The Native American Way of Death

Gerry R Cox. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Native American tribes exhibit reverence and respect for life. Everything is sacred: dirt, rocks, trees, animals. Death is considered a natural occurrence within life, something to be accepted rather than feared. Rather than disconnecting with the dead, Native American peoples continue to have a relationship with them. From the Native American perspective, death is not a defeat. It is not the result of an offense against God or some other deity but, rather, the common fate of all.

According to the Native American worldview, each of us has a purpose and place in the world. Health requires that we find the life we are meant to live, which may involve an extensive search to discover our purpose. Finding our purpose may result from a quest or spiritual journey. When our purpose is fulfilled, our life is ended.

For the American Indian, health and health care require an examination of relations with family, culture, work, community, environment, and cultural heritage. To maintain health, one needs to be in a state of balance with oneself and with one’s family, community, culture, work, environment, and cultural heritage. Poor health, illness, and even death may result from imbalance in one or all parts of the person: body, mind, and spirit. Part of the task of healing is to determine the source of the imbalance and then restore the balance or harmony. Elements of physical healing include medicines, shelter, food, clothing, massage, and heating or cooling the body. Mental healing may occur through relaxation, storytelling, family activities, ceremonies, rituals, entertainment, and cognitive activities such as concentration, meditation, focusing on the “rules,” and so forth. Spiritual healing involves meditation, ritual, ceremonies, use of sacred objects, prayers, and even exorcism.

Tribal Healing

The traditional healer of the Native American is the shaman. The shaman is to be knowledgeable in the ways of the earth, humans, and nature. The shaman first determines the cause of the illness or pain, including the spiritual causes, and then must develop the proper treatment of the illness or pain. Holistic medicine may reflect the attempt to recognize the multiple causes of illnesses. The shaman administers both physical and spiritual medicine.1 The treatment is a process that not only heals the physical illness but also ministers to the spiritual needs that must be addressed to bring the person back into harmony or balance (Highwater 1975). The special ceremonies conducted by the shaman may take from a few minutes to several days. One shaman teaches another, and it takes years to a lifetime to learn the craft.

The power of the medicine enables the possessor of the spirit to personally contact the invisible world of the spirits (Steiger 1974). If one is meant to die, then there is little that the shaman can do; one cannot defy nature. What can be done, will be done. More than that is unnecessary and may be an affront to nature.

Native Americans provide social support in the dying and burial process through the tribe or clan of the individual. That same social support system sustains the bereaved after the disposal of the dead. The grief process includes the ceremony of the funeral, the burial, and the give-away ceremony. Extreme emotions are usually managed by these ceremonies. The spiritual nature of the living and the dead permeates the entire process.

Disposal of the Dead

Almost universally, tribes made provisions for a spirit journey, whether for a single burial or for a group burial (Atkinson 1935). Tribal groups did not abandon their dead but provided them with ceremonies and dignified disposal. Although the practices of the 300 or so North American Native tribes were not consistent from one group to another or within a single group, there were common elements in their burial and mortuary practices.

Native Americans used cremation as a method of sending the soul of the deceased skyward to an afterlife, helping the deceased on the journey out of love and respect for the deceased, or destroying the corpse so that the deceased cannot come back to inflict injury or harm on the living.

Mummification could be used to preserve the body from decay. This process might also help the living in the grieving process by preserving the body of the deceased as the living remember it. Mummification could also be used to secure personal survival for the deceased to allow them to live in an afterworld (Malinowski 1925).

Tree burial might have reflected a culture that lived among trees historically and was attempting to return to its “roots.” On the other hand, it may simply have been an attempt to return the deceased to nature as quickly as possible by allowing animals, birds, and insects to consume the body. When a person died in the winter when the ground was frozen so hard that it was nearly impossible to dig a grave until the spring thaw, tree burial offered a way to provide for the dead.

Mound builders were also quite common in North America. Some of the mounds were pits, others were foundations of houses, some were beneath houses, some were on top of the ground and covered, and still others were rocks that covered the grave and became mounds over time. The mounds may have been built to provide the deceased with the necessary provisions for their journey to the afterworld, whether in the sky or the center of the earth. Mound building may also have been a method to keep the deceased from coming back to disturb the living.

