The Navajo Nation, a Native American -- also called First Nations, Indigenous or Native North American -- group of the South-Western United States, dwell in a territory called 'Navajoland', which is a name given to their reservation. A reservation is the land allotted to native peoples during colonization, though many indigenous nations have now claimed their right to greater territory. The Navajo reservation spans across New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, and is one of the biggest indigenous reservations in North America. The Navajo, also called Diné, hold rich cultural traditions anchored in ancestral practices as they engage in daily modern life. Their burial practices are reflective of this cultural duality.

Traditional Navajo Funeral Rites

Navajo dancer

Traditional Navajo burials vary, depending on the deceased person. Generally, however, the Navajo choose four people to officially 'mourn' the deceased. One of them is traditionally a relative or member of the same clan, and the other must be from the clan of the father, wife, of husband of the one who has passed. They are the ones who prepare the body for the funeral ritual. In this ritual, the body is bathed, dressed in nice clothes, and moccasins are placed on opposite feet (right on left and left on right.) They have designated burial sites for their dead, and following preparation of the body by the official mourners, as the body is carried there, the only communication allowed is a type of sign language. The mourners each have specific tasks: one leads the procession on a horse, two carry the body, and the last one speaks to all those who cross their path, telling them to avoid this very path during the official mourning time, which is four days.

The Traditional Navajo Burial

Four wild mustang horses on sagebrush plains

The burial practices of the Navajo include burying the body far away from the hogan, the traditional Navajo home. They frequently bury the body with various objects: jewelry, blankets, pottery and sometimes a saddle. The horse leading the procession to the burial site is generally killed as an offering. Burial custom requires mourners to remain silent, avoiding to turn a stone sideways, or avoiding stepping on a cactus. Mourning practices, which follow burial, include self-purification with sage smoke (called smudging), and avoiding acts such as avoiding eating and breaking dishes.

Christian Burial Practices and the Navajo

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Today, the Navajo, depending on the clan, family or individual, can vary in burial practices. Traditional burials are still performed, but with the introduction of the Christian faith, some choose to forego these practices for Christian burials. The body is prepared for burial, dressed in nice clothes, and placed in a wooden casket. A traditional, Christian funeral can be performed with a minister. The family and friends will gather, wreaths will be placed on the casket, and the body will be descended into the ground underneath a headstone. These burials sites can either be found in or near Navajo land.

Negotiating Cultural Duality

Another burial rite reflects a strong cultural duality evidenced in some Navajo belief systems. The Native American Church, which combines both Christian and Navajo beliefs, offers a post-mortem ceremony that includes the strong Navajo traditions with Christian prayer and burials. The bodies are buried in a casket near the reservation, and still include a stone, but traditional Navajo prayers are included with the Christian ones, smudging is common, and the mourners will frequently engage in the traditional Navajo mourning behavior. There are different ways of mourning a Navajo death. These are reflective of traditions dating back to their ancestors, to funeral rituals created after colonial contact. The Navajo traditional beliefs and practices, however, are still carried forward by the youth, not only through funeral rituals, but through dance, language, and other rites.