Native American Religion

Because they lived so close to nature, all Native American peoples from the Stone Age to the modern era knew that death from hunger, disease, or enemies was never far away. The various death customs and beliefs, which first evolved during the invasions of Asians from Siberia to Alaska across a land bridge during the last Ice Age at least 12,000 years ago, gave them the means to cope with that experience. Individual tribes maintained their own death customs and adapted them to their regional environments into which they migrated, although such rituals and beliefs could pass from one group to the other through trade and intermarriage. Most Native American tribes believed that the souls of the dead passed into a spirit world and became part of the spiritual forces that influenced every aspect of their lives. Many tribes believed in two souls: one that died when the body died and one that might wander on and eventually die.

Burial customs varied widely from tribe to tribe. Indians disposed of their dead in a variety of ways. Arctic tribes, for example, simply left their dead on the frozen ground for wild animals to devour. The ancient mound-building Hopewell societies of the Upper Midwest, by contrast, placed the dead in lavishly furnished tombs. Southeastern tribes practiced secondary bone burial. They dug up their corpses, cleansed the bones, and then reburied them. The Northeast Iroquois, before they formed the Five Nations Confederation in the seventeenth century, saved skeletons of the deceased for a final mass burial that included furs and ornaments for the dead spirits' use in the afterlife. Northwest coastal tribes put their dead in mortuary cabins or canoes fastened to poles. Further south, California tribes practiced cremation. In western mountain areas tribes often deposited their dead in caves or fissures in the rocks. Nomadic tribes in the Great Plains region either buried their dead, if the ground was soft, or left them on tree platforms or on scaffolds. Central and South Atlantic tribes embalmed and mummified their dead. But during outbreaks of smallpox or other diseases leading to the sudden deaths of many tribe members, survivors hurriedly cast the corpses into a mass grave or threw them into a river.

Rites among Native Americans tended to focus on aiding the deceased in their afterlife. Some tribes left food and possessions of the dead person in or near the gravesite. Other groups, such as the Nez Perce of the Northwest, sacrificed wives, slaves, and a favorite horse of a dead warrior. Among many tribes, mourners, especially widows, cut their hair. Some Native Americans discarded personal ornaments or blacked their faces to honor the dead. Others gashed their arms and legs to express their grief. California tribes engaged in wailing, staged long funeral ceremonies, and held an anniversary mourning ritual after one or two years. Southwest Hopi wailed on the day of the death, and cried a year later.

Some Southwestern tribes, especially the Apache and Navajo, feared the ghosts of the deceased who were believed to resent the living. The nomadic 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. Navajos exposed to a corpse had to undergo a long and costly ritual purification treatment.

See also: Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective ; Ghost Dance


Garbarino, Merwyn, S. Native American Heritage. Boston: Little, Brown, 1976.

Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. The Indian Heritage of America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.

Underhill, Ruth. Red Man's America: A History of Indians in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.


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User Contributions:

abigaille hill
i think this article is a great resource of information. it is great when you are studding native americans.
Did any Native American tribe in what is now considered US teritory practice the sewing of the eyelids and mouths of their deceased. If ay tribe practiced this ritual what was it's significance?
What if no body remained after a death? What if the body couldn't be found?
my father was half native american. i talked to a native american following his death. i was told that the ashes had to be returned to the place he was born. my sister has also spread ashes over different places and continues to keep some in an urn. my father would not have approved of this. he wanted to be dumped near his home in the ocean.
According to my Dakota ancestors, our tribe was very spiritual and believed that the spirit of the dead returned to a "spiritual realm which is 3 feet above the earth" in this realm our loved ones are close to us and are therefore considered to be our "guardian angels" Historically, and present day ceremonies last for four days, where there are many rituals that healp the soul find a peaceful and safe journey, with all they need to survive, peace of mind, healed body and food for the soul.
What would happen if those souls were disturbed by : psychics, people practicing forbidden magic, (which God hates to begin with example: occultic stuff), construction, or an increase of more invading outsiders like what's going on in the last century? speaking from a redheads point of view, what if these "ancestors" of other people, were being disturbed in recent years out of carelessness and someone's wreckless curiosity? (kids are taught that quiji boards and horoscopes are harmless, and as I type this I swear something pulled on my leg) past natives had the right reasons to fear ghosts but now I think here in our " northwest", actually in too many United States we still continue to desicrate burial land(s) and no one gives a care unless they make a profit off it. Maybe that's why I no longer sleep at night, I feel pissed all the time and I feel like I don't live alone even though physically my dog is the only other tenant in my apartment. We need to show alot more respect for our dead, they do have voices, both before their in the ground as well as after. too many areput in the ground prematurely and usually by invaders.
James Wilbur
Question: Did any tribes that settled what is now the continental U.S.A. have a tradition of the old, when they felt death coming, going out of the village or camp into seclusion where he/she remained until death?

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