jurisdiction. A man might have to half-marry because of a lack of wealth or social standing, or if his father did not approve of his bride. A woman's family might allow her to half marry because they had no sons and needed another man in the family, or if there were Shaman powers in the family. About one in four marriages were half-marriages.
The bride's dress may be woven in symbolic colors: white for the east, blue for the south, yellow (orange) for the west; and black for the north. Turquoise and silver jewelry are worn by both the bride and the groom in addition to a silver concho belt. Jewelry is considered a shield against evils including hunger, poverty and bad luck.
*The tribes of northern California include the Klamath, the Modoc and the Yurok.
A Delaware Native American girl who reached puberty may have had her union prearranged by her parents. Often a couple just lived together as man and wife. To mark the occasion, there was a simple exchange of jewelry, blankets or a belt of wampum to the girl's parents. If the parents accepted the gifts the union was sanctioned.The young bride would wear a knee-length skirt of deerskin and a band of wampum beads around her forehead. Except for fine beads or shell necklaces, the body would be bare from the waist up. If it were a winter wedding, she would wear deerskin leggings and moccasins and a robe of turkey feathers. Her face would be painted with white, red and yellow clay.
The Pueblo bride wore a cotton garment tied above the right shoulder, secured with a belt around the waist.
White corn meal symbolizes the male and yellow the female. The Navajo combine the two meals into a corn mush and put it into a wedding basket before the traditional ceremony.The Navajo bride was an equal partner to her husband. The couple would share the maize pudding during the ceremony to symbolize the marriage bond.
(special thanks to www.indiansun.com for some of this information)
The Hopi Native girl, after undergoing important rites of adolescence, (usually between the age of 16 and 20) is ready to receive suitors. In former days it was customary to give an informal picnic on the day following an important ritual.If a girl had decided on a youth as a future mate, she would extend to him an invitation to accompany her and would present him with a loaf of qomi, a bread made of sweet cornmeal in lieu of somiviki (maiden's cake). Since this invitation was tantamount to being engaged, boys would only accept the invitation from girls they were willing to marry.
A Hopi young man would propose to a maiden by preparing a bundle of fine clothing and white buckskin moccasins. He would leave the bundle at her doorstep and if she accepted it, she accepted him as her future husband.
Approving the Marriage
If the prospective Hopi bride and groom expected the marriage to be sanctioned by society, there were several restrictions which must be followed. No marriage was allowed within the nuclear family or to someone who was previously married.Once the decision to marry is made by the young couple, the boy goes, after supper, to the girl's home and states his intentions to the girls parents. If approved, he is instructed to return to his home and inform his parents. The girl will grind cornmeal or make bread and take it to the home of her prospective groom. If the mother accepts it, the wedding plans move forward.
The bride returns home to grind more cornmeal, and the groom fetches water and chops wood for his mother. On the evening when these chores are completed, the bride dresses in her manta beads and her wedding blanket. She, with the boy, walk barefoot to his house. She presents the cornmeal to his mother and prepares for a three day stay at his home.For three days prior to the wedding, the bride will rise and grind cornmeal for her mother-in-law. During this period, the groom's paternal aunts visit and "attack" the bride with mud. Her future mother-in-law steps in to protect her.
Consumation of the Marriage
On the morning of the wedding the bride's female relatives brought to the groom's mother's home, the ground corn and piki bread that the bride had prepared.
The females then washed the hair of the engaged couple in a single basin. The hair of the bride and groom was then entwined to signify their lifelong union.
With hair still interwoven the bride and groom walk to the edge of the mesa to witness and pray to the rising sun.
They remain at the girl's home until her wedding garment is complete. The garments are woven by the groom and any men in the village who wish to participate. The garments consist of a large belt, two all-white wedding robes, a white wedding robe with red stripes at top and bottom, white buckskin leggings and moccasins, a string for tying the hair, and a reed mat in which to wrap the outfit. (This outfit also will serve as a shroud, since these garments will be necessary for the trip through the underworld.)
Conclusion of the Ceremony
In about two weeks, she will dress in her wedding garments and return to her home where she is received by her mother and relatives. The groom's relatives accompany her and an exchange of gifts are made. During that evening, the groom comes and spends the night at his mother-in-law's. The next day he fetches wood for her, and from then on is a permanent resident in her house.
Algonquin speaking people include the Cree, the Ojibwa or Chippewa, the Ottawa, the Montagnais, the Naskapi and others.When a young man chooses a mate in the old way, he went with her family (matriarch society). The custom was usually determined by the growing season. In warmer climates, where women would raise crops to support the families, they were considered the providers. In cooler climates where families subsisted on hunting performed by the men, the communities were considered patriarchal.