Those who used stones to cover the grave may have done so to keep the ghost of the deceased from returning to haunt the living (Fraser 1886). The rocks may also have been used to keep scavengers from ravaging the body of the deceased. It is also possible that rocks were used to mark graves. The Sioux used grave posts to mark graves, inserting the markers into the ground or supporting them with stones. The stones themselves lasted longer than the markers.

Some tribes buried people by pulling down the wickiup, hogan, or other dwelling over the deceased. Other groups placed the body in a canoe, cave, urn, or other object designed for disposing of the body of the deceased. Some placed the body in a hole in the ground and covered it with rocks or by pulling a fallen tree over it.

The practice of leaving food and property for the deceased was also common. Such practices may have emerged out of fear of the corpse and out of the belief that the deceased might return to disturb the living if such items were not left (Fraser 1886). Such practices may have been the result of the desire to further honor and show love for the deceased by giving treasured items to be buried with the beloved person. What was placed in the grave by the living reflected who is in the grave. For a child, one might leave toys. In a warrior’s grave, one would expect to find favorite weapons, beads, medicine bags, or paint. In a woman’s grave, one might find food or tools for tanning or making pottery. In a farmer’s grave, one might find food, farm implements, or seeds (Atkinson 1935).

It was common among many tribes to have immediate or at least timely burial of the deceased. Most tribes excluded young children from the burial ceremony, and the Navajo excluded all but those conducting the ceremony. Some tribes brought gifts of food and other items for the spouse or family of the deceased; in other tribes, the spouse and family of the deceased gave away the possessions of the deceased to those who attended the funeral and grieving ceremonies. A wake or some sort of ritualistic telling of the tales and stories of the deceased often followed the burial. Warrior tribes often regaled the grieving with tales of the bravery or prowess of the deceased; more sedentary tribes told tales of the lore of the tribe and the exploits of the deceased. In most tribes, men told the stories, but sometimes women were storytellers as well. Listeners were expected to try very hard to stay awake to hear stories that could last for hours. Those who got too sleepy might quietly slip away for a time and return silently later. Eating, drinking, and smoking were common practices. Some tribes played games. If games were played, the surviving spouse would typically not take part; close relatives of the deceased were expected to remain in a state of mourning until the games are completed. For some tribes, this process might take days; for others, it might only be for a short time. For some tribes, mourning lasted 4 years.

Apache Burial Practices

The Apache were a fierce and warlike tribe, the last of the hostile tribes to submit to the whites. Like the Navajo, the Apache engaged in banditry, but unlike the Navajo, they also engaged in war as a way of life. There are seven basic Apache clans. The Jicarilla and Mescalero Apaches seem to have borrowed from the Plains Indians; they lived in tipis, used braids, and wore buckskin, as did the Plains Indians. The Chiricahua and other Apache groups lived in wickiups, which are basically grass and bush coverings over young trees. Unlike the Navajo, the Apache did not develop arts and crafts to any extent. The burial and mortuary practices of the two tribes are similar.

Among the Apache, as with other Native American groups, prayers, poems, songs, and spells are not differentiated; all are considered to have spiritual powers. One rarely sings or recites poems for entertainment; rather, such activities are part of ceremonies and used in time of crises and in any undertaking in one’s life. When one is suffering from an illness or injury, one may be “sung over.”

In describing the healing ceremonies of the Apache, Basso (1970) indicates that when one is the object of a ceremony, it is considered wrong to talk to the person. The only people who are able to talk to the patient are the shaman and the relative who is in charge of the ceremony. The patient speaks openly only when he or she is asked to pray (Basso 1970). As in most other tribes, the patient or the family invites the shaman to do a ceremonial when someone is suffering from illness or injury. If the shaman accepts the invitation, then a ritual is performed.

The ceremony usually begins in the early evening and continues until nearly dawn of the next day. Some ceremonies may last as long as 4 days. Normally, close friends and relatives attend the ceremonies. Children do not usually attend; the Apache seem to have a great fear of death and communicate this fear to children at an early age. Abundant food is provided by the patient’s relatives. Numerous ritual articles, which are fully described in Opler (1941), are used in the ceremony. The shaman sing, pray, and perform various rituals to try to determine the sources of the illness or injury and what can be done to overcome it.

