The Value of Preserving American Indian Culture

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Death is a natural and normal part of the circle of life. Every person will experience the death of loved ones and eventually their own mortality. As difficult as this subject may be, it is important to understand the psychological effects it has on families that share this experience. Every culture handles death in a different way with their own perspectives. Traditions are varied and extremely important to provide closure for the families and a safe passage for the deceased to the afterworld. This paper focuses on the perspective of death in the American Indian community. It will discuss how the numerous nations have a strong connection to nature yet view death in their own unique ways. This paper uses information about death from experts in tribal culture. Overall, the paper gives insight into how death impacts native peoples.

In the United States there are over 500 American Indian nations and even though they share similarities, there is not one uniform religion or view on death. Unlike traditional organized religions in the United States, nations do not have one holy document, one set of guidelines they follow, or organized religious meetings. Spirituality is integrated into everyday life, not just on special occasions. Many nations interact and intermarry which leads to similar ideas but not one collective view. Customs are traditionally handed down to new generations through oral traditions and by inviting members to participate in various gatherings and ceremonies. The living world and the spiritual world are connected and there is a sense of connectivity among all members of the nation. “Man is not above nature, all things are related and all things and beings have a soul” (Colclough). American Indians by nature are nonlinear and believe in the cycles of time.

As people pass away, their spirit transitions to the afterlife and their body is returned to benefit nature. Some believe in reincarnation as spirits continuing the circle of life. American Indian’s concept of death follows a similar idea as other cultures around the world in the belief that a spirit lives on after a physical death and journeys to another world where it will live a life similar to their life on Earth.

American Indian spirituality differs from other religions or cultures; the spiritual world is the same as the real world. People can access everything spiritual just as easily as they can feel the sun on their skin. Some nations believed that communication with the spirits of the dead was possible and that spirits could travel to and from the afterlife to visit the living. Multiple examples of interacting with the spirit world exist including the idea of vision questing such as a sweat lodge, pipe ceremonies, and many dances. A concept of heaven and hell does not exist. It incorporates a strong connection with the natural environment. Many ceremonies representing the growing of crops and hunting for food are held during the year. Tribal leaders believe these ceremonies help keep the tribe connected with nature, essential for the survival of tribal members. Some tribes have spiritual leaders they believe can speak with the spirits to understand what happened on a hunt or why the crops are not thriving. American Indians believe the land belongs to all and must be cared for and respected.

American Indian cultures view life as a journey and death as a natural progression of life, the next chapter for the spirit of the person. “When I am dead, cry for me a little. Think of me sometimes, but not too much. It is not good for you to allow your thoughts to dwell too long on the dead. Think of me now and again as I was in life. At some moment it is pleasant to recall. But not for long. Leave me in peace and I shall leave you too, in peace. While you live, let your thoughts be with the living (Harris)”.

This traditional American Indian burial prayer emphasizes that death is just a part of the journey. Ceremonies also exist to help the spirit’s transformation to the next life. This is similar to most religious views on death that loved ones are celebrating the transition from physical life to the spiritual one. Some call on their ancestors to come and join the deceased on the journey to help with the transition. For example, there is a smoke that is put upon the body for a blessing and a prayer to the body that is now taking off on their journey.

The smoke ceremony is also for those left behind so they don’t take the death too hard. On occasion, a spirit might get stuck on Earth and not make the transition and this is similar to the idea of ghosts in other cultures. Many nations believe in a singular great spirit. While others believe that many different deities control specific things in nature. There also is the idea of a great force that lives in every person, animal, plant, or object in nature and this force extends into the afterlife. The spirit of a person may be associated with a particular part of nature such as an animal, plant, or water. Symbols of these may be part of the death ceremony. American Indians truly believe in the permanence of the spirit and view death as one part of the external spiritual journey (Harris).

Autopsies are typically not favorably thought of and in most occasions American Indians tend to discourage any contact with the deceased body. Many believe the spirit will leave the body through rituals and ceremonies where tribal members must help it on its way. If the body is cut open in an autopsy, the spirit may not properly begin its journey after death. This has led to some controversy in Minnesota where two American Indians died in separate car accidents and autopsies were ordered before the bodies would be released to the families (Rao). The families called for respect for their beliefs even if they were not understood (Rao). Both families practiced Midewiwin which requires a body to be persevered intact for burial four days after death and holds that the spirit of the person travels everywhere they’ve ever been during that period (Rao). “The family attorney contended that this religion isn’t well-known outside of tribal communities, partly because American Indians historically hid many of their cultural practices from public view after past attempts to forcibly assimilate them (Rao)”. Other nations also hold this custom, the Sioux believe it takes four days after burial for the spirit of the deceased to journey to its next resting place (Meleen). They believe death is not an end of life, but the beginning of another journey.

