An In-Depth Look at Customs Traditionally Included in Native American Weddings
While many couples choose to personalize their wedding ceremonies instead of tying the knot with traditional nuptials, including a few meaningful traditions is a great way to pay homage to your heritage on your big day, even if the ceremony as a whole isn't traditional. For to-be-weds who are members of Native American tribes or descended from Indigenous Americans or native groups, you might consider including traditional Native American wedding ceremony customs in your own nuptials as a nod to your roots.
To help you better understand some of the wedding traditions celebrated by Eskimo, Chippewa, Cherokee, Pueblo, Navajo and Iroquois tribes we're taking an in-depth look at some of the most noteworthy wedding customs from each tribe. Before deciding to include a traditional custom or ritual in your own wedding day, connect with your partner and the close family members who you've enlisted to help with wedding planning. Deciding on the details of a marriage ceremony can feel overwhelming so it's always a great idea to bounce ideas off of loved ones who may even be able to shed some light on certain American Indian wedding blessings and traditions while further explaining the history behind them.
1. Sacred Eagle Feathers
During a traditional Algonquin marriage ceremony of the Ojibwa, or Chippewa, tribe, the bride and groom each hold an eagle feather in their left hand while reciting their wedding vows to each other. Eagle feathers are generally considered to represent a connection with the Great Spirit among many Native American Indian tribes.
2. Vase Ritual
A few different tribes, notably both the Cherokee and Pueblo people, celebrate a vase ritual as part of their wedding ceremonies. Pueblo wedding vases are identifiable by the two spouts they have that are joined together by a handle. The two spouts represent the individual lives of each to-be-wed and the handle signifies the couple coming together in their new life together as married partners.
Historically, the groom's family would make the vase one to two weeks before the marriage ceremony. The groom and his family would take the vase to the bride's home to present it to her and her family. Then, as part of the presentation of the vase, the couple's parents would offer marriage advice to the to-be-weds.
On a wedding day, the vase is filled with Indian holy water and then presented to the bride to drink from. After she takes a sip she passes it to the groom to drink, after which the two are bound together in marriage. During Cherokee weddings that include the vase ritual, the couple will try to drink out of the vase together. If they're successful without spilling a single drop then they can expect to experience mutual understanding throughout the course of their marriage.
Indian wedding vases are cherished possessions never to be sold. However, if one spouse passes away before the other, traditionally the vase may be gifted to another married couple as a way of celebrating the happy marriage the couple had while offering well wishes to the new couple.
3. Blanket Ceremony
The blanket ceremony is commonly practiced during Cherokee weddings. During this ceremony, the mothers of the couple will bring blue blankets and drape them over their children's shoulders. The blue blanket symbolizes the sorrow of their lives prior to their union in marriage.
Later in the ceremony, either the officiant or close relatives of the couple will step forward carrying a white blanket. They will remove the blue blankets and then drape the large white blanket over the shoulders of the couple, symbolizing a covering over of their weaknesses and sorrows. Now the couple can enter their new life of marriage joined with peace and fulfillment.
In a similar vein, Melanie Schwab of Melanie Sioux Photography explains that during some other Native American weddings "the couple is also often blessed while standing on a buffalo robe wrapped in a star quilt."
4. Sacred Fire and Smudging
Fire is considered sacred within many Native American tribes and is celebrated at weddings in a myriad of ways. In the ceremonies of some tribes, sage or other ritualistic flowers will be used during smudging. During this custom, the smoke is meant to cleanse the couple and their officiant. The smoke also helps carry their wedding prayers to the Creator. Schwab explains that during many Native American wedding ceremonies "two tipis are placed for the couple to walk from. The couple will then meet in the middle showing the connection. Sage is usually burnt to cleanse the air and prepare the couple for their path together."
Historically, in weddings within the Cherokee Nation, three separate fires are made from the wood of seven different types of trees. One fire is prepared in the center of the ceremony space and this fire represents both the Creator and the couple's wedded union. The other two fires are places to the south and north of the central fire and these two represent the individual lives that the couple had before their union.
