Native American death rites

There are many native American nations. Each of them has numerous traditions concerning death, funerals and mourning. Here are only few of them.

The Dakota or Sioux native American people live in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and Nebraska. In Canada the Dakota communities exist in Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Dakota painted the face the deceased with red colour. They believed that red was the “colour of life”.

The Ojibwa (Ojibway, Ojibwe) or Chippewa (Chippeway) people also live in both the USA and Canada. In the USA bigger Ojibwa communities exist in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Montana and North Dakota. Most of the Ojibwa in Canada live in Ontario and Saskatchewan. If the deceased was a child the Ojibwa people cut his/her hair and made a small doll from it. They called it a “doll of sorrow”. Mother of the deceased carried this doll with her for a year.

The Navajo or Diné people live in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and California. The have many different death rites. Some of them existed in the past. Some are still performed. The Navajo believe that if you hear an owl it may predict death. The cry of coyote is believed to be a certain sign of imminent evil or death.

Navajo Cemetery in Lukachukai, Arizona
Navajo Cemetery in Lukachukai, Arizona (photo by Chuck Coker)

The Navajo never completely close the coffin to allow the spirit to be released. When the grave is dug the area around it carefully checked. No foot prints should be left in or around the grave. It must be done so the spirit guide will not take the wrong spirit. In the past the Navajo people were not buried in the ground. The deceased was put on a tree. Such a tree was never located close to a village.

When someone in the community dies three or four members have a special duty to perform. They will wrap the body of deceased in a new blanket. Then they will put the body on the brand new horse. They will guide the horse north of their village. When they think they went far enough they will bury the body and kill the horse. The horse should carry the body into the afterworld.

Both Navajo and Apache people believed that ghosts of the dead can haunt the living. Some Apache people burned the body of deceased but also his house and all of his possessions. Members of the deceased's family often moved away to avoid being haunted.

The Choctaw people live in Oklahoma, California, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Alabama. They never mention the name of the deceased. If they do they believe that they will call the deceased back and make his spirit restless.

Traditionally the Choctaw people put the body of the deceased on a plate and leave it to decompose naturally. Then they will take the skull and some long bones. Those bones are presented at the feast organized in honour of the deceased two or three years after his death.

The Seminole people today live in Florida and Oklahoma. In the past they put the body of the deceased in what was known as the “chickee”. This open-sided building with thatched roof was made of cypress poles and palm fronds. When the body was left there the community left the place and settled somewhere else.

The next tradition is still sometimes performed by the Seminole. After someone died his loved ones collect all of his belongings and throw them into the swamp.

The Comanche people nowadays live in Oklahoma and Texas. In the past old and sick members were abandoned by members of the community except their family. This was not done out of cruelty. They believed that evil spirits were invading the body of old and sick.

The knees of the deceased were folded and tied with a rope and then the body was washed. The deceased was dressed in finest available clothing and put upon a blanket. The face was painted red and the eyes were covered with some clay.

The relatives of the deceased said farewell to their loved one. The body was then wrapped in blanket and tied with buffalo-hide rope and put on a horse and carried to the place of burial.

The Comanche usually buried their dead in a cave, a ravine or a crevice among the rocks. The body was buried in a sitting position, or on its side, in a hole, or on the ground, around stacked rocks and wooden poles. The Comanche often left the place where the death occurred and created their settlement somewhere else.

The Nez Perce or Nimíipuu (“The People”) tribe live in the Pacific Northwest region (Columbia River Plateau) of the United States. In the past if a great warrior died they used to sacrifice his horse, wives or slaves.

The Hopi people today mainly live in the reservation located in the northeast of Arizona. Southwest Hopi people wailed on the day when someone died. A year later mourners cried. On the fourth day after death “hikwsi” or “person's breath” moves to a place called Underworld or Lower World. This place means other form of existence. Being there does not mean the end of all connections with world of living. The Hopi believe that hikwsi can return in the form of clouds or rain (“katsinam”).