Some American Indian Beliefs About an Afterlife

When the European invasion of North America began there were more than 600 autonomous Indian nations in the region, each with its own religion. While many of these aboriginal religions focused on the harmony of present-day life rather than obtaining a reward or punishment in an afterlife, many of them did have a concept of some kinds of existence after death. A few of these concepts are briefly described below.

Concerning beliefs regarding an afterlife among Plains Indians, Charles Eastman, in Light on the Indian World: The Essential Writings of Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa), writes:  “The idea of a ‘happy hunting-ground’ is modern and probably borrowed, or invented by the white man.”

One example of life after death is found among the Pueblo Indians of North America who see life after death as the same as before death: the deceased journey to a town where they join a group with which they were associated in life. In commenting about Pueblo Indian resistance to Christianity, anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons, in her book Pueblo Indian Religion, writes:  “The Pueblo idea of life after death as merely a continuation of this life is incompatible with dogmas of hell and heaven. In this life the Spirits do not reward or punish; why should they after death?”

In his book American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict, religion professor Henry Bowden reports that “the Pueblo cosmology did not recognize a place of eternal punishment.”

Going from the American Southwest to the Cheyenne Indians of the Northern Plains, we find that the souls of the dead Cheyenne travel along the Milky Way (“The Road of the Departed”) to the place of the dead. Father 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, reports:  “For the Cheyennes, there is no hell or punishment after life on earth.”  In his book The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways, George Bird Grinnell writes: “The spirit of the dead man found the trail where the footprints all pointed the same way, followed that to the Milky Way, and finally arrived at the camp in the stars, where he met his friends and relatives and lived in the camp of the dead.”

In a similar vein, writing about the Omaha Indians of the Central Plains (The Omaha Tribe), ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche report:  “There does not seem to have been any conception among the Omaha of supernatural rewards or punishments after death.”

Most of the Indian tribes of New England envisioned afterlife as a life similar to the one they were currently living. There was no concept of reward for virtue or punishment for bad deeds. Religion professor Henry Bowden writes:  “The Massachusetts [Indians] expected to triumph over death by finding new opportunities in another realm, beyond the grave, where individual accomplishments could flourish again with undiminished vigor.”

In his book Indian New England Before the Mayflower, Howard Russell writes:  “The soul of the departed was believed to journey to the southwest, there to share the delights of the wigwam and fields of the great god Kanta (or Tanto or Kautautowit), where abundance reigns and ancestors offer welcome and feasting.”

For the Narragansett Indians in the Northeast, death was seen as a transition between two worlds. At the time of death, the soul would leave the body and join the souls of relatives and friends in the world of the dead. The world of the dead was felt to be in the southwest where the supernatural Cautantowwit and the ancestors lived. Here the souls of the deceased would spend an afterlife similar to life on earth. Passing through the gates guarded by a ferocious dog, the souls of the dead find a paradise without worry or pain. They find the storehouses filled with corn, beans, and squash; the strawberries are always in seasons; and the clams are succulent.

Not all cultures have a well-defined or well-described afterlife. With regard to life after death, this is an issue of little concern for most traditional Navajo Indians. They feel that they will find out when they die and in the meantime this is something they have no way of knowing anything about and therefore they should not waste time thinking about it. The Navajo cultural orientation is towards life, toward making this life happier, more harmonious, and more beautiful.

Tlingit Migrations

The Northwest Coast, one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse culture areas in North America, occupies the area between the Pacific Coast and the mountains from Alaska through northern California. The Tlingit are the northernmost tribe in the Northwest Coast Culture Area. At the time of European contact, the Tlingit homelands included the coast regions and islands of what is now southern Alaska and northern British Columbia.

The Northwest Coast is usually divided into three distinct cultural provinces with the Northern Province including the Tlingit, Tsimshian (Nisg’a), Haida, Haihai, and Haisla tribes. The social structure of these tribes was rigidly organized and hierarchical. Among these tribes, the primary units of social organization were the clan and the village.

In the traditional pre-European villages each of the houses within the village was associated with an extended clan and each clan had certain privileges, which included fishing, hunting, and gathering rights as well as ceremonial rights (such as ownership of songs and dances).

Concerning the location of Tlingit villages, German geographer Aurel Krause, in his 1885 book The Tlingit Indians: Results of a Trip to the Northwest Coast of America and the Bering Straits, reports:  “Since fishing supplies the principal subsistence of these people, the choice of a place for settlement depends largely on the proximity of good fishing grounds and safe landing places for canoes.”

Some Tlingit villages consisted of only a few houses which were placed in a single row while other villages might have as many as 60 houses which might be arranged in two rows. Among the Tlingit, each house had a fixed place in the village and could not be moved to another place. If the house became too small, then annexes were built, but these were considered to be part of the original house.

Clans are named, extended family units which often are corporate in nature (that is, they will have a formal leader and possess property) and are usually exogamous (requiring marriage outside of the clan.) The clan not only lived under the same roof, but the house served as a clan symbol. The front of the house was often painted with a family crest design.

Among the Tlingit, descent is matrilineal. This means that people belong to the same clan as their mother. Thus, a village leader’s position would be inherited by his nephew (his sister’s son) rather than by his own son.

Tlingit clans are linked together in a phratry system. This means that each clan is linked to another with a set of social and ceremonial obligations.

The Tlingit were 18 distinct and autonomous groups. Each group felt that it was distinct from the others and had its own unique origins and ancestry. Ethnographer Kalervo Oberg, in The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians, reports:  “The clan has a name denoting its place of origin, a story of its genesis, and a history of its migration.”

Tlingit oral tradition speaks of a gradual migration northward from the mouths of the Nass and the Stikine rivers. According to the stories, the clans would remain near a certain river for a long time. Then there would be a quarrel—usually over women or wealth—and the village would break apart with one portion going off in search of new territories.

The Tlingit acquired new territory by settling on lands that were unclaimed by any other group, by negotiating agreements to share certain lands, and by conquest. In their migrations northward, the Tlingit often came into contact with Athabascans who had come down the rivers to the coast. In some instances, the Tlingit simply drove the Athabascans away and in other instances the two groups intermingled.

When they acquired unclaimed land, the Tlingit would give the place a name and settle there. If only one clan settled a new area, they would invite members of a clan from the opposite phratry to join them.

By the time the first Europeans began to explore the Pacific coast of Alaska in the eighteenth century, the Tlingit had a long history of living in the area. The Tlingit had their first contact with Europeans in 1786 when a Spanish expedition landed at Lituja Bay. In trading with the Tlingit, the Spanish noticed that they were very aware of iron and many carried an iron dagger in a leather sheath around the neck. This suggested that they had traded with people from Asia.