Death and Native Americans

Here are some aspects of Native worldviews that color attitudes about death and dying:

The spiritual and natural worlds are connected. This connection is described as a circle.

The spiritual world (also called the spirit world) is as real as the "natural" world.

One of the most central responses to life is ritual.

Indian rituals, ceremonies, and attitudes may seem strange to outsiders. Nonetheless, they are vital to the spiritual well-being of Indians.

Beliefs and Attitudes About Death

Death is not to be feared (but will be grieved).

There are different customs about how the dead are treated. Some speak about the deceased; others feel that the mere mention of the name of the deceased will bring misfortune. Many believe that the connection between the two worlds means that if a person does not have the proper burial, his or her spirit will not rest. Others feel that once the proper rituals have been observed, one is contaminated by going anywhere near a deceased person or their belongings. In contrast, others have rituals for "keeping the soul" for a period of time while people are grieving, and then "releasing the soul" to go on its journey.

Death involves a transition from one state of existence to another. Sometimes the transition is immediate; sometimes one must go on a journey to "get to" the other state of existence.

In either case, the proper rituals must be observed to facilitate the transition. Failure to observe the proper rituals can result in impediments to the journey, and harm to those still in this world.

Sometimes a guide appears to help the person on the journey to the spirit world.

Sometimes a series of "tests" must be passed before one is admitted to the spiritual world.

This world is a reflection of the spiritual world. Therefore, the spiritual world is similar to this world. People engage in similar activities in both worlds.

Pastoral Care Strategies for American Indians

Be sensitive to the religious preference of the individual/family. Some will demand a traditional burial. Others will feel that traditional customs are evil. Some will fall in the middle.

In almost any situation involving traditional burial and care for the grieving, the services of a ritual practitioner will be desired. Evaluate your resources to determine to what extent you can facilitate this. It's best to have prior knowledge of the ritual practitioners in your area.

The New Age community and traditional Indian communities are two different and separate worlds. Besides being culturally different, many traditionalists consider New Age practitioners to be, to use a Christian term, "blasphemous." Be prepared for major cultural misunderstanding and the end of your work with traditional Indians if you invite a New Age practitioner to conduct any Indian ceremony, especially a funeral.

You might be asked, in some instances, to "sponsor" a ceremony for the deceased. You should know that this involves being responsible for the total expense and planning of the ceremony. This includes feeding and probably securing housing for everyone, securing the necessary ritual supplies, bringing in the ritual specialist, etc.. It is a signficant financial and emotional expense.

Regardless of the death, guilt and shame are not as operative emotions as sorrow. There is likely to be less concern with the lifestyle of the deceased than the fact that they died in the midst of an unfortunate lifestyle.

There are expressions of pastoral care that are universal and appreciated.

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