The ceremonies are often quite loud. Music is associated with the supernatural and religious life in all civilizations, and it is a therapeutic tool that promotes a religious attitude that encourages spiritual development. Music has the power to open the heart (Starkloff 1974). The drum is the heartbeat of the earth that creates a sound as old as the earth and beats within each of us as our heart (Gustafson 1997).

The Apache also use clowns and dancers to keep illness away (Opler 1941), and they use strong communications, humor, music, art, and social support to help cure illness and injury.

The Apache fear the dangers of witchcraft, animals that can cause misfortune, and the evil that may result from failing to properly respect the supernatural forces and the supreme deity that watches over humans (Sherman 1996). The agents that cause disease can assume the form of a snake or owl, can enter our dreams, or can materialize as ghosts that cause disease and illness or other forms of misfortune (Opler 1941). The purpose of the shaman is to counteract their evil, to exorcise the harm that might be associated with the rituals, and to manage the elaborate ceremonies, such as the creation of sand paintings that are destroyed after the healing ritual (Parezo 1983).2 The Apache believe that when a person dies, his or her spirit does not go immediately to the underworld; rather, the spirit stays for a while, which means that those relatives who touch the body are likely to get ghost sickness and may need healing ceremonies conducted for them (Haley 1981). Those not allowed to rest in peace after death cause ghost sickness. One of the reasons given for burying the deceased’s goods with the body is to prevent ghost sickness (Cremony 1951).

When an Apache died, the dead person was dressed in the best clothes available, wrapped in a blanket, carried to the hills, and thrown into a crevice in the rocks or buried in a shallow grave (Cremony 1969). Among the Western Apache, ashes and pollen would be sprinkled in a circle around the grave beginning at the southwest corner to offer the soul a safe journey to heaven, after which the crevice or shallow grave would be covered to prevent coyotes or other animals from getting to the corpse (Cremony 1969). The Apache would use as small a place as possible for the corpse, such as a place where a rock had shifted or a stump had fallen, and then they would put back the rock or stump to cover the body (Cremony 1969). The Apache, who pride themselves on caring for those in need, such as the elderly, ill, and orphans, often left a jug of water for the deceased to drink. This practice can be traced back to an earlier legend that the Gahan or Mountain Spirit would come to rescue the thirsty and take them to the mountains to dwell with the mountain spirits (Dutton and Olin 1979).

The Apache set aside a part of their fields for the dead and do not cultivate the field for a period of time to honor the deceased (Mails 1974). As in the Navajo practice with the hogan, the Apache sometimes left the body in the wickiup and pushed it down on top of the body (Mails 1974). The Mescalero Apache saw death as the final foe and did not perform rites after the death of a loved one (Mails 1974). For all Apache groups, the death of a warrior aroused much grief, whereas the death of a woman seemed almost unnoticed except by intimate friends and relatives (Mails 1974). The Yuma Apache are the only Apache group that used cremation. Not only did they cremate the body, but they also cremated all the person’s possessions, including the wickiup. In recent years, funerals and wakes have become common practice (Cremony 1969).

After most deaths, the Apache mourned for a few days and made strong cries that penetrated the night. They often cut their hair quite short and then continued to mourn until their hair grew out again. The Chiricahua Apache wives and children often cut their hair short, covered their faces with mud and ashes, and danced to keep the ghosts from capturing them after the death of a warrior (Mails 1974). Like the Navajo, the Apache saw death as the enemy and expressed no great desire to be among the dead or their ghosts. Both tribes also viewed ghosts as being responsible for sickness and death and feared the threat of deceased relatives; because of their fear of the dead, both tribes felt a tremendous need to properly dispose of the dead to protect themselves (Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1976).

Navajo Burial Practices

The largest of the United States tribes today, the Navajo are thought to be the last to settle in the Southwest. Unlike most other Southwestern tribes, the Navajo were not farmers but, rather, made their living from hunting and banditry. The Navajo borrowed many cultural features from the peoples around them. From the Pueblos, they adopted the loom and learned to grow cotton and corn. From the Spanish, they acquired horses, sheep, and wool and learned the art of silversmithing.

The healing ceremonies of the Navajo were very complex and had to be performed accurately to be successful. It might take as long as 3 or 4 years to learn two ceremonies (Steiger 1974). Some rituals lasted as long as 9 days and had to be recited accurately from memory. If one failed to chant even a small part of the ritual, omitted a detail from a sand painting, or neglected a detail from a prayer stick, the patient would not recover. When the chanter moved his hand in the ceremony, the motion of the hand was a gift to the chanter. The motion came from the spirits, not the chanter, and it allowed the chanter to better understand what was needed for healing. Like those searching for water, the diviner knew when the hand moved in a certain way that the cause of the disease had been found. Sand paintings, star gazing, and other methods were used to discover the cause of an illness.

The Navajo had perhaps the most complex healing rituals. Charms, sand paintings, cornmeal paintings, prayer sticks, masks, and many more items were used. Ceremonies were far more traditional and unchanging. Generally, many Navajo recognized that their traditional healing rituals are not as effective against “white” diseases. Today, many Navajo, like other tribes, use both white medicine and their own traditional medicine to try to manage disease today.

The Navajo believed that life begins when the wind enters the body through the orifices, particularly the ears. Death occurred when the wind left the body through the fingers (Leighton and Kluckhohn 1948). To the living, the dead were objects of horror that had to be buried with elaborate precautions to protect the living from having problems with the ghosts of the dead (Leighton and Kluckhohn 1948). One even had to avoid whistling after dark to avoid attracting ghosts (Franciscan Fathers 1910).

Preparation for burying the dead required that rituals be carried out. The rituals could include removing one’s clothes and bathing, covering oneself with a yucca leaf, using sign language to communicate, and eating only certain foods (Frisbie and McAllester 1978).

Navajo burial practices varied immensely. Depending on whether the deceased was an infant, elderly, or another age group, the Navajo chose two or four people to become mourners for the deceased. One of these was a near relative or clansman of the deceased. Another was commonly from the clan of the father, wife, or husband of the deceased. One of these was chosen to direct the rite. The mourners bathed the body, dressed the body in fine clothes, and placed the right moccasin on the left foot and the left moccasin on the right foot. If the person had not been removed from the hogan before death occurred, the body was removed from the hogan through a hole made in the North side of the hogan. (The door of the hogan was on the east.) Depending on the view of the spirit of the deceased, the hogan might or might not ever be used again. The mourners carried the body to the burial site in a prescribed fashion, using only sign language to communicate along the way. Each of the four mourners would have specific tasks. One would lead the horse carrying the possession of the one who died to the gravesite. Two would carry the body. The fourth would warn those whom they met along the way not to cross the death line or the circle route taken with the body until the 4 days of mourning were completed (Reichard 1928). They buried the body in a deep hole a long way from the hogan and included the saddle, blankets, jewelry, and other treasures with the body. Traditionally, they would kill the horse at the gravesite and leave the tools used to dig the grave broken on the gravesite as well (Frisbie and McAllester 1978). Mourners were expected to remain quiet, to refrain from spitting, to avoid turning even a stone on its side, to skip and hop on their return, to avoid stepping on a cactus or brush, and to return from the burial by a different route so that the ghost cannot follow (Reichard 1928).

The Navajo often buried cash and valuable items such as woolen goods, jewelry, and pottery with the body (Young 1961). To rob a grave was a serious offense. Those who robbed graves risked getting ghost sickness, which could kill them. Since the ghost of the deceased was at the very bottom of the grave, those who robbed graves had to purify themselves after robbing a grave before they could touch another person (Frisbie and McAllester 1978).

During the mourning period, mourners might kill horses or sheep, break dishes, destroy the hogan, and avoid eating and other behaviors. Family members might weep silently in another hogan; people might remain apart for 4 days of the mourning period. Other mourners purified themselves with the smoke of a sage fire (Leighton and Kluckhohn 1948). Should the ground be too hard during the winter weather, the body would be placed in the hogan, and the hogan would be crushed on top of the body (Leighton and Kluckhohn 1948).

Navajo men tended to grieve more silently than Navajo women. Deep depression was common. It was not unusual for a man to be unable to return to work or “normal” life for an extended period of time. Women seemed to focus more on the grief of others than on their own grief. They often encouraged men to find the strength within themselves to return to life. Women were also more vocal in their grief than men and were more likely than men to cry publicly; men were expected to be strong and not as public with their grief.

For the Navajo, beliefs about death are filled with dreams, omens, and portents relating to death and the dead. They do not have a belief in a glorious afterlife for the soul but, rather, have a vague conception of an afterlife as an ephemeral and shadowy existence with an end to all that is good (Habenstein and Lamers 1963). Death is considered the end of all good things; no Navajo looks forward to life in the next world as a reward for good deeds in this life. At best, life in the afterworld is uninviting.

Not only was death to be avoided as long as possible, but those who were dead are a threat to the living. Homes of the dead were considered haunted, as the ruins of the Anasazi and other ancient peoples. The Ghostway and Ghost Dance rituals were used to stave off offended ghosts (Frisbie and McAllester 1978). All ghosts were feared. The dead were thought to be the source of all sickness and disease, whether physical or mental. Holy Way Chants, Life Way Chants, Ghost Dance rituals, astrological rituals, and so forth were used to deal with malevolent ghosts. Even the hogan was constructed and blessed with an awareness of astronomical directions and concern for the traditions of the past.

After the death, the hogan in which one died was often burned unless the person had been moved outside before he or she died. After the person died, the family would sit for 4 days facing east and chanting prayers to help his or her soul on its journey. Friends waited on them and took care of the dead body. The last ceremony was the purification of the family. The prayers ended with “In beauty, it is finished.”

After World War II, changes occurred. Because white soldiers were publicly buried with honor, the Navajo gave their own dead soldiers public burial (Underhill 1956). The Navajo still have a strong fear of contact with the dead (Young 1961).

In recent years, the Navajo have dropped many of their traditional ways of dealing with the dead. Today, the burial of the dead is surrendered to white people whenever possible. When possible, the Navajo get a white person, such as a teacher or missionary to the tribe, to carry out the burial (Vogt 1961). Missionary schools have been provided with coffins or at least lumber for them, and staff members have taken responsibility for burial (Leighton and Kluckhohn 1948). If a white person is not available, the Navajo may hire another Navajo who is not a relative to conduct the burial and other duties (Leighton and Kluckhohn 1948).

Hopi Burial Practices

A Southwestern tribe living in the midst of the Navajo, the Hopi are called “the peaceful ones.” The Hopi left behind many ruins for archeologists to study. As a pueblo people, they built and abandoned many sites and left behind their exquisite basketry and pottery. The Hopi suggest that life is a process of childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age that follows a path that leads to the sun (Terrell 1971).

Unlike the Navajo and the Apache, the Hopi do not seem to have as great a fear of ghosts. The Hopi suggest that the dead return as Kachinas—intermediaries or messengers—rather than as gods, to help humankind on its evolutionary journey. The famous and valuable Kachina dolls represent Kachinas, but the dolls themselves are not considered sacred objects with spiritual powers (Waters 1963). For the Hopi, the perfect individual is one who obeys the laws and conforms to the pure and perfect pattern laid down by the Creator. Then, when a person dies, he or she becomes a Kachina and goes directly to the next universe without having to pass through all of the intermediate worlds or stages of existence (Waters 1963). The Hopi compare the journey of the individual with the journey of their people. One follows the path of life, and at death, the individual is allowed to return to the lowerworld through the place of emergence to the ultimate home where the souls of the dead live like those living on earth (Thompson 1950). The souls of the dead often revisit the upperworld in the form of clouds represented by the masked Kachina dancers, bringing rain and other necessities to the living (Thompson 1950).

Like the Navajo and the Apache, the Hopi seemed to feel that excessive handling of the dead body could cause illness (Titiev 1972). Although all three tribes exhibited great fear of death and the dead, the Hopi remained in the house where the death took place and did not destroy the dwelling as the Apache and Navajo often did (Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1976).

