Tribal Religions

Land of the grandparents

It was a general belief among most Native American tribes that the world of spirit, the Land of the Grandparents, was similar to the physical world in its tasks and pursuits, hence the common reference to the "happy hunting ground," a place where all needs would be easily met. In this respect, the ghost land, the Land of the Grandparents, is equivalent to the Elysian Fields of the ancient Greeks, the Valhalla of the Vikings, and the general concept of a heaven or a paradise that awaits the virtuous soul after death.

Some tribes believed that their eternal abode would be in the stars. To these people, the Milky Way was known as the Pathway of the Dead; and it was their custom to light fires upon the graves of the dead for four days to give the spirits ample time to arrive safely on the glorious path in the sky.

For other tribes, the Land of the Grandparents, the Place of the Souls, was located under the earth, where the sun would shine during the time of its disappearance from the topside world at night. Others believed the place of the departed spirits was far away in the south.

Medicine priests among the Algonquin people taught that two souls resided in the physical body. One of the souls kept the body animate and remained with it during sleep. The other, less attached to the material plane, moved about at will, free to travel to faraway places and even to the spirit world. It was for the soul that remained with the physical body that the tribes-people left food beside their dead.

The Dakota, among other tribes, believed that each person possessed four souls: One animated the body and required food; a second watched over the body, somewhat like a guardian spirit; a third hovered around the village;

the fourth went to the Land of the Grandparents at the time of physical death.

In the Chippewa cosmology, the soul passed to another world immediately after death. Once in the dimension of the afterlife, the soul would arrive in a beautiful lake and be ferried across by a spirit ancestor in a stone canoe. In the middle of the lake was a magic island of good spirits, and the soul must remain in the stone canoe to await judgment for its conduct during life. If its good actions predominated, the soul would be permitted to reside on the island of good spirits. If the soul in its physical incarnation had spent a life seeking only carnal and material satisfactions, the stone canoe would sink at once and leave only the soul's head above the water. This imagery is reminiscent of the Greek belief that after death the soul must have ready its fee for Charon, ferryman of the Styx, to transport it to the afterlife.

Among many of the eastern tribes, there was a tendency to believe that the spirit stayed near the body for a time before it went to the paradise of the happy hunting grounds. The Iroquois left small holes in the grave so that the spirit could go in and out as it pleased until it left for the Land of the Grandparents. The tribes of the Ohio followed a similar custom of boring holes in the burial casket to allow the spirit to leave at a time of its own choosing.

For the Native American tribes, the color black was the symbol of death, evil, and mourning, as it seems to be so often throughout the world. In Native American tribal art or sign-writing, a black circle signified the departure of the soul, whose travel to the Land of the Grandparents occurred at night, after the sun had gone down.

The human soul was represented among some tribes as a dark and somber image, complete with feet, hands, and head. Because the soul still existed in human shape, it, like the ka of the ancient Egyptians, still needed to be provided with nourishment. Some tribal members burned the best part of their food as an offering to the souls of the departed.

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