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Black Elk II

Updated on July 27, 2017

The third rite is the keeping of the spirit (Wanagi Wicagluha). Death is a transition from one existence to another. The demise of the body does not mean death of the spirit or the soul and the spirit or the soul continues to exist long after the body has turned to dust or has been reduced to ashes.

The third rite of the Lakota is similar to the death rites of many other ancient cultures in that the spirits or the souls of the dead linger around their families or their prized possessions for a period of time before they crossover. It is a time that is used to coax the spirit into continuing with the journey.

The spirit especially in cases and circumstances of unnatural deaths has to be made to come to terms with death. Normally a special place is erected in honor of the spirit and it is done to commemorate the passing and to remember the deceased.

This special place may or may not correspond with an altar (what an altar is or isn’t is a question of perception) and friends and relatives are sometimes invited to join in during what is called a feeding ceremony or an occasion during which offerings of food are made and shared with the spirit.

The rite continues for a year and after a year the spirit is freed or released. During this rather testing time close family members of the deceased are forbidden or prohibited from taking part in any celebrations or festivities.

It has to be made clear that the mourning period is undertaken with love for the departed in mind. It is a grieving period that allows both the family members and the deceased to say their goodbyes. It is in essence a period of letting go and abstaining from celebrations and other festivities allows everyone to come to terms with the passing in the appropriate manner. It is also a time for silent reflection.

In 1890 there was a religious movement that consolidated numerous Native American believes. It was called the Ghost Dance and among other things it advocated that proper practice of the dance would reunite the living with the spirits of the dead and would bring spirits to fight on their behalf. It is reflective of the importance that is attached to spirits in Native American culture and tradition.

Spirit keeping is also a common facet among many other shamanic cultures and features prominently in Tungus cultures and its variants. The Tungus people are of Siberian origin and the near-death phenomenon similar to the experience Black Elk went through when he was nine is a prerequisite to becoming a Tungus Shaman.

Now, if Black Elk had been born in Siberia he would not only have been a medicine man but he would also have been recognized as a capable shaman and would have been accorded a position befitting a shaman in the community.

In these ancient cultures that adhere to time honored traditions, the shaman is also a healer (it is possible that there were early Siberian migrants to the Americas. The distance between Siberia and Alaska is only 55 miles. The territories are separated by a body of water known as the Bering Strait).

According to the near-death principle, once a shaman prospect has gone through the near-death experience he or she would not only be able to see spirits but he or she would also be able to communicate with them.

Similar dynamics also apply to the Tamang shamans (hill shamans) of Nepal and they too acquire the ability to see and speak to spirits. Hence, the ability to see or commune with spirits is an ability that is accepted in certain communities and societies.

These spirits also require sustenance and it is the duty of the shaman to provide the spirit with the type of sustenance that is deemed suitable and that would differ from community to community or from society to society. Likewise, it is the duty of the deceased’s next of kin or the keeper of the spirit to provide the spirit with suitable food.

Therefore, the notion of relatives and friends sharing a meal with a spirit is not at all far-fetched and to the contrary it is, depending on the culture, something of a norm.

It is also an accepted principle that the spirit after death needs to be coaxed into undertaking the journey that follows and the mourning period or the “keeping of the spirit” is a time during which relatives of the departed help the spirit to cross over.

Let me cite the practices of another ancient culture as an example. Let us briefly go to Leh and Ladakh in Western Tibet. Here the mourning period is forty-four days i.e. it takes forty-four days for the spirit of the departed to cross-over and during that time a priest is close at hand and he or she reads verses from the Tibetan Book of the Dead or the Bardo Thodol to help the spirit to cross-over.

According to the death rites of many of these ancient cultures, the period following death and prior to the crossing over is a perilous time for the spirit and it is confronted with a series of images conjured by the mind that are a result of its fears and inhibitions and therefore it needs the assistance of its family members to help it along the way.

It is slightly different from the Ghost Dance which according to my understanding is more akin to the summoning of the spirit and this normally applies to spirits of some fortitude or spirits that have been around for some time and it is more or less like the induced trance state. It is practiced to this very day.

The mourning period differs from one culture to another and from people to people but the one year period is similar to that of the East Indian culture where relatives of the dead are required to mourn the dead for a period of one-year and during the mourning period they are prohibited from taking part in any festivities. Therefore, we won’t be wrong in stating that the mourning period among the Lakota is strikingly similar to that of the East Indians.

Another amazing similarity is the feeding of the spirit. In the East Indian culture offerings of food are made at periodical intervals at an altar over the duration of a year. It includes offerings of vegetarian dishes and the favorite sweets of the deceased and relatives and friends are invited to be a part of the somber occasion.

© 2016 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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