When someone was dying, the young left the house of death so that they did not become frightened or even die because of their fear, and only the brave remained with the dying (Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1976). The adult who chose to stay attended the dying and prepared the body after the person dies. A man was wrapped in buckskin and a woman in her wedding blanket, with both being buried in whatever he or she was wearing at the time of death (Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1976). The Hopi did not wash or prepare the body in any way other than to wash the hair with yucca suds and tie the hair with yucca fiber. They placed the body in a sitting position with the knees and arms flexed and tied with yucca to hold them in place if necessary (Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1976). After the death, the father of the dead person or a man in the clan of the dead person immediately made prayer feathers and tied one to the body’s hair, one to each foot for the journey to the next world, one over the navel where the breath of a man lives, and one under each hand (Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1976). The face was covered with raw cotton to signify the future existence of the deceased as a cloud. Piki bread and a small gourd of water were placed in the pockets of the dead person to provide lunch for their journey to the next world (Titiev 1972). One of the men carried the body to the cemetery, dug a hole for the body, placed the body in the hole, filled the gravesite, and placed a stick on the grave to provide a ladder for the deceased to climb to the next world (Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1976).

The Hopi believe that Masau’u is the God of Death and is in charge of the underworld where dead spirits go and that a touch of his club brings death to the living. Masau’u is in the dark, which leads the Hopi to fear the dark (Titiev 1972). Traditionally, the Hopi made a great show of not mourning for their dead, but now they, like the Navajo, let the missionaries bury their dead. The Hopi also have mourning rituals (Titiev 1972). Like the Anasazi, the Hopi use Kivas for rituals and bury their deceased beneath the Kivas (Fewkes 1911). The hole in the floor of the Kiva represents the place of emergence in the path of life (Thompson 1950).

Lakota Burial Practices

The Sioux3 were inhabitants of the Great Plains, where great temperature variations made it necessary to adapt to all kinds of climatic changes. They depended on bison as the primary source of food, clothing, and shelter, although other animals and plant life were also major sources of food. The coming of the horse following the arrival of the Europeans added greatly to their prowess as warriors and hunters.

The eight Sioux (Lakota) tribes were relatively similar in their burial and mortuary practices. Like many other Western tribes, the Plains tribes believed that everything in the world around them was filled with spirits and powers that affected their lives. The curing rituals for the Lakota were based on family and friends being present. Unlike the Apache, the Lakota wanted the children to be present during such rituals. Friends and family surrounded a person who is seriously ill to provide social support and share rituals. Such support was encouraged as a way to help the patient to achieve balance and harmony. Even if one uses white medicine, one might also have Lakota curing rituals performed. The main motif of the Lakota ritual is purification.

To the Lakota, the world is full of wonders, and humans are given the privilege of living in it. The longer a Lakota lives, the more praise he or she is expected to give. The healing ceremonies of the Lakota not only seek to heal the sick but also offer calmness and confidence to the tribal community. Drums, singing, dancing, and prayer are basic to the Lakota culture. The traditional ceremonies were passed down through the oral tradition of the Lakota, but now many of them now have been written and there have been changes.

The Lakota typically carried a medicine bag that contains something of meaning from each of the four elements of the world. This might include ash or burned rock representing fire, a dried plant representing water, a piece of bone or feather representing the air, and a stone or rock from the earth. Each item had something to say to the person; each person was to listen and then learn. The six powers—the four directions, Father Sky, and the Earth Mother—are all part of the mystery of the Wakan Tanka or the Great Holy. Like many other tribes, the Lakota accept the concept of a guardian spirit who will also help those who will listen (Opler 1941).

Like the tribes previously discussed, the Sioux feared the dead and would burn the dwelling of the deceased, forbid the use of his or her name, and bury personal goods with the corpse to keep the ghost of the deceased from coming along to live with friends and relatives (LaFarge 1956). Yet the Lakota do not fear death in old age, nor do they fear the ghost who was thought to remain among the living for a time after their death (Spencer, Jennings, et al. 1965).

The Sioux took the position that death will occur to all regardless of one’s achievements, fame, wisdom, bravery, or whatever and that the mortuary practices allowed the living a way of showing their reverent respect for the dead (Hassrick 1964). If the deceased was a young person, and particularly a child, the mourners would gash their arms and legs and engage in ritual crying (Spencer, Jennings, et al. 1965). When death occurred in the home, the burial would be delayed for a day and a half in the hope that the deceased might revive (Hassrick 1964). The body would be dressed in the finest clothes available, which would be provided by a relative if the deceased had none. The body would be wrapped tightly in robes with the weapons, tools, medicines, and pipe; then, the bundle would be placed on a scaffold for air burial, with food and drink placed beneath the scaffold for the deceased (Spencer, Jennings, et al. 1965).

