American Deathways: The Meaning of Death in the American Indian Society

Term Paper, 2000

33 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)




American Indians – General Facts
American Indian Statistics concerning Death

Forms of American Indian Death
American Indian suicide
American Indian Homicide/Parricide
American Indian Infanticide

Death in American Indian history

American Indian Death rites
Present Day

Example: The Navajo Nation

Death in American Indian Literature
Modern literature



To examine the meaning of death in the American Indian society, it is necessary to know about the general facts of American Indians. First of all, it is not possible, to write about any topic concerning “ the American Indian society”, because there is not one single culture for all those different American Indian nations. The following paper uses examples and explanations from all Indian tribes and, even tough there is a huge diversity, the common endured history and today’s American Indian inner fights between past and tradition unite all North American Indians to some kind of “American Indian society.”

To approach the topic of death after common information, a focus on North American Indian statistics concerning death will follow. These statistics will show the differences in life expectations literally and metaphorically. Whereas some specific forms of American Indian death, like infanticide, disappeared through the centuries, others, well known likewise in “white” and “black” society, such as homicide and suicide, changed their causes, but consist within and outside the reservation boundaries.

As the causes of death altered since the colonization of America, death has also become a new face for the American Indians. Skirmishes between tribes changed to extinguishing wars between “new” Americans and “native” Americans. The surviving American Indians were forced to leave their homelands and move to special reservation areas. Thereby, the traditional death rites modified through a change of living conditions, surroundings, and environment.

To recall all the gathered aspects of “American Indian death ways”, the Navajo nation as today’s largest American Indian tribe, will serve as example to review and explain old rites, changes their gone through, and history’s effects on their present day appearance.

At the end of the journey through various aspects of the meaning of death for the American Indian society, examples from four American Indian authors shall highlight the importance of death as well in American Indian daily life, as in their history and their philosophy.

American Indians – General Facts

Today, North American Indians are U.S. American citizens – but that has not always been the case, even though they are the native born inhabitants of America. The citizenship for American Indians exists not before 1924. Until 1938, seven States refused to allow Indians to vote. In Arizona and New Mexico, the American Indians had to go to court to win their voting rights in 1948.[1]

According to the U.S. Bureau of Census in July 1999, 0.9 percent of the U.S population are American Indian, which is 2,396,000 people (including Inuit and Aleut).[2] The four States with the most Indian residents are Oklahoma, California, Arizona and New Mexico.[3] Since the last two decades, the number of American Indians is on the rise (in 1980 the total American Indian population was 1,478,523[4]).

The development in the last hundred years has not been easy to measure, because of the problematic classification procedure. The important question to receive good quality numbers is: Who is an American Indian? Researchers agreed recently: An American Indian is everyone who identifies oneself as American Indian. This identification is also the clue to the development of the significant rise in number of the American Indian population. It is not just a baby boom - comparing old data with recent enumeration, social scientists conclude that a significant number of people who in the past identified with other races, have begun to view themselves as American Indian.[5]

This leads to another problem, not just the counting, but also describing the American Indian is not that simple. One cannot speak of the specific cultural patterns of “the American Indian”, because of the cultural diversity between the various tribes. In the United States, there are more than 550 federally recognized tribes, which means that these groups have a so called “special legal relationship” with the U.S. government.

According to statistics from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1.43 million Indians are living on or near one of the 275 Indian reservations (pueblos, rancherias, communities, etc.). Those reservations are reserved for a tribe who gave up their land to the U.S. through treaties. The largest reservation with 16 million acres of land, is the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.[6]

However, a lot of American Indians choose to live in urban areas. A development, pushed through the off-reservation job-opportunities during World War II. 20.000 Indians signed in as soldiers for this war; after the war, many of them stayed in the cities.[7] Peter Iverson, a professor at the Arizona State University stated, that there has been a transformation in Indian population over the past 20 years with now a majority of Indians living in urban areas.[8]

A lot of tribes were totally extinguished in the Indian American War and took their cultural patterns with them. Others lost their traditional knowledge after being forced to live with other tribes on small reservation areas. The harsh living conditions and the desperate future expectations let a lot of Indians give up their rites in favor of modern amusement and drugs.

