Lakota Indian Burial Rituals

When a warrior was killed in battle, his companions often risked their own lives to retrieve the body.
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From about the mid-1700s, the Lakota had become a migratory people regularly moving across the Northern Plains in response to the seasons, availability of game and, eventually, pursuit under a federal policy to force them onto reservations. Prowess as a hunter and courage in the face of the enemy were highly valued traits, but so were being "a good relative" -- putting the needs of the community above those of the individual -- and a respect for all life. The Lakota believed that humans were no less a part of nature than animals, plants or even rocks and mountains. Much of this lifestyle and worldview is reflected in their burial rituals.

1 Burial

In pre-reservation times bodies of deceased Lakota were dressed in their best clothes, wrapped in hides or a blanket and placed on a scaffold. The scaffold might be in a tree or, out on the plains, constructed of lodge poles. Special possessions of the deceased, such as a pipe or weapon, were also wrapped and placed on the scaffold with him. While the scaffold prevented animals from reaching the body, it was allowed to decay naturally. In exceptional situations, the body of a warrior killed in battle might be placed sitting against a rock or tree facing the enemy.

2 Grieving

Grieving took various forms among the Lakota. There were no set requirements except what brought comfort to the survivors. Surviving family members, both men and women, often cut their hair as a sign of grief. They might cover their hair and bodies with ashes, tear their clothes, paint their faces black or cut themselves. The women might keen at the gravesite and on occasion, cut off the tip of a finger, especially for the death of a child.

3 Mourning

The Keeping of the Soul was believed to be one of the seven sacred rites or ceremonies passed to the Lakota by White Buffalo Calf Woman. A Soul Bundle was created by wrapping in a sacred buckskin a lock of the deceased's hair that had been purified by the smoke of burning sweetgrass. The person selected as the Keeper of the Soul kept the bundle in a specially built tipi, usually for about one year, though there was no set time, and had to live a "harmonious life" during that time, having no conflicts with others. At the end of the mourning period, the bundle was removed from the lodge, thus releasing the soul, and a feast -- the product of a special buffalo hunt -- was held along with a "give away" of the deceased's possessions and other prized possessions of the family.

4 Current Practices

Today Lakota are buried in cemeteries with grave markers, and the rites and rituals are often those of one of the mainstream religions they follow. However, these are often combined with traditional rituals like the "memorial feast" at which family members continue to give away the possessions of the deceased as well as their own. A common give-away item is a star quilt. In the Lakota tradition, warriors, now both men and women, continue to be highly honored. Lakota cemeteries may appear unkempt to those accustomed to manicured lawns and neatly placed flowers, however, in keeping with the tradition of respecting nature, Lakota allow natural grasses to grow over graves and may leave more traditional offerings, like tobacco, at grave sites in lieu of flowers.

Nancy Cross is a certified paralegal who has worked as an employee benefits specialist and counseled employees on retirement preparation, including financial and estate planning. In addition to writing and editing, she runs a small business with her husband and is a certified personal trainer with the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA).