A Lakota Family Remembers

David Whitehorse was 55 years old when he died as a result of diabetes. He grew up with a large family on tribal land and moved to a large city to pursue opportunities in the growing chemical industry as a young man. However, in spite of being away from his people and community, he never lost his admiration for the customs with which he grew up. Having passed on his heritage to his children, they wanted a traditional ritual when their father died.

While David Whitehorse was part of the Lakota nation, some of the customs in his family are typical of many families and communities among the more than 900 nations or bands in the United States and Canada. Like the belief systems of many indigenous people groups, the Lakota embrace the notion of a balanced universe and see death as a sacred and natural part of the life cycle. In fact, David recalled having attended dozens of funerals during his childhood and teen years, and saw to it that his own children attended funerals-not only for family members but for neighbors and friends, as well. 

In keeping with Lakota custom, David's wake was an around-the-clock event with some members of the family or community present throughout the period of three days. Friends of David's took turns playing a funeral drum and chanting during the wake, and a traditional star quilt hung behind the open casket. Inside the community center where David's wake was held, his casket was placed inside a large tipi, in the belief that his spirit would commune with ancestors who would guide him to the spirit world.

During David's funeral, several people shared memories of the ways his life had positively impacted the world, calling on the Lakota values of generosity, wisdom, fortitude (bravery) and kinship. Robert Davis, a middle school social studies teacher recalled David's wisdom as he told of visits to his classrooms and how students sat spellbound as they learned from this friend who had grown up on the reservation. "How was I to know that Sioux was a derogatory name?" Robert asked to the knowing laughter of many of the mourners. "But David had such a gentle way; he just quietly taught me the terms that better defined his tribal heritage. My kids and I all learned something important that day about using care when using 'labels.'"

Before the casket was closed, relatives placed locks of their hair in his casket as the funeral drum was played. David's children closed his casket and then carried him to his grave, near where his own parents and a younger sister were buried. As the casket was carried from the community center, many men and women began to wail and sing mournfully, and at the grave, David's children led the other mourners in filling the grave.

For David's family, an important ritual remained: feeding the 200 people who came to grieve with them. After the burial, most of the mourners reassembled at the community center where tables were quickly set up and food was plentiful. Well into the evening, people shared stories of how David Whitehorse had touched their lives and in many cases, how he personified the Lakota values of generosity, wisdom, fortitude and kinship.

Regardless of cultural group or faith tradition, of course, bereavement does not end at the funeral. On the first anniversary of his death, many family members and friends gathered again in the same community center where David's wake and funeral had been held. His wife and children showed a video comprised of dozens of photos from David's life. At the conclusion of the video, David's oldest son spoke warmly of his father's values and how the kinship of the community had sustained his mother and siblings throughout the last year. Then, he and his brothers produced a large case of his father's Hot Wheels� miniature model cars and lovingly presented one to every mourner in the room as a way to always remember their father.

Of course, as with other ethnic groups and faith communities, there is really no "typical family" or "typical funeral." Nevertheless, some of the elements of David Whitehorse's Lakota funeral-the wake, funeral service, and anniversary observance-do occur with great regularity among Lakota and other indigenous people. The following resources will provide additional information about beliefs and customs.

  • Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center
  • Brokenleg, M. & Middleton, D. (1993). Native Americans: Adapting, Yet Retaining. In D. P. Irish, K. F. Lundquist, & V. J. Nelsen (Eds.), Ethnic Variations in Dying, Death and Grief: Diversity in Universality. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.
  • Cacciatore, J. (2009). Appropriate Bereavement Practice After the Death of a Native American Child. Families in Society, 90 (1), 46-50.
  • Fleming, W.C. (2006). Myths and Stereotypes About Native Americans. Phi Delta Kappan, 88 (3), 213-217.
  • Pass, S. (2009). Teaching Respect for Diversity: the Oglala Lakota. Social Studies, 100 (5), 212-217.
  • Pickering, K. & Jewell, B. (2008). Nature is Relative: Religious Affiliation, Environmental Attitudes, and Political Constraints on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Journal for the Study of Nature, Religion and Culture, 2 (1), 135-158.