eagle feathers
Eagle feathers are sacred and
treated with great repect.


The People of the Plains believed in a Great Spirit or the Creator. The Great Spirit had power over all things - the animals, plants, humans, stones and clouds. The Earth was the mother of all spirits. The Sun, which gave the earth light and warmth, had great power. Visions in dreams were believed to have come from the spirits. When game was killed there was a prayer or offering to the spirit of the slain animal.

The Creator gave the Original Peoples a place to live on Mother Earth and their spiritual beliefs, languages and culture.



Mother Earth provided everything the people needed to survive. They took only what they needed. They lived in balance and harmony with all of creation. There was a deep respect for the land, the plants and the animals. They believed they were put on this land to protect and look after this land.

Animals played an important part in their lives and taught them many lessons.



The medicine man was a holy person who had much power and knowledge. He healed the sick, interpreted dreams, visions and other signs, and led ceremonies. He prayed to the Great Spirit, decided when to hunt, tried to change the weather and foretold the future.

When called upon to help someone who was ill, he smoked tobacco, performed songs and dances, burnt sage and sweet grass and prayed to the spirits.

There were also medicine women who knew which herbs and plants to use for healing. These plants were collected and stored in containers. They were used to treat many illnesses.


The Circle of Life has many teachings about the universe and how everything is connected. Everything has a spirit, from a tiny insect to a very large rock. All things created are included in the circle. Many things have a circular shape. The circle has no beginning or end.


The number "four" is a sacred number because the Creator made many entities that contain four elements. The elements occur in a circular pattern.

  • four directions - north, south, east, west
  • four seasons - winter, spring, summer, fall
  • four elements (of the universe) - earth, air, fire, water
  • four things above the earth - sun, moon, sky, stars
  • four kinds of plants - grasses, vegetables, trees, flowers
  • four kinds of animals - insect life (small life forms), water and sky life, two and four legged animals, humanity
  • four stages of life - child, adolescent (youth), adult, elder (old age)


    A vision quest lasted from one to four days and involved fasting and going to a quiet, lonely place. A young man would go on a vision quest. It was believed that he would receive a vision which would tell of his future. The vision or dream came as a sign from a guiding spirit. The messenger often took the form of an animal. Upon return to the camp, the person was taken to the shaman. The shaman would interpret his vision. The young man might be given a special name. A medicine bundle would be prepared with tokens to represent the guiding spirit.

    medicine bundle

    The medicine bundle might contain an unusual rock, strand of hair, feather, bird's beak, animal skin, sweetgrass, etc. Each item in the bundle had a special meaning to the owner. It was a very precious possession which represented a person's spiritual life and possessed powers for protection and healing. As the owner grew older more items might be added. Medicine bundles were buried with the owner or passed on to a friend.

    A tribal medicine bundle was much larger and contained special objects which could only be handled by certain members. It was opened on special occasions.


    There were different types of pipes used by the First Nations. Some pipes were made of wood or of a special kind of stone. Some pipes were plain with no decorations. Some were painted and trimmed with fur, quills, beads, and eagle feathers and decorated with carvings. Tobacco and red willow bark were used to fill the pipe.

    more about pipes


    Shields were round and made from the
    heavy chest skin of an old male bison

    It was believed that the shield had great spiritual power. It was very important to the warrior. Birds, animals or symbols were painted on the shield and served to protect the owner. Eagle feathers were sometimes attached to the shield.


    Mandellas are similar to the shield and were made from bison hides, eagle feathers, wool and the furs of wild animals. A mandella was thought to bring good luck and happiness to the owner. Hanging a mandella in a home was a form of protection. Each item that made up the mandella had a special meaning for the person who owned it.


    The Dream Catcher was made from a hoop of bent willow with a webbing of sinew. It was hung from a baby's cradleboard or near the sleeping area. It was believed to sort dreams. The bad dreams were caught in the web, while the good dreams flowed through to the dreamer. Dreams held much meaning to the Plains People.


    The sweat lodge was a dome-shaped tent made of willow branches covered with hides and blankets. In the center of the lodge was a pit.

    The sweat lodge ceremony was used for physical and spiritual purification (cleansing), for meditation and prayer, or in preparation for other ceremonies. The ceremony was a combination of fire, wood, water and stone. It ususally took a couple of hours.


    Smudging was done for physical and spiritual cleansing. Certain herbs were burnt. Smudging meant taking the smoke in one's hands and rubbing or brushing the smoke over the body. Three plants used for smudging were sage, cedar and sweetgrass.


    The drum was very sacred and played an important role in ceremonies and celebrations. People sang and danced to the beat of the drum. The drum symbolized the heartbeat of Mother Earth.

    more about drums


    Religious ceremonies were a very important part of the lives of the First Nations of the Plains. They had ceremonies to honour the Great Spirit. Ceremonies were held to name a baby, a girl's coming of age, a boy's first hunt, marriage, and death. The Plains Indians wrapped their dead and placed them on high scaffolds or trees. The bodies were left to decay. Then the relatives returned later to bury the bones.


    The Sun Dance was a very important ceremony. Each tribe had different variations of the Sun Dance.

    The pow wow is a time for people to get together and participate in singing, dancing, feasting, praying, visiting and storytelling.

    Some other dances -
    • Grass Dance (Sioux)
    • Men's Traditional Dance
      (dancers wore a U-shaped bustle made of feathers
      and colorful beaded outfits.)
    • Women's Traditional Dance
    • Men's Fancy Dance
    • Women's Fancy Shawl Dance
    • Straight Dance and Round Dance
    • Victory Dance
    • Hunting Dance
    • Jingle Dress Dance


    When the Plains Peoples gathered together and feasted, storytelling played an important part. Stories were told about the earlier times, about heroic deeds, hunting adventures, battles and about animals. The stories were entertaining, easy to understand and taught lessons, beliefs and values. Elders usually told stories because they were wise and know about traditional teachings and spiritual ceremonies. Some stories were personal property and were passed on to another who could then repeat the story. (note: hide paintings were made to record important events)


    The First Nations Peoples had many different spoken languages so sign language was one way that they communicated with each other. Signs were used by hunting parties and for surprise attacks on their enemies. Explorers and fur traders also used sign language.

    | index | introduction | words | beliefs | food | clothing | tipi | bison |
    | decoration | family & daily life | tools | transportation | links |

    credits for graphics and information

    J.Giannetta, June 2002
    (updated April 2017)

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