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Guiding the spirit 
22nd-Jul-2007 11:08 am
Jana Hollingsworth

Dan Jones remembers from his childhood a cold washcloth being rubbed across his face before sunrise.

It was wiping charcoal off his forehead, placed there before bedtime to protect him against the recently deceased.

An Ojibwe belief says that spirits revisit their lives at night for four days after death, and during that time small children and babies are vulnerable.

“He doesn’t know it, but if he gets lonely, he may take someone with him,” said Jones, an Ojibwe language instructor at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, about the dead at a spring language session on the reservation. “When the spirit sees charcoal [the face is] blurred, and he can’t see who it is.”

That belief, and variations of it, is one of several still practiced by some Ojibwe who follow traditional ways. While many Fond du Lac band members are now practicing Catholics, some on the reservation have never wavered from tradition.

“My mother said you go one way and that’s all,” said Gerry L. Defoe, a Mille Lacs band member who lives on the Fond du Lac Reservation. “You can’t have both.”

Original article with photos, slideshow, and audio The making of Ojibwe funeral basksets or

Traditional faith

Lee Staples is a spiritual leader for the Mille Lacs Reservation, and performs most traditional funerals at Fond du Lac. He said that to understand Ojibwe beliefs about death, one must understand beliefs about life.

“We have within us Anishinaabe spirit, and we just occupy this physical body during that lifetime,” he said. “There is … a reason for us existing on this earth, a reason that the creator put us down.”

When someone dies, Staples’ job is to send the spirit to another world, he said.

“I always think it must be wonderful to know when you go down the path, that you accomplished what Manidoo [creator] wanted you to do on this earth,” he said.

Practices and beliefs

After a death, relatives bring tobacco to Staples and ask him to send the spirit on its journey into the west. He provides them with a list of requirements, including deerskin moccasins for the dead to be buried in.

“There is a path our people take, and when they go down that path there is the footprints of moccasins, from people that have gone on before them,” Staples said. “It’d look mighty strange to put Nikes on our people and see these strange footprints.”

On the Fond du Lac Reservation, a fire is lit at the home of the deceased the day of the death. Relatives tend to the fire, keeping it lit around the clock until the day of the burial, on the fifth day. During the first four nights, tobacco and food are offered to the spirit, while it revisits everywhere it had been on Earth. Feasting during a time of grief helps those in mourning cope, Staples said.

A wake is usually held at the Head Start gym on the reservation, and the fire is moved to outside of the building. A vigil is held overnight where food — contributed by many and including wild rice, venison, fish and macaroni — is offered, music is played and people come and go. Often, family members stay the entire time, until the morning funeral.

Sawyer resident Pat Northrup, who is Mdewakanton and married to Fond du Lac member Jim Northrup, makes tiny birch bark baskets that are filled with food offerings and placed inside the casket.

“On their journey they make stops and they eat; that’s their lunch,” Staples said. “A little food goes a long way in that world.”

Birch bark matches are placed inside the casket, because the spirit stops at four points and makes fires along the journey after Staples has performed the ceremony sending it to another world, he said. That’s why he advises the family of the dead to make a fire each night, long enough to burn a tobacco offering, for four nights after the funeral.

“The spirit of the relative is making a fire, so the first night they can visualize the first part of the journey,” he said. “On the fourth night they make their fire, [the spirit] has arrived or is close to arriving to that place in the west where our people go. It helps them in the letting-go process.”

A feast also is recommended for that final night, during which food is offered to the spirit.

“When it arrives over there they share a meal with their close relatives they’ve had a reunion with,” he said. “The land is called Gaagige Minawaanigoziwining — the land of everlasting happiness. I always tell them, when they see the northern lights, that’s our people up there dancing.”

Tobacco is passed at the beginning of the funeral, and those who don’t smoke offer it to the fire burning outside. Staples then talks about the importance of the food, and mourners share a meal with the spirit.

“I always joke that people that are sent other ways must arrive wherever they are going starved in comparison to how we feed our people,” Staples said.

When the meal is finished, tobacco is passed again to smoke or place in the fire. Staples speaks to the spirit directly in Ojibwe, and gives it details of the journey ahead. After he’s done speaking, the spirit has been sent. He#doesn’t attend the burial, because his job has already been completed, he said.

