The Lakota Indian tribe finds its roots in the northern part of the United States, particularly North Dakota and South Dakota. Sometimes known as the Western Sioux, the Lakota people -- whose spiritual system focuses on nature and connectedness -- often bury their dead with Sioux customs. Many modern Lakota maintain traditional cultural beliefs and customs, including funeral practices and ideas about the afterlife.
Beliefs About Death
Lakota burial ceremonies reflect the tribe's beliefs about death. The Lakota people view the world as a wondrous place and regard life as an immense gift. This tribe views death as an inevitable equalizer, something that happens to all living things despite their achievements on earth. The Lakota believe that the dead depart to a spirit world free of pain and suffering. Although the Lakota sometimes fear the departed, they do not fear death of old age, and they do not fear ghosts, though they often try to prevent ghosts from returning to stay with families of the deceased.
Typically, the Lakota bury their dead. Custom dictates that the tribe wait about a day and half before burial when a person dies at home, in hopes that the deceased might revive. Before burial, mourners dress the body in fine clothes and wrap them tightly in robes. Due to their fear of the dead, Lakota tribes sometimes burn the dwellings of the deceased and forbid members of the tribe to use that person's name. Bodies are typically placed on a scaffold to encourage the spirit's journey into the sky. Burial practices vary and include traditional earth burial, air burial -- in which bodies are left in the open, a practice often used for warriors who have fallen in battle --, burial under mounds or rocks and even tree burial, in which the limbs of a tree stand in for a scaffold. These methods vary depending on the tribe, location and resources.
Journey to the Spirit World
Much of the Lakota's beliefs about the spirit world manifest in their burial ceremonies. To help them on their journey to the spirit world -- a parallel plane of existence that can be reached by the living -- the Lakota take bundles of their belongings with them to the grave, including items such as weapons, pipes, tools and medicine. Mourners also place food and drink at the scaffold of the deceased and kill the departed's horse at this location, tying its tail to the scaffold.
Grief and Respect
Above all, the ceremonial beliefs and funeral customs of the Lakota are meant to show respect and reverence for those who have passed; in a mourning process that may last up to a year, this respect is often expressed through grief. Mourners express grief for the departed by singing, crying, wailing and running pegs through their limbs, cutting their hair or even -- in the case of female Lakota -- cutting off a part of their little fingers. To symbolize their grief for young children who have passed, the Lakota practice ritual crying and wound their own arms and legs.
- American Indian Heritage Foundation: Lakota Indians
- ONE Spirit: About Lakota Indians
- Handbook of Death and Dying; Clifton D. Bryant
- Digital Commons at Cal Poly: Lakota Religious Traditions