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How do Native American Ghosts Differ from the Mainstream?

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How do Native American Ghosts Differ from the Mainstream?
The Native American belief system is one that concentrates on nature and man’s connection with nature and the spirit realm. While this sounds far from mainstream western religion and beliefs there are some surprising similarities, particularly when it comes to the idea of ghosts.

This is not a simple idea to deconstruct. Native Americans originally totaled over 20 million people broken up into approximately 500 tribes (1), each with their own variant on deities, spirits and the afterlife.

In the east, some believed in a “Great Spirit” which was a good divinity that would work through lesser, smaller spirits to control the weather and other aspects of nature. This Great Spirit occurs in different tribe beliefs in various incarnations.

Some of the elements of tribal beliefs mirror those in Western Christianity. The Cherokee tribe believed that earth was a Middle World. Above lived the spirits of deceased people and animals, and below was a place of ghosts, bad spirits and monsters (1), much like Christianity’s heaven and hell.

Each tribe has its own spirits which often take the form of animals, as nature was intrinsic to the Native American way of life as evidenced through the use of nature in symbols as discussed in another TSW article (4). Other spirits may take the form of bears or horned creatures, and can bring rain that will help crops grow or create drought and destructive storms.

When it comes to death, many Native Americans view it as moving from one realm to another. As Chief Seattle of the Suquamish tribe explained in 1854, “There is no death. Only a change of worlds” (2)(3).




Ghosts of the Dead

Each Native American tribe had its own version of burial rites, which depended on a number of factors such as the surrounding landscape (for example, Alaskan Native Americans would often leave their dead to freeze) and whether they were nomadic. While in the Christian west, the dead were buried on consecrated ground close to churches close to the living, Native American cemeteries were often placed in remote areas, away from settlements. Even better was on an island, such as those along the Columbian River (2), as it was believed that the spirits of the dead could not cross water.

Ghosts are a personal idea in mainstream culture. While some people are scared of the idea of a ghost, others may be comforted by the idea of contacting someone they have lost. However, the idea of a ghost in Native American culture is one of a negative energy rather than the spirits which reside in nature.

Through the Anglo-Saxon period up to the Victorian age, criminals and those who committed suicide in Britain and in places within North America were traditionally buried at crossroads without the usual burial rites. This was considered an added punishment for their crimes or for taking their own life, as they would not be prepared for judgement day. To counteract the lack of burial rites, the dead were buried at crossroads to stop their ghosts returning to earth and haunting the living (4)(5).

Some Native American tribes also believed that burial rites were important enough to incur the wrath of the dead if done incorrectly. If the deceased did not receive the appropriate burial rites, they would be earth-bound and destined to continue walking the earth and haunt the living (6). It is also suggested that some believed the same for the dead whose graves had been desecrated.

Some tribes, including the Apache, a nomadic tribe, went a little further and believed that all the dead resented the living. When someone in the tribe died, the corpse was quickly buried and his possessions and home burned. The family would perform a ritual to purify them and move on to stop the ghost of the deceased from finding them (7).

ghost dance at pine ridge

Haunting the Living

In mainstream culture, it is often believed that a violent or highly emotional death will result in a haunting or ghost. This is especially played out in entertainment such as dramas, novels and film with the result being a poltergeist, a particularly strong spirit that can physically move objects and create a disturbance.

Similarly, the Navajo tribe believed that if someone died from a sudden illness or suicide, or met their end in a violent manner, they would return as a destructive ghost or “Chindi,” haunting their remaining family (8).

The Navajo also started a belief in Native American culture of “ghost sickness.” This was the name given to someone who fell ill with particular ailments. It was thought that the ghost was trying to take the living into the next realm with them. The symptoms of ghost sickness included nausea, hallucinations, feeling suffocated and fever (6)(9). This particular belief is considered to be culturally specific to Native Americans, although the symptoms do resemble those experienced by the grieving.

The topic of ghosts in Native American culture compared to those in Western mainstream ideas is a complex one. While there are many differences in the belief of spirits and ghosts between the Native Americans and mainstream culture, there are many similarities and as beliefs and culture evolve, so the similarities begin to grow.

References & Image Credits:
(1) Synonym
(2) Angel’s Ghosts
(3) Suquamish
(4) Archaeology UK
(5) Mysterious Britain
(6) True Ghost Tales
(7) Death Reference
(8) Legends of America
(9) Anthropology
(10) Wikimedia

Originally published on TopSecretWriters.com

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