The belief that natives should stay in their homeland and be near sacred lands is important for the journey to the afterlife. This is the belief that they will join their ancestors so they may also inhabit the land to which their loved ones will return. Many American Indians want ancestral remains returned to their final resting places. Tribes believe the living have a responsibility to see that the dead are undisturbed and if their remains are removed every American Indian has a duty to see their reburial (Harris). Remains that have been removed from burial sites discontinues the spiritual journey of the deceased. Reburying the remains will correct the journey.

Many American Indian death rituals are focused on providing the spirit with the things it needs to arrive safely in the afterlife. Traditionally, many different nations would leave offerings of food, jewelry, tools, and weapons for the spirit which are all valuable items in the afterlife. Several nations would traditionally leave the body to naturally decompose in a tree or on a platform, or by leaving an opening in the burial chamber so the spirit could escape. The natural decomposition reflects the American Indians’ deep connection with nature and the cycle of life and death. Indians are cyclical by nature. Day changing into night is a cycle, the full moon’s monthly repetition is another cycle, and the seasons rotate as well. Life itself, then, is a rotation of cycles and the afterlife is part of this cycle, a reunion with nature (Fixico). Some nations believe in the significance of burying people with the reference to a circle. Though this is true for the majority of tribal nations, each tribe has a variation on rituals and beliefs.

Cherokee Indians are very spiritual and view death as a transition. Services are conducted by a shaman the day after death. The deceased are buried in the ground with the idea that they will provide nutrients for the earth. Cherokee are traditionally not embalmed and their organs are not donated (Timm). There is a traditional mourning period for the family. This is considered a time away from the other nation members to be spiritually cleansed. The shaman will cleanse the house with tea and remove any items deemed unclean from the house of the deceased (Timm). After seven days, the shaman will take the mourners to the water and ask them to immerse themselves seven times, alternating between east and west. After this ceremony, the mourners are presented with fresh clothes, an offering of tobacco, and sanctified beads. After the ceremony, the mourners are welcomed back with the other members (Timm).

The Cherokee believe that following these traditions will help make an easier journey for their loved one and serve as a coping mechanism for family members. Once their mourning is over, they are renewed and confident their loved one has successfully transitioned.

Traditions of how people honor their dead help to define their culture. Seminole traditions changed after assimilation and have been influenced by more modern practices but are still very private occasions. Historically, “The family would place the body on a chickee, a house with open sides. Once the body was placed on the chickee, the family would leave the deceased alone to make their own journey (Seminole Indian Funeral Customs).” Seminoles were also known for gathering the belongings of a loved one who had died and then throwing the items into the swamp. Many would break the items so as to break the spirit free from the objects. Seminoles do not pass on a deceased’s belongings to family members. They believe to hold on to these possessions would hinder the journey of their loved one. Because of their original location in Florida, a family might also lay a body to rest above the ground because it may take a few days to complete the ritual (Seminole Indian Funeral Customs). This is different from other tribes who placed objects with the deceased to help make their transition.

Some American Indian nations felt that the deceased person was resentful of those that were still living and so the ghost of the dead would come back and haunt and make trouble for anyone who used their possessions. The family would move and burn their house and all possessions to escape the ghost of the deceased. The Navajo people are very family oriented and have a fear of the dead. A strong belief exists that the spirit of the dead may return to the land of the living if not properly buried. Serious precautions are taken to make sure the dead never come back (Navajo Death Rituals: Navajo Code Talkers). Even today, embalming is not allowed and bodies must be buried in a ceremony soon after death. They do believe the body is blessed but should be cleaned and buried right away.

A tradition of not using the name of the person for at least a year after their death is practiced because of the belief it would call back their spirit from the afterlife. The Navajo believed that sudden and violent deaths could cause bad spirits to haunt the family. It is thought to be better to die away from home so that the spirit would not linger in the house. Historically, tribal members burned the house if the person died inside. Tribal ancestors carried the deceased on a horse as far north as possible to pick a funeral ground. They slayed and buried the horse so the deceased would ride it on the journey to the afterlife.

The Chippewa have a strong connection to nature and believe that all things must return to the earth. Tribal members traditionally believe the spirit leaves the body after burial, not after death. Immediate burial is preferred. They believe it takes four days after burial for the deceased’s spirit to reach the afterlife. Traditionally a powwow, a native social gathering, would be held each of the four nights. A tribal member would light a fire at the head of the grave each night to help guide the spirit. On the end of the fourth day, the medicine man would preside over a feast and is responsible for giving away the deceased’s belongings. Each person who receives an item must give a new piece of clothing and these are wrapped with a dish and given to the closest relative. This person would give the gift to a worthy family member who would keep the dish and carry it for one year to every meal to honor the deceased.