During the sacred fire ceremony at Cherokee weddings, each to-be-wed will sing and offer wedding prayers while sprinkling their respective fire with sage, tobacco, corn and grass. As they say the wedding prayers they'll ignite their respective fires. Then they'll gently push their individual fires toward the central woodpile to ignite the Creator's fire.
5. Groom's Processional
During Iroquois wedding ceremonies, it is traditional for the groom to process in toward the bride, the opposite of the traditional bridal processional seen in many Western weddings. "My tribe is matriarchal, so when a man joins with a woman, he enters her clan, and I liked that symbolism," recalls bride Rita, pictured above, of the decision to include a groom's processional in her wedding.
6. Turquoise Jewelry
Chikeeh Talker, owner of One Love at a Time Events in Colorado, is a member of the Navajo people and explains that it is traditional for couples to wear "traditional turquoise jewelry and blankets made specifically for them," on the wedding day. Talker goes on to note that couples will often also don "heirlooms that were passed down to them as well."
7. Food As a Symbol of Provision
Food is a central part of the ceremonies of many Native American tribes. While the inclusion of food takes a different form from tribe to tribe, the symbolism of provision generally remains consistent across the board. Notably, the Navajo people include cornmeal mush in their ceremonies. Meanwhile, members of the Cherokee Nation eat both corn and venison during the wedding as part of the basket ceremony.
During the basket ceremony at Cherokee weddings, the mother of the bride will present her daughter with a basket that contains an ear of corn or a loaf of bread. Meanwhile, the mother of the groom will present her son with a basket that contains a leg of cooked venison. Later on in the ceremony, the bride will present the corn to the groom to symbolize her commitment to their marriage and building a home together as partners. The groom then offers the bride the basket of cooked venison to similarly symbolize his commitment to their marriage and working together to protect their family from harm.
8. Celebration of Nature
Nature and a connection to the land are central to many parts of Native American culture for many tribes and weddings are no exception. Most Native American weddings will take place outside and may even include natural elements, like wood and rocks, as part of the ceremony.
9. Ceremony in the Round
Navajo wedding ceremonies are traditionally held in the round inside a Hogan. Talker explains that a Navajo wedding ceremony is "held in a Hogan with a traditional basket with cornmeal and corn pollen placed in the middle of the ceremony. Attendees all sit clockwise, with the groom's family on the left and bride's on the right. The bride and groom wash each others' hands with water from a gourd. The corn is then spread into a circular shape that represents different cardinal directions and symbolizes various stages and journeys in life. The couple will eat pinches of the cornmeal mush from the south, west, and northern directions ending with the middle. The remaining corn is passed to the groom's family to finish although the basket never leaves the front of the couple." Talker goes on to explain that "the circle is left open to the east to represent 'an entrance and exit for the way of life.' You will see the clockwise direction and circles in the ceremonies very often."
10. Focus on Privacy
With Navajo weddings, in particular, there is an emphasis on privacy and keeping the wedding ceremony intimate and sacred. As such, Talker explains that with Navajo wedding ceremonies "being very private and sacred, photos are not permitted, which in light of modern weddings is very unique and notable."
11. Traditional Attire and Tribal Regalia
In nearly every culture on Earth, there are traditional outfits and accessories worn for wedding ceremonies. That holds true within Native American culture as well. While outfits vary from tribe to tribe, most have special outfits that are generally worn for weddings. For example, Yupik Eskimo brides, like the one seen here, generally don a special headdress for weddings. Meanwhile, Hopi grooms generally wear a garment that consists of a large belt, two all-white wedding robes and a white wedding robe with red stripes at the top and bottom, finished with deerskin leggings and moccasins.
12. Horse Wedding Gift
According to Schwab, historically it was common for a horse to be a wedding gift at many Native American weddings. "The family of the groom or the groom would traditionally give the wife's family a horse as gratitude and honor or payment." Schwab goes on to explain that while some historic customs and traditions are no longer included in modern Native American weddings, the gift of a horse is one that she's still "seen this done at weddings recently."