The Nature of Death in the United States: Varied Deathways Reflect Social Relations with Nature

Blackfeet Understandings of Death

The Blackfeet people are a large group of Native Americans who have lived in their place since time immemorial. Their worldview defines all living things as being related, and having lives of equal value to humans (Glenbow Museum 2001). The Blackfeet were given teachings charging them with “respect for the interdependence of humans, all earth life, and the larger circle of the universe because they are inseparable. They are connected and their relationship is reciprocal” (Hernandez 1999). Throughout their history - before and after the arrival of Euro-Americans - the Blackfeet have developed and maintained strong, reciprocal relationships with the natural world in which they live.

“Ihtsi-pai-tapi-yopa [the Creator] made all living things equal; humans were not given the right to rule over or exploit the rest of nature” (Glenbow Museum 2001). Blackfeet stories tell how the world came to be as it is – including how death came to be part of the world – and the appropriate ways for humans to act in it. Traditional ways of obtaining food through hunting and gathering, traveling through the landscape, and engaging in sacred activities, were all informed by these instructions.

Blackfeet deathways, while significantly changed since pre-contact times, are still imbued with cultural meaning that is unique to the Blackfeet way of life. Blackfeet people see the earth as a social being (Hernandez 1999, 7), which is reflected in the treatment of the corpse both traditionally and in contemporary times. Blackfeet people do not express the disgust associated with corpses that mainstream Americans do; rather, the corpse is regarded as a social being and treated with respect. Their death-related rituals often include wakes, with friends and family gathered to mourn together and wish farewell to the deceased (Vielle 2016). While they usually work with funeral directors for transportation and paperwork, the corpse isn’t left at the funeral home, alone until the wake and burial. The wake is typically held in a family home or community center, with family and friends coming together for a feast. Everyone who visits to pay their respects is provided with food and expected to eat (Vielle 2016).

Blackfeet deathways are intimately tied up with broader cultural understandings of human-nature relations. All living things in nature are relatives to humans; human remains are traditionally returned to the earth in one form or another Vielle 2016). Before Euro-American contact, the corpse was typically cremated and the ashes were buried. Today most families bury their dead, returning them to the earth to become part of the continued life cycle. Humans must treat non-human world with respect, because we all will return to it one day (Vielle, 2016). Death isn’t to be feared. It’s to be respected, to be understood at something shared by all living things.  

This way of understanding death and its role in human-nature relations is a challenge to the concept of the human-nature dichotomy. This concept doesn’t really exist in Blackfeet conception of nature like it does in Western understandings. In Blackfeet worldview, humans are an integral part of the natural world, related to all other forms of life. Human death facilitates the growth of new life in the world. This cyclical perception of life doesn’t facilitate the separation of people from the natural world they live in, depend on, and are related to. 

This page has paths:

This page references: