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Common Practices and Concepts

The following information offers readers some insight into terminology used in the Aboriginal community. Nothing in these descriptions is "knowledge" or "native wisdom." Cultural knowledge and teachings are found only in individuals and their relationships, not in books. For this reason, teachings and traditions are rarely written or translated into print. The best knowledge source regarding Aboriginal culture and traditions is the Aboriginal people and communities themselves.

Myth, Legend, and Story
Aboriginal cultures are rooted in oral traditions. Through oral tradition, the culture is preserved and carried on through the word of elders and leaders. Aboriginal healing generally centers on ceremonial practices, and all ceremony is rooted in “teachings” and stories. For Aboriginal cultures, stories are not fictional accounts, but an acknowledgment that human beings and human life is rooted in the stories we live by.

The authenticity and integrity of the teachings and ceremonies are governed by specific and often strict protocols and practices. Ceremonies are always conducted by leaders or ceremonial Elders.

It is important to note that when you are planning to attend a ceremony, ensure that you are aware of the show respect by asking about process and guidelines that participants are expected to follow.

There are 4 main parts of ceremony:

  1. Opening prayer
  2. Work
  3. Giveaway or gift giving
  4. Feast

Each of these are themselves ceremonies within a ceremony.

  1. Opening Prayer: Usually lead by an elder, the opening prayer is intended to acknowledge the gratitude for life and ask for assistance with the work or intention of a gathering.
  2. Work: The work is focused upon the specific intention of the ceremony, for example, to give an Indian name.
  3. Give away: Part of all Aboriginal ceremony, the giveaway is the enactment of a core value in Aboriginal culture, the practice of generosity.
  4. Feast: The feast is usually opened with a prayer, and often, a “spirit plate” is made to feed the guests from the spiritual world. It is customary to have helpers feed the elders prior to people feeding themselves or their children.

All ceremonial practices are a form of prayer. Prayers in Aboriginal cultures are an expression of the human relationship between the Creator and spirit helpers (guardian angels) and are offered at individual or group ceremonies.

Elders may be either men or women and are the carriers of the wisdom and teachings rooted within the culture.

One of the most common ceremonies is the Smudge. It is usually considered a purification ceremony. This ceremony is done by burning specific plants and brushing the smoke over oneself. Like all ceremonies, the smudge invites health into a person’s life.

Four Main Plants
Many traditions acknowledge four main plants for ceremonial use, such as the smudge. The plants are: Cedar, Sage(s), Sweetgrass, and Tobacco.

Talking Circle
Sitting in a circle, a group will take turns sharing and/or discussing specific issues.

Healing Circle
The healing circle is a talking circle with the intention of specifically addressing or healing an individual or individuals. Often lead by an elder or spiritual leader, the healing circle is more formal than the talking circle.

Eagle Feathers
Aboriginal peoples regard the eagle as a sacred bird. The eagle represents core values and/or powers such as strength, loyalty, honesty, and compassion. Like all ceremonial objects, the eagle feather is always treated with utmost respect.

Sweat Lodge
The sweat lodge can best be described as a rebirthing process. It is used for purification, for spiritual renewal and of healing, for education of the youth, etc. A sweat lodge is a small covered frame of willows with hot rock placed in the center. Water is thrown on the rocks to create steam.

Some ceremonies such as “doctoring” sweat require the participant to eat a meal. There are specific rituals requiring special foods. Sacred food for the Ojibway, for instance, consists of wild rice, corn, strawberries, and deer meet. Typical feast goods for the Cree from the prairies would be Bannock (Indian bread), soup, wild game, and fruit (particularly Saskatoon berries or mashed choke cherries). For a West Coast Indian, sacred goods might include fish prepared in a special way. Although foods may differ, their symbolic importance remains the same.

Some say the name is derived from the Algonkian work meaning, “to dream.” Pow-wow is a time for celebrating and socializing. In some cultures, the pow-wow itself was a religious event, when families held naming and honouring ceremonies. The Mi’kmaq word for Pow-wow is Mawio’mi

The giveaway is held to express gratitude to the people for witnessing and supporting the individuals and families through specific events. For instance, a family celebrating a member’s formal entry into the dance circle, or wishing to commemorate the death of a loved one, often hosts a giveaway during a pow-wow. This tradition embodies the value of sharing with others.