In preparation for the Giveaway, the future bride and groom make (or buy) hundreds of gifts. A gift will be given to each person attending the celebration. The type of gifts is dependant upon the talent and financial ability of the couple.
Known commonly as the 'Apache Wedding Prayer', 'Indian Wedding Blessing', and other variants, the following is a prayer commonly recited at weddings in the United States. We have learned from www.wikipedia.org that it is not associated with any particular religion. It was written for the 1950 Western movie Broken Arrow and has no known connection to the traditions of the Apache or any other Native American group. We include this because you may be looking for it.
Now you will feel no rain,
For each of you will be shelter to the other.
Now you will feel no cold,
For each of you will be warmth to the other.
Now there is no more loneliness,
For each of you will be companion to the other.
Now you are two bodies,
But there is only one life before you.
Go now to your dwelling place
To enter into the days of your togetherness
And may your days be good and long upon the earth.
Old Cherokee Wedding Traditions
The Cherokee wedding ceremony is a very beautiful event, whether it is the old fashoned, or 'ancient' ceremony or a modern one. The original ceremony differed from clan to clan and community to community, but basically used the same ritual elements.
Because clanship is matrilineal in the Cherokee society, it is forbidden to marry within one’s own clan. Because the woman holds the family clan, she is represented at the ceremony by both her mother (or clan mother) and oldest brother. The brother stands with her as his vow to take the responsibility of teaching the children in spiritual and religious matters, as that is the traditional role of the ‘uncle’ (e-du-tsi). In ancient times, they would meet at the center of the townhouse, and the groom gave the bride a ham of venison while she gave an ear of corn to him, then the wedding party danced and feasted for hours on end. Venison symbolized his intention to keep meat in the household and her corn symbolized her willing to be a good Cherokee housewife. The groom is accompanied by his mother.
After the sacred spot for the ceremony has been blessed for seven consecutive days, it is time for the ceremony. The bride and groom approach the sacred fire, and are blessed by the priest and/or priestess. All participants of the wedding, including guests are also blessed. Songs are sung in Cherokee, and those conducting the ceremony bless the couple. Both the Bride and Groom are covered in a blue blanket. At the right point of the ceremony, the priest or priestess removes each blue blanket, and covers the couple together with one white blanket, indicating the beginning of their new life together.
A wedding vase is traditionally used by Native American couples in the Southwest but it is being used increasingly by couples everywhere drawn to the culture's spirituality and reverence for nature, the earth, and the environment.
During the ceremony each person drinks from a spout to symbolize both individuality and unity. The Sea and Sky Vase is one-of-a-kind, (shown on the left) hand etched and hand painted in New Mexico. It measures 8" tall and is signed by the artist Geraldine Vail, a Navajo Indian.
It is important to know that these vases are made to hold liquid for a very short period of time. The vase should be emptied and dried promptly after the ceremony and should never be used as a vessel for liquid which will destroy the vase.
The couple may be required to perform certain responsibilities in preparation for their wedding. These responsibilities are determined by the officiant. In addition, the bride and groom must choose sponsors.The bridal couple has four sponsors. Sponsors are older, well respected persons chosen by the bride and groom. The sponsors are to give spiritual and marital guidance to the couple throughout their lifetime. At the ceremony, the sponsors make a commitment to help the couple.
The Marriage Ceremony
Ceremonies are preferably outside, or in a ceremonial lodge or under an arbor.Their commitment is to the Creator, to God. There is no breaking that commitment, and no divorce.
The Pipe Carrier, the officiant, makes sure they are well aware of this commitment. If the couple separates and goes their separate ways, in the eyes of the Creator, they are still husband and wife. The Pipe Carrier will not perform the ceremony unless the couple is very serious.
Each person makes a declaration that they choose to be known as husband and wife. Then they smoke from the pipe. Tobacco is offered and accepted by the officiant.
At the ceremony, the sponsors make a commitment to help the couple.
Singing is the dominant form of musical expression, with instrumental music serving primarily as rhythmic accompaniment. Native American love songs are often played by men on flutes. Principal instruments have been drums and rattles, flutes and whistles.A very powerful musical presentation may be that of a group of men sitting around a large double-headed drum, singing in unison and drumming with sticks.
Music styles vary from region to region. For example, music in the Great Plains is tense, pulsating, forceful, with a high range and preferably falsetto; in California, it is produced by a relaxed throat.