Some Dakota or Lakota groups used earth burial. There is evidence that in earlier times they used mound burial (Spencer, Jennings, et al. 1965). During winter when scaffolds could not be built, trees were often used for burial (Hassrick 1964). After the body was prepared and properly wrapped, the adult members of the family began wacekiyapior the worship rite for the deceased, in which men might run pegs through their arms or legs and women might slash their limbs and cut off their little fingers at the first joint. Both men and women might cut their hair and express their grief by singing, wailing, or weeping (Hassrick 1964). The favorite horse of the deceased would be killed beneath the scaffold of its owner and its tail tied to the scaffold. The mourning would continue for as long as a year (Powers 1971).

The Dakotas and similar tribes believed that placing the body on a scaffold or in a tree would free the soul to rise into the sky if the person had died of natural causes. If the had person died in battle, the Dakotas would often leave the person on the plains, where he was slain to allow his spirit to rise into the sky (Copps 1973). For the Dakota or Sioux, the spirits of the dead are not gone or lost to humankind; rather, they continue to exist here and can be reached by the living for support and aid (DeMallie and Parks 1987).

Burial Practices of the Cheyenne

The Cheyenne lived among several other tribes, including the Blackfoot, Crow, Dakota, and Comanche. Like other Plains tribes, the Cheyenne believe that a supernatural power permeates every phase of being, including peace, war, hunting, courtship, art, and music (Dorsey 1971). The burial practices of the Cheyenne were like those of the Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa, Kiowa Apache, and Sioux or Dakota tribes (Powers 1971). When the Cheyenne buried their dead in the ground, they would cover the grave with rocks, and those who passed by would place a rock or other symbolic artifact on the grave to give honor to the deceased (Sandoz 1953). Another slight difference in mortuary practices that separated the Cheyenne from the other Plains tribes is that the Cheyenne gave the property not buried with the warrior to his widow or to his daughters. To the sons, they would give nothing, with the idea that the sons could steal their own goods from their enemies (Llewellyn and Hoebel 1941).

Burial Practices of the Mounds Builders

The early history of the United States tribes is not completely developed. Between 25,000 and 40,000 years ago, tribes may have begun to occupy what is now the United States. The discovery of Folsom site suggested that the early tribes were skilled hunters who destroyed mammoths, musk ox, and bison but did not keep any records or leave any remains that might provide knowledge of what kind of culture they had and what kind of people they were. Although an enormous number of mounds scattered from Southern Mexico to the Great Lakes to Florida are available for study, a great deal of controversy surrounds the question of who the mounds builders were.

One theory is that the mounds builders were a superior group when compared with ordinary Native Americans. On this view, the mounds builders are a vanished people who were of the Israelite tribe of Joseph (Silverberg 1968). Powell (1881) suggests that no single group or tribe built the mounds and that any search for the original tribe is simply fruitless. Henry C. Schoolcraft (1851), in a masterful six-volume text, argues there is no indication from the artifacts left behind that the mounds builders had Asiatic or European origins or that any of the tribes who built mounds were in any way connected to each other.

The Angel site, the Clovis site, the Cahokia site, the Hopewell site, Moundsville (Alabama), and numerous others are similar to one another, but there is no real evidence of what rituals the people who buried their deceased practiced or what attitudes they had toward death. Nor is their any evidence of social differentiation among those who were buried. The little information that does exist suggests that the people who built mounds must have had a farming culture and that they were able to support a large population. It is possible that North American tribes began farming as early as 9,000 to 11,000 years ago (Driver 1969).

Mounds range from rooms constructed for burial as in the Angel site to burial in a trash heap in Arizona. Mounds range in size from small hills to hundreds of acres. They range in shapes from small mounds of dirt to a pyramid shape (Terrell 1971). Mounds were constructed with flat stones, dirt, poles, twigs, grass, mud coatings, mud plaster, slab lids, and whatever else that could be used, including garbage (Roberts 1939). The mounds have included gifts and supplies for the deceased to use on their journey (Fletcher 1954). Although there are thousands of mounds all across the United States, much of what was buried has rotted and disappeared, leaving behind only objects made of stone, copper, shell, and bones (Fletcher 1954).

