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Native American Wedding Customs First-Time Guests Should Know

Native American wedding customs differ by clan, but are universally centered around nature and matrilineal kinship.

native american wedding

Just opened an invite to your first Native American wedding? Not sure if it’ll be totally unique from any other wedding you’ve attended, or pretty much the same? We hear you. The truth is, couples with roots in the indigenous groups of North America may choose a modern, Western wedding, a traditional Native American wedding, or a unique ceremony and reception with elements that mix the two. You want to be prepared either way, so here are some Native American wedding customs you might see.

Here are some of the most common elements of a Native American wedding you’ll want to know.

Wedding sponsors might take the place of a wedding party.

While bridesmaids and groomsmen serve as ceremonial guardians of the betrothed in Western weddings, sponsors serve this role in many Native American wedding ceremonies. For example, couples in Algonquin tribes, which include traditional territory from Virginia to New Brunswick, select four elder sponsors to guide them before, during and after the wedding ceremony. For Cherokee tribes, who were traditionally settled in the mountainous regions of the Southeast, family members play this role. Since clans are continued through women, the bride’s oldest brother and mother represent her family and vow to advise the couple’s future children on spiritual education.

Expect an outdoor wedding ceremony with natural rituals.

Nature plays in an important role in important ceremonies for nearly all Native American clans, so if your friends are hosting a traditional Native American wedding, it will likely be outdoors. Depending on the tribe, different rituals may be performed to cement the relationship. Here are some of the most popular:

  • Smudging: Done by igniting dried sage or other ritualistic flowers, this ceremony is meant to cleanse the couple and the officiant, then allow the smoke to carry their prayers to the Creator.
  • Native American wedding vase: A vase with two handles is filled with water or tea. Each fiancé drinks from one side of the vase before they lift the vase together and drink from it at the same time. If they’re able to accomplish this without spilling any of the liquid, it’s a good omen for their future marriage.
  • Blanket ceremony: Many Native American tribes perform some version of the blanket ceremony as a unique way to honor loved ones. For weddings, handmade blankets or quilts are wrapped around the new couple as a symbol of their new life as one. Some couples will keep the blanket at the foot of their bed as a constant reminder of their commitment to each other.

Couples will likely dress in tribal regalia.

While many American Indian couples will wed in American-standard dresses and suits, some may choose to wed in traditional attire. Cherokee brides going for a traditional wedding will wear a tear dress, for example, a brightly colored gown made of soft fabric, while grooms will don a classic ribbon shirt. Red is a common shade for Native American wedding dresses, although if the bride’s tribe is associated with other colors, then she may choose a dress in that shade as well. White is typically avoided by traditional brides, since it is a color of mourning.

Exchange of food in addition to vows.

While your first Native American wedding will likely include wedding vows of some sort, food is also a traditional component. This tradition cuts across tribes as food offerings are symbolic of the commitment the couple is making to each. Cherokee grooms often give their brides a cut of deer meat to show that they will be good hunters and providers. Brides may offer corn or fry bread to promise that they’ll be good farmers and homemakers. Modern couples may adapt these exchanges and their meanings to fit their relationship dynamics, but don’t be alarmed if food is part of the ceremony.

Native American wedding food may mingle with Western fare.

Your friends may choose to include some traditional indigenous food items at their wedding. If so, expect varieties of venison, meat stews, squash, pumpkin, corn, beans and fry bread, which is a fried dough. In some tribes, there is an order to the eating that prioritizes elders first, then the bride, groom, sponsors and guests.