Among Native Americans images and practices surrounding death are vivid, concrete, and different. Cultural differences were rooted deep in the period before Columbus. Native Americans had their own death rituals and practices. In addition to ceremony and practice Native Americans had traditions concerning the origins of death. They projected various notions of how the body was animated and they maintained complex traditions about a land of the dead.
The Huron, north of Lake Ontario, used communal graves to bury those that had died in past years. Both the prominent and common people were buried together. Property was set aside in anticipation of the ritual of resuscitation. At the end of this ritual, the dead gained new life as others took their names and responsibilities, some of the names of important chiefs becoming clan or lineage titles.
The Mandan of North Dakota held great respect for their dead. When a prominent
woman died the family immediately began preparation. The woman was dressed in her finest clothes and her favorite possessions were placed with her body. She was oiled and her face painted. She then was wrapped in bison hide and secured with leather thongs. The body was then carried to an area within sight of the village and placed on a four-post scaffold. Relatives expressed their grief by clipping their hair, sometimes gashing themselves with knives or cutting off a finger joint. For several days afterward the woman’s relatives would go to the site and lie under the scaffold, mourning their loss. On the fourth day after the death, a ritual was performed that released her spirit, allowing it to travel to the earth-lodge village of the dead located downstream on the Missouri River. After the scaffold had rotted, all of her bones except the skull were placed in a bundle and buried in the village refuse pile. The skull was lovingly placed, along with others, in a large circle outside the village. All of the skulls faced the center, and each rested on a bed of sage.
The Mandan creator, Lone Man, decreed that human beings should not live longer than one hundred years, but among other tribes on the Great Plains there were varying views. The Blackfeet on the northern plains believed Old Man disputed with Old Woman concerning whether people should die or live forever. After some discussion, Old Woman tossed a rock into a lake, saying that if it floated people would come back to life in four days time; if it sank people would die forever. In that ancient time, as a consequence of this act, death became an indelible part of human destiny. Similar traditions were told elsewhere on the northern plains as well as on the southern plains, but the gods had different identities.Many Native American peoples believed that there were at least two souls or spirits.
One animated the body, while the other traveled in dreams and visions. It was this latter spirit that sometimes joined the body spirit and became identified with the personality that survived after death. The Mandan thought that humans possessed four spirits. A white spirit associated with the white sage plant. The second spirit was light brown and connected with the meadowlark. The third spirit was identified closely with the particular dwelling place of the dead person. The fourth spirit was black and linked with the ghost that frightens people. The white and brown spirits united after death, traveling to the village of the dead, while the third spirit remained near the lodge where the person had died.
After death occurred, an individual’s spirit traveled to a land of the dead. In some groups there were rituals that released the spirit for its journey while in others the spirits of relatives were kept for a time in a sacred bundle before releasing them. Spirits often traveled along particular roads or paths that followed some feature of the natural terrain, such as a stream or river. Many groups believed that the dead traveled along a sky road, the Milky Way. While Native Americans did not believe in a place of eternal damnation, they felt some spirits would have a more difficult time entering the land of the dead or would not arrive at their destination at all. Some groups believed that murderers became restless spirit wanderers, never to rejoin their kin in the land of the dead. The Mandan believed that babies who died before being named were not yet part of the community and that their spirits returned to a place known as the Baby Hill, to be reborn at a later time.
The land of the dead was imagined in very different ways, but in many instances spirits lived there in much the same way as they had in the land of the living. For the Blackfeet, this land was in the Sand Hills, a place somewhere out on the plains away from the camps of the living. Others believed there was a sky country where the dead lived again. There the dead often danced, illuminating the horizon as the northern lights. In the Northwest some tribes believed the dead lived on an island in the middle of a great river. For many Pacific Coast peoples, the land of the dead was located far out in the sea, beyond the western horizon. The Pueblo people believed that ancestors became clouds, bringing life-giving rain to the people.
Due to government attempts to assimilate Native American peoples, and a long history of Christian missionary activities, some indigenous traditions and practices surrounding death have disappeared. Others continue to evolve and shape the experience of many present-day Native American peoples. Traditions about death still persist among some Northern Cheyenne. The spirits of those who have died travel to a land of the dead, which is located at the end of the Milky Way. The spirits of those who have violated the Cheyenne may become lost or reincarnated as animals. Since for the Cheyenne people separation and loneliness are greatly feared, a good death is viewed as one that allows the person to rejoin his or her spirit kin. Also some Native Americans have adopted Catholic motifs and made them their own. Catholic symbolism tells of some of the rituals surrounding death. Many other contemporary Native American societies show similar patterns of continuity and discontinuity, as indigenous traditions surrounding death and dying continue to be preserved as well as changed.
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