Culture and Death: Native American Heritage

Today, there are more than 6.5 million Native Americans in the U.S. who make up 574 tribal nations and villages. Each tribe is different and has its own rich history and culture around death. In some tribes, death rituals include painting the faces of the dead red, the color of life. Others wash the body of the deceased with yucca before burial. Sometimes, feathers are tied around the head of the deceased as a form of prayer. Some families dress the deceased in full regalia and jewelry, with moccasins for their trip to the next world.

One common thread is that death is considered a natural part of life, and customs for the dead in the Native American community typically prepare the soul for the spiritual journey or for the spirit to “walk on.” While these tribal nations unite in this understanding, one main difference is whether the tribe fears or accepts death, which dictates how they prepare the deceased for their spiritual journey.

Fear, Ghosts, and Hohzo

Some Southwestern tribes, especially the Apache and Navajo, feared the ghosts of the deceased who were believed to resent the living. The Apache buried corpses swiftly and burned the deceased’s house and possessions. The mourning family purified itself ritually and moved to a new place to escape their dead family member’s ghost. The Navajo also buried their dead quickly with little ceremony. Any Navajos exposed to a corpse had to undergo a long and costly ritual purification treatment.

For the Navajo, it is important to live in hohzo, a state of order with the universe which recognizes the beauty of all living things. Navajos follow rituals and bury the dead in unique ways to maintain this order:

  • Navajos select family members to mourn. Mourners bathe and dress the body in special garments.
  • The mourners bury the deceased far away from the living areas, along with their possessions and the tools used to bury the body.
  • If the deceased died in their hogan—home of tree and bark—family members burn it along with any remaining possessions. This is also custom in similar tribes who fear the dead, such as the Apache.

Acceptance and the Spirit World

On the other hand, many tribes see the deceased as ever-present ancestral spirits who sometimes lend aid. The Sioux don’t fear the soul of the deceased like the Navajo, but rather reach out to spirits in times of need and communicate with them. Similarly, the Lakota do not have a fear of death or of going to an underworld. They do believe in a spirit world (Wakan Tanka) in the sky in which the deceased are free of pain and suffering. For tribal nations that view death in this way, moving from this world to the next is not something to be mourned, but rather it is something to be celebrated.

Traditional After-Death Customs

The deceased’s corpse is universally considered sacred, but burial and memorial customs for after death are specific to tribes. Practices are different based on location too.

  • Cremation: Burning the deceased helps them enter the afterlife. The smoke sends the body upward in their journey. This was custom to many tribes, including the Odawa.
  • Mortuary Pole: This is an uncommon type of totem pole, sometimes used by the Haida and Tlingit for important members of tribe to keep the ashes of tribe members after cremation. The ashes or body of the person who has died is placed within the pole, making a very prominent memorial.
  • Tree burial: The Sioux, Ute, and Navajo tribes used platforms like a scaffold or tree to bring the deceased closer to the sky. Animals consume the body bringing the life cycle full circle–similar to a Tibetan Sky burial.
  • Earth Burial: Sioux Native Americans often choose this burial option also. They view the earth as our Mother, and when a family member dies, a dirt burial is the best way to reconnect with the planet and free the soul.

What are your traditions and practices for end-of-life? Share them with us:

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