The Kiowas also believed in ground burial is the only acceptable way to release a body after death. Cremation would be taboo as the body is considered a temple. They believe the body came from the earth and so it must return to the earth through decomposition. Cremation would not go along with the traditions of keeping the body around and allowing the spirit to go and visit lands during the four days. Connection with nature is a strong component of American Indian culture and modern practices such as cremation are inconsistent with this belief.

When a member of the Otoe-Missouri nation dies, the body would be taken to the funeral home and the family would come to make arrangements. On the fourth day after death, the family brings food to leave with the body. Cooks would make breakfast, lunch, and dinner so that the soul and body would continue to be nurtured. The belief is when the soul leaves the body on the day of death, the soul wanders wherever family members may live (Farren). At high noon on the day of the funeral, the custom is to have a feast. Someone in the community takes the responsibility of being a cook and will fix the deceased’s favorite foods (Farren). The tribe attends the funeral ceremony and sings native songs. An elder will talk about the person that has died and there will be gifts from the family, giving back to those who have helped them. An elder will braid the family’s hair and cut it off as a sign of mourning. In the past, a sign of mourning would have been to cut off a finger because you are hurting so much. The family member would then bury the finger on top of the person that passed away (Farren).

The family members would also separate themselves from the tribe for a year of mourning. During this year, the family member would not participate in anything joyous such as dancing. The person would just concentrate on the loss and after the anniversary of the death would not speak of the person anymore. The mourning period for this nation is an intense time for the family to honor the deceased and help the spirit make a peaceful transition to the next life.

Many death rituals have continued in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation despite the influence of Christianity into modern Muscogee (Creek) society (Walker). The belief that death is a transition and spirits exist is still commonly held. Even though the relationship with the deceased doesn’t continue directly, there is the belief they will meet their loved ones again. While some families have integrated more Christian ideas, others continue to adhere to more traditional practices on ceremonial burial grounds. However, there are still rituals all families use from old Muscogee (Creek) traditions. One of these traditions is that someone stays with the body constantly until burial so that the body and the spirit will not be alone. This person is usually a family member of the deceased. The family also encloses personal items in the casket and holds a wake the night before burial.

Family members usually dig the graves by hand. At the burial ceremony everyone honors the deceased and says goodbye with a ‘farewell handshake’ which is to throw a handful of dirt onto the casket. There are also instances where families build a replica house over the gravesite so if the spirit of the deceased wanders, it knows where to come back. Traditional Muscogee (Creek) families will also adhere to the waiting period of four days before burial and a socialized mourning period (Walker). The four day waiting period seems to be influenced by the value of four, earth, wind, water, and fire that strike balance and harmony in the world.

The view of death as a natural part of life is at odds with more mainstream American perspectives which, being influenced by medical advances, tend to see death as a failure of health care (Dennis). In mainstream American society, every conflict is a problem we must find the answer to, and every sick person is viewed as a case to find a cure. Only when all avenues have been exhausted do families pray for peace and prepare for their loved ones to move on from the physical world. Acceptance of death as an outcome is viewed as part of one’s journey in American Indian culture. As death approaches, access to the spiritual world increases, and perceptions of contact between dying individuals and their deceased ancestors are not uncommon, often bringing peace within the dying person (Dennis). Care is holistic and tends to be centered around the person’s physical and spiritual condition. Feeling at peace spiritually, being accepting of death, and connecting with nature are to be highly valued nearing the end of life. American Indian patients are likely to want to spend their final days with family and close friends and to be free of pain and connections to machines designed to artificially prolong life (Dennis).

Even though there are many American Indian nations, there are similarities in how they handle death. Though there are different motivations, both the Navajo and Muscogee (Creek) Nations’ rituals hope to bring peace to the spirit of the deceased. The Navajo have many traditions designed to ensure the spirit finds peace and does not come to haunt family members. Among the precautions taken, tribal members would not say the deceased name for a year to ensure a peaceful transition to the afterlife. Muscogee (Creek) tribal members would take great care to ensure the body and the spirit of the deceased is protected following death by staying with the body for the four day waiting period.

Many American Indian nations perceive time as being circular, not linear. They do not see death as an end. Life is a journey and death is just the next step and a passage to the next world. The journey takes the person to join their ancestors in their homeland and is the logical progression back to the earth. The acceptance of death as an inevitable outcome is a pillar to American Indian society. Even though some American Indian rituals and traditions have been combined with historically Christian traditions, there is still the belief that the spirit lives on after a physical death. The body returns to the earth as nutrients to aid new growth for posterity to come.


Cite this paper

The Value of Preserving American Indian Culture. (2022, Oct 11). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-value-of-preserving-american-indian-culture/

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