Native American culture is beautiful and full of meaningful wedding traditions. As wedding professionals, it is important to always develop skills of cultural literacy and meet clients with a posture of learning to best make their weddings authentic and special. We can’t approach all couples and weddings the same. Native American traditions vary widely but are often connected to nature and kinship. You don’t have to know everything, but it’s good to start somewhere! Here are some key elements to familiarize yourself with when planning a Native American wedding.
Differing Tribe Traditions
Don’t make assumptions about what the couple wants. According to the Daily Herald, there are around 562 Native American tribes in the United States, so keep in mind the diversity of regions. Not all Native American couples have the same traditions, and not all couples want to incorporate native traditions. Some couples may want a fully traditional wedding, some may want a modern version, or a more western version. Some couples may want a mixture or fusion style wedding. This is where clear open dialogue is key. Ask a lot of questions. Be open and respectful of all ideas and use your wedding expertise to help guide the conversations.
Do some research. In order to make your couple feel welcomed and comfortable, educate yourself on the history of their Tribes and Customs. For more traditional weddings, many couples will include a tribal leader in the planning process. Many early preparations may need to take place leading up to the wedding. Coordinate with your couple to ensure all cultural elements are taken care of.
Outdoor & Nature Centered
A connection with land and nature are cornerstone to Native American tradition. Not all, but some Native couples will want to have their wedding outside to include natural and spiritual elements, honoring their culture. Locations like national parks, gardens, and sources of water–rivers, lakes, waterfalls, etc. may serve as wonderful venues. The couple may also choose a place that is sacred to their tribe. Read more about Native American Roots.
Traditional Tribal Regalia
Traditional regalia will look different from tribe to tribe— but these textiles are typically hand made, full of colors representative of the tribe with designs, embroidery, and beading. Jewelry may include turquoise stones and opals. Brides often wear family heirlooms and grooms may use deerskin pants.
Instead of bridesmaids and groomsmen, some couples may have sponsors. In some cases sponsors are family members that guide the couple during and after the wedding. The sponsors can also advise the couple’s future children on their spiritual education.
- Vase Ritual: There is a long history of pottery making in many Native American cultures. Originating from Southwestern U.S. Navajo, Pueblo and Hopi Nations, and embraced by Cherokee tribes. The parents of the groom make a wedding vase with two spouts made of clay found in a local river. Once fired and polished it’s ready for the ceremony. The couple then drinks from a separate spout symbolizing that they are individuals but also drink from the same vessel.
- Blanket Ritual: There are several versions of the blanket ritual. In some rituals, each partner is wrapped in their own blue blanket, symbolizing their past single lives. The officiant blesses and removes the blankets and the couple is then wrapped in a single white blanket, representing their unity and future, full of peace.
- Smudging: Sage and ritualistic flowers are ignited as a form of cleansing. The smoke is meant to carry their prayers.
- Food and Vows: Couples may want to include vows along with food offerings to symbolize their commitment to one another. Depending on the tribe, brides may offer corn or fry bread as a sign of being good homemakers and farmers, while grooms may offer a cut of meat from an animal to display their ability to be good providers and hunters.
- Fire Ceremony: A fire circle is made using stones and several types of wood. Three fires are made, one for each partner and one in the middle. The fires come together to form one.
Food is a big part of every culture’s celebrations. Native foods like fry bread, meat stews, corn, beans, and squash are often integral parts of feasts. Along with fresh fruits, like raspberries and strawberries. The way the food is displayed may also vary on the tribe. In some tribes, food is blessed and set on a blanket. Food is never wasted and the order that people eat often begins with elders, the officiant, couple, sponsor, and then guests.
Music colors Native weddings, adding history and so much life. Lovely instruments like flutes, drums, and whistles accompanied with songs, pay respect to ancestors and elders. Native dancing is also a common practice in many weddings.
Native American celebrations are unique to each tribe, and unique to each couple. Listen to your couple and share in their magnificent culture and special day.
Hero image courtesy of Erika Greene Photography