American Wedding: Traditional Native American Wedding Customs
The Elder ambled slowly toward the latticed wooden arch, which was adorned with boughs of cedar and laurel gathered from nearby woods. The young bride, Jennifer, stood awaiting him alongside her groom, David. She looked beautiful, makeup applied expertly as if out of a fashion magazine.
In contrast, her outfit looked like something out of an Edward S. Curtis photo – a buckskin dress adorned with elaborate beadwork. Her hair hung in two braids on either side of her head. A tuft of goose feather was attached to the end of each braid, catching the wind sometimes and carrying the bottom couple of inches into flight with them.
Getting married is one of the most important rites of passage in nearly every culture in the world. While some of the rituals and traditions remain the same across time and geography, others vary widely.
The origins of marriage seem to trace back through the ages, beginning with the indigenous peoples of the earth.
Hopi Wedding Traditions
As with all cultural traditions, these people’s customs have changed over time and as a result of social and other changes. Many American Indian couples today recreate as much of their people’s traditions in their own ceremonies as possible, while adding in some modern touches. Each tribe’s wedding traditions reflect the environment its people inhabit. This is certainly true with the Hopi.
The Hopi people inhabit the four corners area of the U.S. Their desert home is harsh and unforgiving. Strict measures must be taken to ensure survival here. The name Hopi means simply ‘the people’ and, fittingly, the Hopi way is one of simplicity and of being ever humble.The Hopi’s main crop is corn, since it can be grown without large amounts of water.
They are a matriarchal society, as the women are the cultivators who bring food to the home. Their farming practices are ancient and meticulously followed as the corn they grow is at the heart of nearly everything they do – it is the lifeblood of their people. This is far from just a cliché for the Hopi, where the growing, harvesting, preparation, and consumption corn is an integral part of every day life, and of every ritual they participate in.
The extended period that is the Hopi wedding ceremony begins and ends with corn.
For three days, a bride-to-be wakes early in the morning to grind cornmeal for her future mother-in-law. This is culturally significant on more than one level. The young bride-to-be is simultaneously proving her loyalty to her new family as well as her ability to work and provide.
She is also taking part in thousands of years of tradition intrinsic to the survival of her people. She does this even though her groom’s aunts often throw mud at her and chastise her as she works. The mother-in-law, at some point, comes out to shoo away the aunts and ‘rescue’ the young woman from her assailants.
This is a symbolic gesture where the mother shows her appreciation for the work her new daughter is doing for the family as a whole. It also symbolizes the mother accepting this new person into her family. The exercise is meant to instill a sense of humility in the girl while also serving as a sort of initiation into her new family.
It is equivalent to a college fraternity hazing in that it serves to break down the independent spirit of the individual in a sense, while also providing a common hardship that they now share with the others who have already been inducted. It is meant to be a bonding, unifying experience.
On the morning of the wedding vow day, the hair of the couple is washed simultaneously and then intertwined. They remain this way as they pray to the sun upon its rising. The symbology of this is highly significant. The hair that has grown down each of their backs throughout their solo existence is now bound together, inextricable from the other’s.
After this morning ritual is observed, the bride and groom will dress in finery for the wedding vows. The girl will, for the last time in her life, don the whorl hairdo worn by single young ladies. More so in the past than now, the groom would weave a special blanket for the bride - which she would drape about her for the ceremony.
After the entire ceremony is complete, the couple will not wear their wedding clothes again until they are dressed at their deaths for their journey to the next world.
Sometimes the ceremony stretches out for weeks as symbolic gestures are completed on both sides of the wedding party. This culminates on the last day when the bride returns to her husband’s household and gifts are exchanged between the families. Bread and cakes made from corn are served generously. This serves as sort of a going-away party for their son, who will live in the house of his mother-in-law from now on as part of their family.
When he wakes up at his new residence for the first time, he will fetch wood for his mother-in-law. This final act completes the long process of marriage and cements the new union as well as his position as a permanent resident of her household. This extended marriage ceremony serves to remind the couple of the complexity and permanence of marriage, and seems to illustrate that a Hopi marriage is not only the joining of two individuals but the uniting of two families.
The matrilineal nature of family planning is also the way of the Algonquin people, who inhabit areas in Northeastern US and Southeastern Canada.
Algonquin Wedding Traditions
The name Algonquin includes the Cree, Anishnabe, Ojibwa and several other neighboring nations. Like the Hopi, the society is matriarchal in nature and in the old tradition, a young man would move in to the house of his bride’s mother after the marriage. A particularly interesting part of the Algonquin wedding custom is that the couple chooses ‘sponsors’ (usually four of them, if possible) who will serve as spiritual and marital advisors to the couple for their entire life. The ceremony itself includes vows of commitment from these sponsors as well as from the couple.
