Native American Healing Ceremonies

Native American Healing Ceremonies

Thank you, Giver of Life, for all the life that was brought here before we arrived in this world. I thank Grandfather Sun for giving us our shadows because our shadows are direct representations of our ancestors who have gone before us. And, they follow us everywhere we go. They protect us. They guide us. So we thank Grandfather Sun in our hearts, in our shadows. And, then I look down to Mother Earth. And thank Mother Earth for providing us with all necessities of life, from the plants, the birds, the fish, and the animals. …that we obtain our food, our medicine, our clothing, our shelter, our tools of survival. …and how we travel about on the snow, on the ice, on the water, and on the earth. We are grateful being able to negotiate our survival on Mother Earth. So we are grateful for Mother Earth. I ask the spirits from those entities–the Giver of Life, Grandfather Sun and Mother Earth–to come here, to help us, to guide us in what we are doing.

Stephen Augustine, Dean of Cape Breton University’s Unama’ki College

Chanting ritual prayers during Native American ceremonies is a common aspect of their healing traditions. Traditionally, as Dean Augustine demonstrates in his 2016 speech in his ancestral tongue, these ceremonies are conducted by a tribal elder and opens, speaking on behalf of the collective. Native American healing ceremonies, along with tools and plant-based medicines (i.e., herbalism), are incorporated into the Native Americans’ whole being health and wellness system. There is much we can learn from this combined system of mind, body, emotion and spirit in the modern healthcare system.

Native American Healing Ceremonies

As researchers, Tarrell A. A. Portman and Michael T. Garrett, note in their paper entitled, “Native American Healing Traditions,” published in the International Journal of Disability, Development and Education (December 2006),

Indigenous healing practices among Native Americans have been documented in the United States since colonisation. Cultural encapsulation has deterred the acknowledgement of Native American medicinal practices as a precursor to folk medicine and many herbal remedies, which have greatly influenced modern medicine. Understanding Native American healing practices requires helping professionals to have knowledge of Native American cultural belief systems about health and wellness, with the many influences that create change in the mind, body, spirit, and natural environment. Native Americans believe their healing practices and traditions operate in the context of relationship to four constructs—namely, spirituality (Creator, Mother Earth, Great Father); community (family, clan, tribe/nation); environment (daily life, nature, balance); and self (inner passions and peace, thoughts, and values).

It is with this in mind, that it’s important for today’s integrative, complementary medicine practices to become the norm as opposed to the exception.

Chief among the ceremonies of Native Americans is the smudging ceremony. Smudging uses the smoking of a variety of herbs and foliage, namely sage and wheatgrass, to be wafted onto the person, belongings, sacred and non-sacred spaces alike.  Native Americans differ in their frequency of smudging, but some perform it daily to stay healthy while others only at major life events and when feeling unwell.

While Native American healers’ reasonings can vary for why they smudge, from reading many accounts, one of the common reasons is to help others find respect for one another, their environment, and to spend moments in quiet, positive contemplation while practicing this ancient ceremony. In psychology, some of the same tenets of reappraisal and introspection recommended by mental healthcare professionals for greater emotional regulation are given. Here, Native Americans have connected this to their cultural heritage in a way that speaks very meaningfully to the participants.

Other ceremonies include death ceremonies to help one’s spirit pass on to the Spirit World, peyote worship and peace pipe smoking ceremonies, group healing ceremonies, and sweat lodge ceremonies (which is very similar to the Mexican temazcales written about before, and likely culturally associated). I touch on some of these ceremonies below, as I delve into the tools of the Native American healing ceremonies and practices further.

Tools Used in Native American Healing Ceremonies

Well you are likely to see a modern doctor with a stethoscope hanging on her neck today, the healing implements of the Native American persuasion are equally distinct. Native American healers can be seen with ceremonial headdresses on and necklaces of their own making. For healing ceremonies such as those described above, you will find in use a variety of tools from animal totems to peace pipes, prayer ties and more.

Animal Totems

Since Native American cultures are strongly animistic in nature, animals hold special places in the Native American healing ceremonies and traditions. You can see small animal totems given and used throughout these healing practices, especially during group healing ceremonies, for guidance from their animal spirits.


One of the most iconic Native American healing tools is the dreamcatcher. Representing the Medicine Wheel, or Sacred Hoop, these woven healing instruments are used to help children sleep better, protecting warriors and others traveling away from the tribe, and warding off illness by restoring balance of mind, emotion, body and spirit to the person afflicted.

Feather Fetishes

Not what it sounds like, feather fetishes are fans made out of bird feathers, bones, leathered skins of various animals, even seashells, that are used in rituals for prayer and healing. In smudging ceremonies, feather fetishes are used to fan the smoke onto the person being blessed or healed.

Peace Pipes

Peace pipes are a ceremonial tool used usually by elders of a village for major events, but they are also used to smoke a variety of different plants (e.g., peyote, ayahuasca, and other entheogenic herbs). These peace pipes are long-stemmed and typically made of wood or bone, and can be smoked throughout the evening until dawn in healing rituals.

Prayer Ties

Next, prayer ties–small, bound cloth flags–are used as offerings to the Spirit World entities. These colorful little items are laid out to pay homage and thanks to the spirits needed to heal a person.

Smudge Sticks

Finally, but most often used in Native American healing ceremonies, smudge sticks are ribbon-bound herbs used to handily carry and purpose in the smudging ceremonies wherever one might be. Smudge sticks are disassembled to take what herbs are needed for a specific healing ceremony, then the remaining is rebound for later use. Herbs used vary based on the available plant life indigenous to the various Native American nations’ regions.

Herbalism in Native American Healing Ceremonies

In addition to the tools mentioned above healers of every Native American tribe extend their toolkit to the knowledge of plant-based medicine. Herbalists didn’t simply use smudge sticks to heal afflicted individuals. They had an arsenal of remedies cultivated over generations to handle a variety of ailments that became the source of many modern medicines.

If you would like to gain greater insights into Native American herbalism, in Sacred Plant Medicine: The Wisdom in Native American Herbalism by Stephen Harrod Buhner, he reveals that the Native American cultures not only had spiritual and religious beliefs connected to their herbalism, but an in-depth method for planting, gathering and harvesting, storing, converting plants to medicine, and uses.

You can find many herbs, such as milkweed, echinacea, wild ginger, and elder in various forms in your local natural foods stores in the supplements section. And, you can thank Native Americans mostly for that!

These herbs are used in many rituals and ceremonies as teas and other concoctions that not only the afflicted person would drink, but many times the family and other members of the tribe, as a means to bond the healing process to the community. Healing is culturally a communal practice and use of herbs together reinforces that premise.

Native American healing ceremonies are part of the larger patchwork quilt of human experiences. In Native American tradition, one’s life experiences are medicine, as Portman and Garrett (2016) described. Your memories, as well as the herbs and teas and poultices used in healing rituals, are medicine. Even trees and plants and animals and people hold their own kind of medicines. It’s with this whole being perspective that our modern medical world can most benefit from a truly integrative, complementary medical culture that heals more with greater positive health outcomes.

Mara Benner helps individuals tap into their innate abilities to heal. She guides them to connect intuitively with body, mind, emotions and spirit — it’s all interconnected! Through the use of ancient healing approaches such as Reiki, reflexology, meditation, mindfulness, guided imagery, chakra healing, health coaching, intuitive spiritual coaching, energy healing and more, Mara partners with her clients for overall health and wellbeing. She does this through Four Directions Wellness, affiliated with the GW Center for Integrative Medicine, and located in Alexandria, Virginia. Begin your journey today.

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