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Burial Practices For Native Americans

Burial Practices for Native Americans

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The collision of the European and Native American cultures led to changes in some of the traditional tribal practices. It did not, however, result in the complete assimilation of most Native American cultural groups into the more powerful European-based society. Many tribes, such as the Lakota Sioux of the Great Plains and the Athapascan Tlingit of Southern Alaska, retained a cultural nucleus that enabled them to survive as distinct society. There did occur a process of acculturation, however, in which these two tribes adopted aspects of the dominant European culture as an expediency to facilitate survival. The burial practices of the Lakota and the Tlingit demonstrate this process of acculturation by undergoing limited change after contact with European-based society, while retaining the spiritual and ritualistic essence of their culture. The burial practices of both tribes continue to reflect traditional attitudes toward community, family and the role of humans in the world.

Because no culture is static over long periods of time, it can be assumed that the burial practices of the Tlingit and Lakota were not constant. For example, archaeological evidence indicates that cave inhumation was very common in the distant past among the northern Pacific coast tribes, a custom now followed only for shaman among the Tlingit of the region. Since Native Americans relied on an oral tradition, written records of Lakota practices cover only the past two hundred years, after initial contact with Europeans. Among the more remote Tlingit, the earliest observations from Europeans regarding the tribe's burial practices dates from the mid-nineteenth century. These records, along with archaeological evidence and the oral history of the two tribes, provide a base line to show the funerary practices from the mid-nineteenth century that can be compared to present day practices.

For the Lakota, death is an integral part of the sacred mysteries of life, and as such must be accorded great respect. It is a time for sharing the sorrow at the loss of a community member and the possessions of the deceased. The rituals of the funeral serve to bind the tribe together and help insure its continued physical and cultural survival.

In the Lakota tradition, the following is unique to their culture:

  1. All parts of the funeral ritual have to be performed with exact correctness or harm might ensue from the aggrieved spirit of the deceased.
  2. The ritual also serves as a means to make death an intelligible and integral aspect of life, the logical outcome of birth.
  3. The afterlife holds mystery, but is not feared.
  4. The task of carrying out the funeral ritual falls to the loved ones of the deceased.

The shaman or medicine man has little role in insuring that the ritual is properly performed, although they participate as visionaries who can interpret the meaning of omens and spiritually charged events. This indicates that the tribe does not have a politically powerful priest caste controlling religious behavior. Each member of the tribe is obliged to be familiar with the death ritual and spiritual tradition. The young are taught by example, and social pressure insures that adults conform to the expectations of the community. This demonstrates the importance that the Lakota place on following a uniform tradition to establish and maintain tribal cohesion.

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