The officiator of the Algonquin ceremony is the Pipe Carrier, who counsels the couple and urges them to be aware of the commitment that they are taking on. He reminds them that while they may choose to separate on Earth, they will forever be seen as husband and wife in the eyes of the creator.
The Pipe Carrier can refuse to perform a marriage if he does not believe the couple are serious about their commitment to each other.
The ceremony begins with the bride and groom each proclaiming that they choose and desire to be married to the other. After this, they smoke from a sacred pipe and make an offering of tobacco to the Pipe Carrier. This is highly significant, as tobacco is to the Algonquin people what corn is to the Hopi.
It is sacred, and has been used as a form of communion with the spirit world for thousands of years.
After the ceremony, a great celebration ensues with feasting and merriment. The resources that are available on their native lands are used to create an abundant feast, which would usually include berries, venison, squash, and beans. “Fry bread” is included at some Algonquin weddings, but it is important to note that this is a modern update, stemming from having to make do with the corn oil and white flour allotted to the American Indian tribes by the government in the formative years of the United States.
It is sort of a forced tradition in this way. It could arguably be considered an invented tradition as it was, in a sense, “created and put in place for particular reasons (Sims & Stephens 83).” While it may be a looser interpretation of the term “invented tradition” than intended by the experts, it could apply since it was something the native people created to maintain some sense of identity in a time when much of their lore was rapidly being lost.
Another really interesting feature of the traditional Algonquin wedding is that the bride and groom make hundreds of gifts to give away to each person who attends the party. This seems to come from the old days when friends and extended family might travel long distances on foot or horseback to attend a wedding. It seems appropriate to offer a gift of appreciation in such a case.
This also is indicative of how a marriage is a community affair for the tribes of the Algonquin. The participation of other members of the community seems to be a universal wedding norm.
Salish Wedding Traditions
Across the continent, in the northwestern portion of the US and along western coastal Canada, lives the Salish people. The Salish group of tribes includes the Suquamish people. This is the nation that David, our groom from earlier in the story, belongs to.
One difference that immediately stands out about the Salish as compared to the Algonquin and Hopi people, is the patriarchal nature of their society. This is because in this region hunting and gathering are the food-procurement methods and these things are traditionally done by the men of the group.
Here again, the “bread-winning” sex is head of the household and passes along his or her family name to any offspring accordingly. Each aspect of the Salish wedding is inextricably linked to the abundant land they inhabit.
Brides sometimes wear dresses made from thousands and thousands of fine strips of cedar, which grows prolifically in the northwestern United States.
The Salish marriage is performed by a tribal elder who is considered to be a spiritual leader.
This was the case at David and Jennifer’s wedding, and the respect everyone felt for this special man was evident in the way that they listened reverently when he spoke.
Indigenous traditions often involve a special reverence for the elderly (even those who hold no notable position within the group other than their age) not always observed in modern American society.
Another unique and notable aspect of the Suquamish nuptials was the ‘blanket ceremony.’ This traditional ritual is practiced by several Native American nations. The guests all observed silently as a beautiful blanket was wrapped around the couple, enclosing them inside its warm cocoon.
This is similar to the Hopi hair-braiding tradition in that it symbolizes to the couple and to everyone else that the two individuals are now as one, and are to face life’s challenges together. The blanket also represents the protective layer the couple has in their families and in the community.
Traditional Ceremonies Celebrate and Preserve Cultural Values
Each of the wedding traditions we have briefly explored here tells us much about the groups from which they originate. They tell us about the things that live and grow in the respective areas they inhabit. There is always a spiritual connection made to those natural resources that provide sustenance to the group.
The traditional marriage customs of these tribes serve to not only solidify their identity within their own group but also to project some of who they are to outsiders. The latter is certainly true in modern times. Having a wedding steeped in the tradition of one’s ancestors can be a powerful way of displaying affiliation with a certain group, and of showcasing that group’s values to the observers.
While the deep roots that these traditions have could be explored further yet, we have already digested a nice helping of Native American folklore. It is important that we recognize the efforts of couples like David and Jennifer who help to keep that lore alive by observing the traditions of their ancestors and sharing them with others.
I’ll part with the following, a Salish marriage blessing. It is a beautiful bit of poetry that illustrates the focus this group places on the protection and sanctuary provided in a loving marriage.
Now for you there is no rain, for one is shelter to the other.
Now for you the sun shall not burn, for one is shelter to the other.
Now for you nothing is hard or bad, for the hardness and badness is taken by one for the other.
Now for you there is no night, for one is light to the other,
Now for you the snow has ended always, for one is protection for the other.
It is that way, from now on, from now on. And now there is comfort.
Now there is no loneliness. Now forever, forever, there is no loneliness.
© 2018 Arby Bourne