Native American Traditions Glossary Terms

Ghost Dance

The Ghost Dance was a religious movement among the Native peoples of the Plains and Rocky Mountains. It was initiated in 1870 by the spiritual vision of a Paiute prophet named Wodziwob, in which he saw the dead resurrected, the wild game returned in their former numbers, and traditional Native lifeways restored. The circle dance called for in the vision in order to bring these things about spread among the Paiute’s neighbors in the Great Basin and Northern California. In 1890, following the vision of another Paiute prophet named Wovoka, the Ghost Dance resumed and became even more widespread, an expression of both the hope and the desperation of the Native peoples.

Green Corn Ceremonies

Green corn ceremonies have played an important role in the ritual life of the Native American tribes of the southeastern United States. These agricultural rites celebrate the ripening of the corn harvest, marking the New Year and the renewal of all life. Homes and public spaces receive a thorough cleaning, all fires are put out, and old food is eaten. The New Year begins with a priest silently kindling a new flame and offering the first of the ripening corn to celebrate the renewal of all life. A dance and feast follows.

Medicine Leader

The English term “medicine man” is used to refer to a shamanistic spiritual leader in one of the Native American traditions. Although the term is considered outdated by most scholars since it only refers to one aspect of the activities of these ritual officiants, it is still commonly used by the general public.


Myths are stories human beings tell about the nature of reality: how the order of things we know came to be and by what deep truths the this order operates. Myths may concern the events of creation, the divine dramas of God or the gods, or the discoveries and struggles of superhuman ancestors. In any case, myths do not function to convey historical or scientific truth, for the truth they bear is a deeper truth that orients human beings in the cosmos and grounds their deepest values.

Native American

Each of the many Native American nations has its own distinctive life-ways, although there are some widely-shared characteristics. most Native life-ways are primarily transmitted through oral traditions; they are oriented toward living in relation to a specific landscape; and they share a vital interest in the spirit world, in visionary and dream experience, and in th. transformative power of music and dance.

Native American Church

The Native American Church integrates Native American spiritual and ritual traditions involving the sacramental ingestion of hallucinogenic peyote with Christian teachings. Visions are not sought for their own sake, but are searched for the meanings they might hold for healing and guidance in daily life. Its fourfold ethical code includes brotherly love, family responsibility, self-reliance, and the avoidance of alcohol. The Native American Church is the largest Native religious organization in the U.S.


Peyote is the popular name of the cactus Lophophora williamsii, which was called peyotl by the Aztec. The hallucinogenic buttons of the cactus are ritually harvested and ingested by various Native peoples of the Americas. The Native American Church combines the rituals surrounding the ingesting of peyote with Christian traditions.

pipe ceremony

The sacred pipe plays a key role in the spiritual and cultural vitality of many Native American peoples. Each part of the pipe—stem and bowl, tobacco, breath, and smoke—is symbolic of fundamental relationships that keep the cosmos in motion. In ceremonies, numerous pinches of tobacco mark prayers for blessings on behalf of each part of creation. Lit by the fire of the Great Spirit, inhaled, and exhaled as smoke, the prayers become visible offerings.


A powwow is a gathering of dancing, singing, drumming, and socializing that Native Americans generally consider to be more celebration than ceremony. Today they are a central expression of an intertribal Native American identity that complements tribal identities. Each year there are more than 900 powwows held throughout the United States and Canada.

Religious Freedom Restoration Act

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed by Congress in 1995 to insure that the government show a “compelling governmental interest” in any restriction of religious freedom.

Sun Dance

The Sun Dance is a ceremony of purification and renewal widely practiced among Native American Plains tribes. Although the various rites often described by the term differ from one another in many significant ways, they all include a rigorous marathon of dancing oriented around a center pole in a lodge especially constructed for the three or four days of the Sun Dance. Also common to the dance ceremonies are acts of self-mortification and fasting, often accompanied by powerful visionary experiences. Such rites are said to help replenish the creation, renew the spiritual vitality of the participating group, and benefit humankind as a whole.

sweat lodge

The sweat lodge of Native Americans consists of a lashed structure o. bent poles covered with blankets, hides, or tarps to hold in the heat, which is provided by hot stones brought into the lodge. The prayer offered by those who enter the lodge is accompanied by pouring water over the stones. The rites of the steamy sweat lodge are undertaken for purification, healing, and well-being. In one form or another, the sweat lodge is part of the life of many Native peoples of North America—from Alaska to the Great Plains to the Eastern Woodlands.

vision quest

Among Native Americans, vision quests are a common means of establishing contact with the spirit world and seeking the guidance of a special manifestation of the divine power. The quest is often associated with coming to adulthood, though it may take place any time one needs spiritual discernment. After preliminary rites of purification, one would go to an isolated place, especially one of the many sacred places associated with vision quests, such as the Black Hills in South Dakota or the Medicine Wheel in the Bighorn Mountains of Montana. The three or four day ordeal includes fasting and prayer, all the while alert to the signs and the dreams through which a vision is revealed.