Historic Funeral Traditions: Native North American

Seminole family in Indian camp, 1916. Photographer: Small, John Kunkel, 1869-1938.
Seminole family in Indian camp, 1916. Photographer: Small, John Kunkel, 1869-1938.

Much is known today about various Native American burial customs, but the main fact that stands out is that each tribe’s customs remain different. These traditions, based upon beliefs and custom and affected by location, demands only a brief overview.

One enlightening article about North American native burial customs was printed last year, when an Alaska Native group came into conflict with a local cemetery when the cemetery disagreed with that Indian nation’s traditional winter burial custom. Bodies are normally kept above ground in a crypt until the ground thaws, according to the Fairbanks Native Association, but the group has struck an agreement with the cemetery that allows its members to come through and bury the deceased immediately.

Other traditions noted in that article include:

Navajo: Death was a taboo subject, and walking around a cemetery is like walking over people who can still “watch from a place.” In a traditional custom, three or four members of the deceased’s in-laws (no blood relations) would “wrap the body in a new blanket, load it onto a brand-new horse and lead it north of the homestead. When they feel they’ve gone far enough they’ll bury the body and kill the horse.” The deceased then takes a journey into the after world on a young and brand-new horse. Even further back, the Navajo would bury their deceased in trees, letting nature take its course. Those trees would then be “off limits” to the living.

Inuit: This tribe would name a child after a deceased relative if they recognize a part of that deceased person in an infant.

Choctaw: In contrast to the Inuit, this tribe never says the name of the deceased person, as this practice would call them back and make their spirits restless.

Florida Seminole: Above-ground burials seemed most fitting in an area where swamplands made below-ground burial difficult. One tradition is to throw all the deceased’s belongings into the swamp. If the Florida Seminole holds on to the deceased’s belongings, they are also holding them back in their after-death journey. Neal Bowers, a cultural adviser with the tribe’s Historic Preservation Office in Clewiston, Florida stressed that traditions varied from family to family and from tribe to tribe within the Seminole nation.

Kiowa and Comanche in Southwest Oklahoma:
These tribes often would bind the deceased into the smallest space possible within Wichita Mountain crevices to protect the remains from animals. Choctaws might put the body on a platform and allow it to decompose naturally. They then would save the skull and other long bones to ‘attend’ feasts with the living in honor of the dead.

Many of these traditions have died out because of public health issues nationwide. But, many traditions have lived on, albeit in different forms. Instead of bringing bones to feasts, for instance, relatives might provide a photograph of that deceased person during life instead.

Additionally, archaeologists, historians and curiosity seekers have, historically, taken bones and other artifacts from northern Native American burial sites. While many of these burial items were stacked in museums and institutions for years, the Return to the Earth project, with Cheyenne peace chief and MCC U.S. board member Lawrence Hart, is assisting in burying these remains with dignity in regional cemeteries throughout the United States, beginning with a cemetery near the Cheyenne Cultural Center in Clinton, Oklahoma.

While a 1990 law mandated that Native American remains stored in museums and institutions be returned to tribes, more than 111,000 remains can’t be linked with a particular tribe and remain unburied.

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