North American Indian burial practices varied widely across the continent. In some of these cultures, the recently deceased’s name was never spoken again so as to avoid angering the spirit.
The spirit world, in general, was revered and respected among American Indian groups yet may have been met with some trepidation and even anxiety.
Moreover, generally, these cultures believe everything is inhabited by spirit and everything is spiritual. The spiritual power of nature permeates all nature and a return to that unseen, yet felt and sensed, power draws but awes all peoples.
Consequently, preparation for the after-life is fairly universal and cross-cultural. We know through archaeology that the ancient Chinese and Egyptians had spent vast amounts of treasure to bury themselves with vast amounts of treasure. Burial mounds, crypts, and tombs have revealed multiple practices as fairly consistent regardless of place and time. In other words, facing one’s own mortality was far easier if familiar things go with us. Since there have been human beings, we keep trying to “take it with us.”
In the Americas, this holds true as well. On the Great Plains, nomadic lifeways required a sparseness of material goods. There was almost no pottery as clay vessels are too heavy and cumbersome to carry. Basketry was not practiced among the horse Indians to any great extent. Pouches, parfleches, carrying cases, all tended to be made from animal skin or animal parts, such as bison bladder washed, dried, and stretched and used as a canteen. Flint and metal for arrowheads and other tools and the metal in firearms constituted the heaviest objects in Plains cultures, foodstuffs notwithstanding.
Although originally “Woodlands” centered around the Great Lakes, pressure from the displacement of Eastern tribes forced the Ojibway (previously called Chippewa) to adopt and adapt certain Plains rituals and traditions. Ojibway burial practices form the foundation for Richard Wagamese’s exceptional novel, Medicine Walk. In it, a 16-year old mixed blood, Franklin, is forced to confront and eventually care for his father Eldon on his final journey, although he—Franklin—has been estranged from Eldon nearly his entire life. After years of alcoholism, Eldon is dying from liver failure but wants to be buried in the “warrior way” of his Ojibway ancestors in Western Canada. He asks Eldon to take him on this final journey to regain some level of dignity for what he—Eldon—views as a wasted life.
Richard Wagamese takes us along on this journey, not only through space and the beautiful Canadian Rockies, but also through time as Eldon reveals to Franklin the huge chunks missing from his son’s memory, not the least of which is the story of his mother and “the old man” Bunky who raised and reared Franklin. Eldon also confesses one of the driving forces—and voices—driving him toward alcoholism: his own horrifying experiences during the Korean War. Wagemese keeps us on the edge of our seat and near tears every time Eldon’s breathing slows or his coughing never ceases. And we want Franklin to forgive him, but we also understand why he struggles to do so.
I won’t reveal how this ends, as I encourage you to read this sensitive, raw, and thoughtful book. Keep a handkerchief close by.