One cemetery in Sawyer, near Saint Mary and Joseph’s Catholic Church, holds four spirit houses, which are built by families to honor the dead. An opening faces the west, and offerings are often left near it. It’s usually something the deceased enjoyed, like a can of Coke, an orange or cigarettes. The church’s cemetery has burials of both Christians and followers of Ojibwe tradition.

Some practice the belief that Ojibwe must mourn the death of a loved one for one year, omitting from their lives dancing and powwows, maple syrup making and wild rice harvesting. Staples doesn’t advise that.

“That’s not what we’re taught,” he said. “You should do everything you normally did and be happy.”


Staples said he doesn’t fault Ojibwe people for becoming Christian, and said missionaries worked hard to make that happen. But he won’t perform mixed ceremonies.

“The people that raised me said you never take another belief system; you have been given one as an Anishinaabe and you should always follow that,” he said.

A controversial belief among some Ojibwe, Staples said, is that spirits who died practicing a religion other than the traditional Ojibwe faith remain in limbo.

“They don’t go anywhere,” he said. “Time and time again I’m called to different homes where the spirit is still there. Sometimes I do a ceremony to correct that.”

Pat Northrup said she’s noticed more Christians on the reservation than those who practice traditional ways. Her family is traditional, and she said there’s a larger number of Sawyer residents who are traditional than elsewhere on the reservation.

Mike McNally is an associate professor of religion at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and the author of “Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief and a Native Culture in Motion.” He said many Ojibwe struggle with wanting to combine traditional ways at funerals with other religions, and find a way to do it while being respectful.

“A wake in a Protestant tradition doesn’t make a lot of sense, but people still do it,” he said. “Sometimes people want to put things together that make sense to them that may not make sense to theological orthodoxy.”

He attended a funeral for an Ojibwe man who also was baptized Episcopalian, and while there was some tension, the spiritual leader made room for both faiths, including a traditional drum group, a pipe ceremony and traveling songs.

Spiritual leaders “know how far the line is before giving offense to Ojibwe spirits,” McNally said.

Ojibwe beliefs about an afterlife are more similar to Judaism than Christianity or Islam, both of which have defined teachings about what an afterlife is, McNally said. Jewish people have a sense of an afterlife but their teachings are vague about what it looks like and who ostensibly goes to heaven and hell, he said.

“It’s even more ambiguous in the Ojibwe tradition,” McNally said. “The Ojibwe tradition is really focused on living well in this world. Not that they don’t have a sense of the afterlife; it’s that that’s not the point of the tradition.”

The traveling song often used at burials is an example of this belief, he said.

“It suggests you’re going someplace,” he said. “It’s not that the story is over, but it doesn’t necessarily say where you’re going.”

And like mainstream religions, there are regional variations in the core beliefs.

linking generations

Defoe plans to have a traditional funeral, but her husband, Kenneth Defoe, a Fond du Lac member who died three years ago, was Catholic. She said planning his funeral was easier than planning a traditional funeral for her sister, Evelyn Reynolds, who died last year. Staples had to tell the younger generation what to do for Reynolds’ funeral, she said.

“The grandkids took care of the fire, staying up with it all night,” she said.

Jim Northrup said funerals celebrate the life of the deceased.

“You can’t spell funeral without spelling fun,” he said. “And we eat. Oh, we eat. A slang term for a wake is coffeedoughnuts.”

But not many people will talk about traditional funerals, he said.

“You’re dealing with the old fear of talking about ceremonies that existed prior to the Religious Freedom Act of 1978,” he said.

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act said that the U.S. will protect and preserve the rights of American Indians regarding their freedom to believe, express and exercise traditional religions, including access to sites, use of sacred objects and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.

Staples is grateful to his ancestors for hanging on to traditional ways.

If you don’t, “when it comes time to pass on, when you go the other way, you won’t go where your relatives are,” he said.

JANA HOLLINGSWORTH covers American Indian issues. She can be reached at (218) 279-5501 or by e-mail at jhollingsworth@ duluthnews.com.
23rd-Jul-2007 05:12 am (UTC)
thank you for sharing this gem
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