While some weddings are entirely traditional and stay true to customs followed by the community, others are a happy mélange of elements adopted from traditional customs to modern-day wedding events. Either way, a little information on some of the rituals and ceremonies are helpful. But if in doubt, always check in with a member of the bridal party to ensure you’ve done your homework right. That way, you can fully participate in the day and understand the significance of each event.
As Native American culture is deeply intertwined with nature, you can expect that a portion of or the entire wedding will occur outdoors to honor the culture. These can be open spaces in the outdoors or sacred spaces that hold a special significance for the couple and their families and tribes. To be invited to witness this life event is to be truly cherished as any wedding guest should but even more so if you are welcome to attend the different ceremonies that each couple holds dear.
A circle of fire made with stones and wood brings together the couple. In the center is a stack of unlit firewood, and on the sides are two small fires to symbolize the lives of the individuals getting married. Once the smaller outer stacks are lit, prayers are offered, and the piles are pushed to the center to burn the larger stack signifying the union. This is commonly seen among the Cherokee nation though fire is a sacred element in many tribes. There is also the wedding ritual of smudging where sage or flowers are burnt, and resulting smoke is considered a form of cleansing for the couple and the wedding officiant, carrying their prayers.
Also common in Cherokee weddings is a blanket exchange where the married couple is first individually wrapped in blue blankets, to represent their past lives, and is blessed by the officiant. Afterward, they are wrapped together in one white blanket to signify their union in peace and happiness. In most cases, the blankets are handmade or quilted and kept bedside as a keepsake of the couple’s wedding day and commitment to one another. There is also a basket ceremony that involves an exchange of gift-laden baskets between the couples’ families. Gifts consist of foodstuffs to symbolize prosperity and wellbeing.
With pottery and clay work being integral to the heritage of Indigenous societies, it is only natural that some southern tribes have a vase ceremony. The parents of the groom make the vase from clay found in a local river. The vase has two spouts that the couple drinks Indian holy water from during the ceremony. Accomplishing this without any spillage is looked upon as a good sign of a prosperous future together. This is another symbolic act, mostly seen in Pueblo weddings, signifying the union of two individuals, and the vase is a highly cherished possession for any married couple. When a spouse passes on, the vase is gifted to another couple to pass on the blessings of a happy married life.
A traditional Native American wedding features a wedding meal that includes delicacies such as fry bread, corn, beans, venison, wild berries, and other foods that specific tribes have survived on over the years. It is buffet-style and served in order of seniority to the elders presents, then the couple and finally their guests. Cakes, though not traditionally part of weddings, have lately been adopted as part of the wedding ceremony and tend to feature the tribal colors and designs the couple identifies with.
Wedding attire differs from tribe to tribe but typically includes a special robe or other grand outfits to mark the occasion and decorated headdress, belts, and footwear. Clothing can be handmade, with colors, patterns, beading, and embroidery to represent the tribe and the family. Much of the jewelry consists of family, and tribal heirlooms passed down from generation to generation. The exquisite handiwork is reflected in almost every piece of the wedding garment, including accessories and moccasins.
Other ceremonies you might bear witness to include a water ceremony, common in Navajo weddings, where the couple washes their hands in unison to wash away any past wrongs; the couple using sacred eagle feathers to recite their wedding vows; or a processional for either party to welcome them into their spouse’s family.
While this list is not a comprehensive one, it does highlight some of the more commonly observed ceremonies when it comes to Indigenous people’s wedding traditions. Some of these might be new to you, but remember to fully engage in the day’s events and pay close attention to the significance of every part, no matter how long or short the proceedings are. Hopefully knowing these different traditions gives you an appreciation of not only the Native American wedding ceremony but the culture of indigenous people as a whole.