Native American Fasting

Native American Fasting – A rite widely observed among the Indians and practiced both in private and in connection with public ceremonies. The first fast took place at puberty, when the youth was sometimes sent to sequestered place and remained alone, fasting and praying from 1 to 4 days, or even longer (see Child life). At this time or during similar fasts which followed, he was supposed to see in a dream the object which was to be his special medium of communication with the supernatural. Simple garments or none were worn when fasting. Among some tribes clay was put upon the head, and tears were shed as the appeals were made to the unseen powers. At the conclusion of a long fast the quantity of food taken was regulated for several days. It was not uncommon for an adult to fast, as as a prayer for success, when about to enter upon an important enterprise, as war or hunting. Fasting was also a means by which occult power was believed to be acquired; a shaman had to fast frequently in order to be able to fulfill the duties of his office.

Initiation into religious societies was accompanied by fasting and in some the great ceremonies all the principal actors were obliged to fast prior to taking part. The length of these fasts varied with the ceremony and the tribe, and ranged from midnight to sunset, or continued 4 days and nights. Fasting generally included abstinence from water as well as food. The reason for fasting has been explained by a Cherokee priest as “a means to spiritualize the human nature and quicken the spiritual vision by abstinence from earthly food. Other tribes have regarded it as a method by which to remove “the smell” of the common world. Occasionally chiefs or leaders have appointed a tribal fast in order to avert threatening disaster. See Feasts.

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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