Rather than there having been a culture of mound builders, it may be simply that various tribes disposed of their dead in similar ways. Some tribes built pyramids while others built humps. Typically, most tribes offered goods and gifts to the deceased. The mound builders may have offered such gifts and simply placed the body on the ground. After the body was covered, it may have created a mound over time. A lack of digging tools could explain their practices.

Native Americans and White Medical Practice

Nursing homes have emerged on some reservations, and many Native Americans now die in hospitals. Traditionally, however, Native Americans educate, respect, and work together; they also care for the living, the dying, and the dead as family groups. Native Americans often feel a sense of distance from those who care for them in hospitals. They are close to the shaman and other healers.

For white medical caregivers, Native Americans tend to be difficult patients. Native Americans respond differently than do white patients. They may want to use smoke for purification or burn substances to make the hospital room sacred; such actions would set off smoke detectors, alarms, or sprinklers. A Sioux may have as many relatives as possible in the hospital room. An Apache who is dying may not want any visitors so that he or she can die with dignity by being alone. The Navajo who wants to leave the hospital to have a “sing” may baffle a physician. The staff of the hospital may feel just as estranged as the Native American who comes to use their services. Hospital staff often resent the large number of Native Americans who enter the patient’s room, who may often come when it is not visiting time and seemingly stay forever. Native American methods of bathing, their refusal to wear hospital gowns, and their loud singing make it quite difficult for the staff to accept them. The lack of visitors for the dying Apache also puzzles them.

Quite often, the Native American perceives his or her illness to be caused by something other than what the white physician has diagnosed. The hospital is an unfamiliar place. The patient is often forced to wait, often alone, for long periods of time without any explanation or reason being given. Physicians and caregivers at white institutions are often demanding and impatient. This often results in the Native American patient reacting with silence or fear or simply leaving the hospital or institution providing care. White medicine is typically not explained to the patient. It is refused, not taken, or simply discarded when the caregivers are no longer present. White medicine appears to be unnatural when it is administered in bottle, capsules, or syringes.

Because of the acceptance of death within the Native American worldview, Native peoples generally do not make use of complex Western medical interventions to prolong life. They believe that one should die naturally without tubes and machines. Trying to keep someone alive as long as possible or allowing that person to die with strangers is not considered a way of showing love.

Suicide in Native American Culture

Despite the high rates of suicide among some Native American tribes, suicide is incompatible with the traditional Native American worldview. The Lakota teach that those who commit suicide will wander the earth lost and lonely. My own study of suicide (Cox 1980) in 14 tribes suggests that ethnic renewal will lower suicide rates among Native Americans. Consistently, those responding to questions about suicide reported that loneliness, isolation, peer pressure, difficulty, depression, and bad spirits drove people to suicide. They also consistently indicated that those who commit suicide will wander the earth as lost, lonely spirits who will never rest in peace and that suicide could be avoided by following traditional ways, prayer, rituals, and remaining spiritual.

By examining the burial practices of the Navajo, Apache, Lakota, Hopi, Mounds Builders, and Cheyenne, the cultural value of ceremony was examined. Native Americans view dying and death as the natural outcome of life. Both one’s life and one’s death have a purpose. Health, illness, healing, and failure to heal are part of how one lives one’s life. Life is to be lived in the natural, balanced way. Those who do not live balanced lives suffer more. In dying and death, Native Americans have a system of social support that is enhanced by ceremonies. Grief is managed by these ceremonies. Those who do not follow the ceremonial ways also suffer more. The care of the dead and their spirit is also part of the ceremonial process. While the process for each tribe is different, each tribe does have a process.


If nothing else is known, it is clear that tribal groups did not abandon their dead. They provided them with ceremonies and dignified disposal. Native Americans provided social support through the tribe or clan of the individual in the dying and burial process. That same social support system sustained the bereaved after the disposal of the dead. The grief process included the ceremony of the funeral, the burial, and the give-away ceremony. Extreme emotions were usually managed by these ceremonies. The spiritual nature of the living and the dead permeated the entire process. The process used by Native Americans is a positive model for other cultures.