American Indians Beliefs about Ghosts

Ghost Dance

The idea that the soul leaves the physical body at death and journeys to the land of dead is found in Native American cultures throughout North America. In some instances, the soul may remain in the land of the living and become a ghost.

Belief in ghosts is common in many American Indian cultures. In their book The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions, Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin report:

“The conviction among many Native Americans is that there is a malignant influence associated with a dead person released at death and capable of return to earth as an apparition. Many groups believe that ghosts haunt burial grounds or return to earth to plague the living.”

Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin also report:

“Despite the overall fear of ghosts, some tribes feel ghosts are harmless and some even seek their protection.”

Briefly described below are some of the American Indian beliefs regarding ghosts. These are grouped by culture area: a geographical area which has shared cultural characteristics.

Southeastern Culture Area

The American Indians in the Southeast were farmers who lived in permanent villages. In his book The Southeastern Indians, Charles Hudson writes:

“The Southeastern Indians believed that each individual had a soul that lived on as a ghost after death. Ghosts were believed to have an ability to materialize so that some individuals could see them though others could not.”

At death, the people of the village would shout to frighten the ghost so that it would make it journey to the western sky. A ghost that stayed around could cause illness and even death.

Southwestern Culture Area

Among the Navajo, an Athabascan-speaking Native American group in the North American Southwest, ghosts are felt to be the malignant part of a dead person who has returned to avenge some offense or some form of neglect. In a 1946 essay republished in The Human Way: Readings in Anthropology, Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton report:

“Ghosts appear after dark or just before the death of some family member, in human form or as coyotes, mice, whirlwinds, spots of fire, or indefinite dark objects. They are usually dark or black.”

With regard to the Apache Indians of the American Southwest, Morris Opler reports:

“Ghosts almost always chose the night to strike. They often appeared in human guise in dreams or as black, amorphous objects. They made whistling noises to frighten their victims; therefore whistling at night was discouraged.”

California Culture Area

Among the Hupa, an Athabascan-speaking people in Northern California, ghosts are usually a temporary phenomenon. In his report on the Hupa in the Handbook of North American Indians, William Wallace reports:

“Before journeying to the land of the dead, an individual’s soul was believed to haunt the village for four days, endeavoring to reenter its former residence.”

On the fifth day, the souls of the dead went to an underworld, but they could return at times to bother the living, especially relatives.

Northwest Coast Culture Area

The Makah are a Northwest Coast tribe who live on the western coast of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. In her ethnography The Makah Indians: A Study of an Indian Tribe in Modern American Society, Elizabeth Colson reports:

“Ordinarily, the ‘ghosts’ are not seen, though people are certain that they are about the village and along the beach. They do appear in the dreams of the living, and this is regarded as a warning of some impending calamity, for it is thought that the dead have come back to guide some living relative to the land of the dead.”

Plateau Culture Area

Among the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla in the Plateau area of Washington and Oregon, the ghosts of people who had recently died craved the company of their kin and sought to abduct them. In his report on these tribes in the Handbook of North American Indians, Theodore Stern also reports:

“Though most souls in the afterworld lived as in life, there were those—some say, those of the unclean dead—that remained on earth as ghosts, normally invisible, signaling each other and mortals by whistling, and playing pranks on humans.”

Great Basin Culture Area

Writing about the Indian nations of the Great Basin culture area in the Handbook of North American Indians, Åke Hultkrantz writes:

“The ghost was dreaded because it wanted to fetch the living and take them to the other world for good. Ghosts appeared in dreams, but also in daily life, and took the forms of human beings, animals and whirlwinds, the last an idea spread all over the Basin.”

For some of the American Indian cultures in the Great Basin culture area, ghosts are feared as they are felt to be associated with illness, death and bad fortune. Writing about the Washoe in the Handbook of North American Indians, Warren D’Azevedo reports:

“Spirits of the dead or ghosts were greatly feared as the cause of illness and misfortune: such spirits were thought to travel in whirlwinds seeking their former places of abode.”

With regard to the Western Shoshone, David Hurst Thomas, Lorann Pendleton, and Steven Cappannari, in their chapter in the Handbook of North American Indians, report:

“The ghost believed to leave the body immediately at death, was feared by California and central Nevada groups, and dreaming about a dead person was regarded as a bad omen.”

Great Plains Culture Area

Ghosts are not always associated with a particular dead person. With regard to the Cheyennes on the Great Plains, Peter J. Powell, in his book Sweet Medicine: The Continuing Role of the Sacred Arrows, the Sun Dance, and the Sacred Buffalo Hat in Northern Cheyenne History, writes:

“Ghosts cause the Cheyennes some uneasiness. Ghosts, or Mistai, are rarely seen, but are often felt or heard. They are spirits derived from the dead, but they are not the ghosts of particular people. When a Cheyenne hears weird or whistling noises outside his lodge, he knows the Mistai are abroad.”

In his book The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways, George Bird Grinnell describes the Cheyenne concept of ghosts this way:

Mitsai is always alarming, but never, so far as known, does any actual harm. It seems to take pleasure in frightening people, and to be somewhat like the white man’s idea of a hobgoblin, or malicious elf.”

Another Great Plains tribe, the Blackfeet, felt that the dead could not be seen by the living, but could communicate with the living. In his book The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains, John Ewers writes:

“The Blackfeet claimed that the ghosts of the dead sometimes returned to communicate with the living in weird, whistling sounds.”

Among the Cree on the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana, a ghost is a soul that remains on earth. In his book The Montana Cree: A Study in Religious Persistence, Verne Dusenberry reports:

“Some of the informants maintain that they can see ghosts, while others say that they can merely feel their presence. All agree, however, that ghosts frighten people.”

For the Montana Cree, ghosts are similar to other people and they wear the same clothes they were wearing when they died. Verne Dusenberry also writes:

“In other ways, ghosts are different from the living. For example, they cannot touch the earth when they are walking or dancing because they are dead, so they stay about twelve inches above ground. Since they are capable of walking through the logs or walls of a house, they do not need to use a door. Sometimes, but not always, a person can hear a ghost but cannot see it.”

Among the Canadian Cree, David Mandelbaum, in his book The Plains Cree: An Ethnographic, Historical, and Comparative Study, reports:

“The failure to provide a suitable funeral feast might cause a soul to linger until the feast was finally given. Such souls made their presence known by weird noises and were called tcipayak, ghosts.”

Subarctic Culture Area

The Hare Indians are a subarctic Athapascan-speaking group whose homeland is in northwestern Canada. Traditionally, the Hare placed the body of the deceased on a scaffold with a pennant near the site. The pennant was used to keep the ghost amused and thus prevent it from haunting the living. In their chapter on the Hare in the Handbook of North American Indians, Joel Savishinsky and Hiroko Sue Hara write:

“Ghosts were greatly feared, and a number of propitiatory acts were performed to placate them: travelers passing near a grave offered food to the deceased, and morsels of food were thrown into a fire when it hissed in answer to what was interpreted to be a call from the dead.”

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.