Planning a Native American wedding can contain many different elements. Many contemporary couples with indigenous roots may opt for a modern wedding, a traditional ceremony, or a unique blend of both. The traditional elements that will be included may vary highly upon which tribe(s) the betrothed claim as their heritage. As the information above indicates, there are many distinct tribes with very distinct customs.
Despite this, there are several other considerations that may come into play when planning a Native American wedding. First, traditional ceremonies often occur outdoors, and in many instances at a natural site that is deemed sacred. This is reflective of the strong relationship many of the tribes have with nature. Selecting a site, as well as a date and time for the ceremony. may be done while consulting with tribal leaders. Wedding attire, music, and food may also include traditional elements which will vary by tribe. Couple that desire to incorporate these elements will find it very beneficial to include tribal leaders in their planning process.
Using a checklist to keep wedding plans organized is always a great idea. For Native American weddings, the checklist will be similar to that of any modern wedding with several exceptions, including:
12 Months Prior
- At 12 months out, the couple will want to consult with tribal leaders to determine what additional planning will be necessary to incorporate the traditional ceremonial elements that they would like to include. This may mean adding additional tasks to their checklist
6-9 Months Prior
- If planning for an outdoor ceremony, it is always good to have a back-up plan in the event that the weather does not cooperate. At this time, it is wise to develop an alternate plan and check the availability of the secondary site, if necessary.
Week of Wedding
- If having an outdoor ceremony, you will want to closely monitor the weather in the week leading up to the ceremony. If it appears that you may have to go with a back-up plan, you will want to develop a plan to communicate this information to all guests.
A wedding is a time of celebration. Everyone is invited by word of mouth unless they live outside the community. There is no formal invitation. There is feasting, visiting and a giveaway.
Food items for the feast include fry bread, venison (deer meat), squash, beans, corn, corn soup, potato soup and many desserts. Fresh fruits such as blueberries, raspberries, and the 'heart' berry, strawberries, are served if available. There may also be a wedding cake. In a traditional wedding, the food is placed on a blanket, served buffet style.The food is blessed. The Elders and the officiant will eat first, then the bride, groom, sponsors and other guests. None of the food is wasted. All of the food is either eaten or given away to the Elders.
If you are either planning a wedding with Native American traditions or attending one for the first time, there are several things to keep in mind. First, it’s important to understand that some of the guests may not be attending with the same level of knowledge of the customs and traditions. In this case, it is always wise to communicate any expectations (guests participating in the ceremony, expectations for contributions/gifts) upfront. This is best done either in the invitation or personally, before the wedding day.
It’s also a great idea to keep an open mind and prepare for the unexpected, especially if you are planning an outdoor ceremony. Even if you monitor the weather closely, there is always a chance that it may change unexpectedly, which may require that the wedding participants change course abruptly and switch to an alternative plan. If you keep an open mind about how the wedding day will go, an unexpected change won’t necessarily ruin your big day.
Brides, grooms and sponsors dress in regalia - traditional clothing, usually made by hand. The bride will wash herself in a body of water (lake, river, ocean, pond) the morning of her union in order to be blessed by the spirit of the Earth.
The wedding dresses worn by Native American brides are very different from Western-style wedding dresses. In addition to this, they generally look very different from one tribe to another. Despite this, nearly all tribes embrace wedding dresses that are very colorful (the exact color scheme may vary). Wedding dresses may also incorporate intricate designs, embroidery, or beading. Many times, these dresses are family heirlooms that have been passed down through the generations, although some modern Native American brides are opting for a white gown in contemporary style with some traditional Native American features (symbolic stitching, embroidery, etc.).
A wedding cake is not generally an important feature at a Native American wedding, although food is crucial. In fact, in some ceremonies, there is an exchange of food with the vows (such as when Cherokee grooms give their brides deer meat as a symbol of their ability to be good hunters and providers and the bride reciprocates by giving the groom corn or fry bread to demonstrate that she will be a good homemaker). Some Native American weddings also incorporate traditional foods such as venison, stews, soups, beans, squash, and fry bread alongside other foods served at the reception.
While the cake, and other sweets, does not play a big role in traditional ceremonies, some of the more modern Native American weddings will have a cake that features some of the colors and patterns that have tribal symbolism.
Resources and References
Special thanks to Lois Pearce, Master Bridal Consultant of Hamden, Connecticut, for her time and energy gathering the majority of information used here. We also wish to thank the Association of Bridal Consultants for their assistance.
Please note that the information contained in this category should be considered general in nature. We believe it to be a true and accurate representation of some of the customs and traditions for this country or religion. Information provided by individuals and organizations is assumed to be correct.
You are welcome to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any suggestions for changes, additions or deletions.