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Death and Bereavement Among the Lakota

Many Native people say that they do not die, but instead “walk on.”

N0tyham (Self-photographed) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: N0tyham (Self-photographed) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Grief is a universal experience. While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are many different ways to grieve.

After a death, our thoughts and behaviors are largely determined by our society and culture. People of the same culture develop certain behaviors, customs, and rituals that help individuals cope with their loss. Most of us are unfamiliar with the different ways that grief is expressed in other cultures.

Kathleen Ratteree, a medical anthropologist, has studied and lived among the Oglala Lakota (Sioux), an American Indian nation located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota. She has recently co-edited a book entitled, The Great American Vanishing Act: Blood Quantum and the Future of Native Nations. We spoke about her experiences among the Lakota.

According to Ratteree, as of 2016, the Federal Register listed 566 federally recognized tribe/nations in the United States, all with diverse grieving and bereavement practices.

The Lakota are one of the original Native American tribes who lived and hunted over the northern Great Plains prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Today, they are primarily located in North and South Dakota.

Even within the Lakota culture, Ratteree says these cultural practices have also changed over time. There are many reasons for this: historical trauma, such as genocide and forced assimilation during the boarding school era (l860-l978) in which children were forcefully separated from their families, and their language and cultural practices were brutally suppressed, the introduction of Christianity and the suppression of traditional ceremonies, and demographic changes beginning with World War II as many young Native people moved away, served in the military, and raised families outside of the tribal nation.

Walking On

When someone passes away, many Native people say that they do not die, but instead “walk on.” This implies a continuation of a journey rather than an endpoint on a linear path.

The rituals and ceremonies are an important part of the grieving process and are meant to encourage the spirit into the afterlife. The Lakota do not have a fear of death or of going to an underworld. They do believe in a spirit world (Wakan Tanka) in the sky in which the deceased are free of pain and suffering.

Given the powerful nature of these ceremonies and the impact they have on both the living and the dead, Ratteree emphases that it is crucial that all ceremonies be led by a trained medicine man or woman who have earned their status in the community.

These spiritual leaders play a critical role because they provide guidance for the mourners about the proper ways to channel their grief. They also assist in the continued journey of the spirit.

For “pretenders” or “wannabes” (those who conduct these ceremonies without proper training), there may be serious consequences for the participants. Ratteree was told of one such ceremony in which one of the participants died due to the pretender’s poor training.

In general, during the time of mourning, grief is expressed through crying, singing, wailing, cutting of hair and cutting one’s body. In all ceremonies, drugs and alcohol are strictly forbidden. Menstruating or “mooning” women are also prohibited from the ceremonial grounds and sweat lodges.

There are Seven Sacred Ceremonies of the Pipe that form the spiritual foundation of the Lakota. For example, the Nagi Gluhapi (Keeping of the Soul) is a rite that purifies the soul of the deceased and helps them over to the place where they were born. It is also a ceremony of healing for relatives, friends and community members. By participating in this rite, people increase their love for one another.

According to the Akta Lakota Museum Cultural Center:

"A lock of hair from a departed person was taken and held over a piece of burning sweetgrass to purify it ... Then it was wrapped in a piece of sacred buckskin and the Sacred Pipe was smoked. ... The buckskin bundle, called the soul bundle, was kept in a special place in the tipi of the soul’s keeper, usually a relative. The Keeper of the Soul vowed to live a harmonious life until the soul could be released, usually about one year. ... The bundle containing the soul was carried outside and as soon as it reached the air, the soul was released. ... If she judged it worthy, she sent the soul to the right ... to Wakan Tanka. Unworthy souls were sent to the left where they remained until they finally could become purified and join Wakan Tanka."

In 2012, Ratteree was invited to attend the funeral of a highly respected medicine man on the Pine Ridge reservation. She states that it was an intensive two-day ceremony.

The night before the funeral, hundreds of friends, family, and community members gathered at the Crazy Horse School auditorium where they stayed up all night. The deceased’s family fed everyone who attended. Children slept on the auditorium stage in sleeping bags while the adults swapped stories and jokes, old and new. There was a ‘giveaway” in which people were encouraged to take one of the deceased's possessions because among traditional Lakota, generosity is more important than possession.

At sunrise the next morning, everyone traveled up to Eagle Nest Butte to scatter his remains. High places are considered sacred sites because they are closer to the spirits. Those who have walked on often have their bodies or ashes buried in high places.

Jack Kornfield, the Buddhist practitioner, has stated that “Lakota grief was something to be valued. It brought a person closer to God. For when a person has suffered great loss and was grieving, they were considered ‘the most holy.’ Their prayers were believed to be especially powerful and others would ask the grievers to pray on their behalf.”

In working with a grieving client from another culture, it is important that we familiarize ourselves with the beliefs, rituals, and ceremonies that are comforting to them so we can facilitate their grieving process.


Walker, James R. Eds. DeMaille, Raymond and Jahner, Elaine A. “Lakota and Ritual.” 1991. University of Nebraska Press.

Stone, Joseph B. 1998. “Traditional and Contemporary Lakota Death, Dying, Grief and Bereavement Beliefs and Practices: A Qualitative Study.” Utah State University, dissertation.

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