Grief Programs: Native Americans and Death

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Grief Programs: Native Americans and Death
Lisa Shewmaker
University of the Rockies

Abstract

This paper will look at existing organizations and programs that provide parent home visits for infant and child loss in culturally diverse populated areas in the United States. These programs generally do not encompass grief recovery for the Native American community. As social workers and providers of these services, it is important to understand this cultural group, know their rituals and beliefs surrounding death and the burial of their dead, and to be open to changes that might be needed within their programs to address the needs of the Native American community. This paper will address the Native American beliefs on death, their rituals after death, the funeral process, and suggestions to organizations for modifications to accommodate this community. Many multicultural textbooks openly discuss migration, sociopolitical controversies, gender roles, and family structures in the cultural context. However, there is little exploration into how culture affects the way a person or family deals with death, particularly the death of a child. The experience of death within the family system is common across cultures. Yet, the expressions of grief and ritualization are often very different. Thus, an individual’s cultural identity should be carefully assessed when dealing with a grieving family. Parental grief spawns a subset of characteristics that seems to traverse culture. The death of a child is acknowledged in many cultures as one of the worst human experiences (Kubler-Ross, 1978). This paper presents a case study in how social workers can enrich their understanding of culture, while attending competently to the unique needs of Native American families experiencing the death of a child. There are more than 550 American Indian and Alaskan Native tribes in North America (Ortiz, 2002). The federal government officially recognizes more than 300 of those tribes (Nichols, 1998). About 39% of Native Americans in North America live on tribal land, and about 61% live in urban areas, where some degree of acculturation is likely (Harvard Project, 2004). There is vast heterogeneity among Native American tribes. Garrett, Tlanusta, and Eugene have identified degrees of acculturation along a continuum, defining traditional as a state wherein individuals may or may not be fluent in the English language, but generally prefer to speak, as well as think, in their native language. They may also hold traditional values and beliefs while practicing only traditional tribal customs and methods of worship (Garrett, Tlanusta, & Eugene, 2000, p. 3). Traditional Native American tribes are rich with their own cultural responses and rituals after death. For example, Clements, Vigil, Manno, & Wilks (2003) in observing Navajo, or Dineh, traditions describes death rites as an elaborate four-day preparation and burial of the body in which families actively mourn and dispossess their personal belongings: “The deceased’s hair is tied with an eagle’s feather to symbolize their return home . . . and the deceased was buried in the family’s hogan” (p. 23). On the fourth day postmortem, relatives cleanse themselves thoroughly, as if washing away the need for further mourning. After the fourth day, mourners do not speak the name of the deceased, fearing that doing so will summon back the person’s soul. Upon death, the deceased are offered new names to carry into the afterlife. The Sioux Indians bury a traditional hatchet in the casket to ward off demons. American Indians often rely on their interpersonal relationships for social, emotional, spiritual, and sometimes financial support during a crisis. Tribal hierarchy, medicine men, and traditional American Indian garb, including healing feathers and prayer beads, may play an important role for family and tribal members. Communicating with a Native American family may be challenging for a person who lacks...
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