Some current social statistics provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs might help to explain the situation of the American Indian today. The living conditions remember sometimes of pre-industrial age. More than half of the Indian reservation population lives in housing below national standard. Twenty percent of Indian households on reservations do not have full access to plumbing, and the majority -- 53.4 percent -- do not have telephones. About 33 percent of the American Indian population are children under 15 years of age. Approximately 38 percent of those Indian children (age 6 to 11) live in poverty, compared with 18 percent for U.S. children of all other races combined. From all American Indians, 29 percent are homeless, and on top of this desperate status, half of the American Indian population is without a job.[9] Where ever one focuses on, the living and health conditions are always worse for the American Indian than for the average population of the United States.

American Indian Statistics concerning Death

(All available statistics about American Indians, specifically about death, are not dating back a long period of time.) The data about infant death rate, about causes of death, and about life expectancy of American Indians on and outside the reservation help explain the differences between the general North American society and American Indians. The expectation of death earlier in life, for example, often leads to a different valuation of life and death.

The infant death rate was 9.4 per 1,000 live births in 1990-92, while the rate for the general population was 8.9 per 1,000 births in 1991. That means that the infant death rate in the American Indian society is still 0.5 percent higher than for the general American population. The reason is a worse medical support, and service on the reservation than in urban “white” neighborhoods. Also the worse nutrition and the resulting worse health status of many American Indians are causes for the higher infant death rate.

In the very same period of time (1990-92) the life expectancy of American Indians was 73.5 years (69.4 years for males and 77.3 years for females). Comparably, the life expectancy for the general population was 75.5 years (72.0 years for males and 78.9 years for females). This shows, that the average life span of the American Indian is about two years below the national average. Again, the same explanations as for early child death go for a lower life expectancy: Health conditions and medical support on reservations are not as good as in and surround cities. However, there are more explanations to the shorter life span (in average) of American Indians. This leads to the motives and causes of death of American Indians.

These causes of death also vary between the general American public and the American Indian: Since most health care facilities are not well equipped on the reservation, the time it takes to get non-emergency medical care can be burdensome.[10] The Indian Health Service (IHS) stated that in 1990/92, the age-adjusted death rate from accidents was 83.2 per 100,000, including 47.5 related to motor vehicle accidents and 37.6 from other accidents. For the general population, the 1988 age-adjusted rate was 31.0 per 100,000, including 17.0 related to motor vehicle accidents and 13.9 related to other accidents. The IHS estimates that American Indian deaths from motor vehicle accidents are more than three times higher than the national average. This number can easily be related to the high rate of alcoholism of many American Indians.

Deaths from alcoholism under Indians are about six times higher than in the national average. While alcoholism is known to be an American Indian problem, that was invented by the “White man”, homicide and suicide are death causes that were not originated by any enemy.

Homicide and suicide were known in American Indian societies since the beginning, but again, today, the Indian rate is almost double the national average.[11] More and more Indians are dead, not dead physically, but dead spiritually, mentally, economically and socially.

Forms of American Indian Death

American Indian suicide

The emotional confusions, responsible for suicide, are similar to those of every society: disappointment in love, family troubles, illness, senility, guilt after unintentionally causing the death of another, sorrow about the death of a relative and/or lover. Some other reasons are more specific for American Indian culture, as fear of become the captive of an enemy or fear of loss of rank.[12]

Recently, the suicide rate is another clue for the status quo of the American Indian society. The age-adjusted suicide death rate for the population has decreased 28 percent since its peak in 1975-77 (22.5 deaths per 100,000 population). The Indian rate for 1990-92 was 16.2 compared to 11.4 for the general population. The rate is 4.8 percent higher than the average for the whole country. Another difference is the age group of people who commit suicide, because the Indian suicide rate’s peak is in young adulthood, whereas in general population adulthood and specially old age are the main groups. Mainly men kill themselves, mostly with firearms or hanging; woman more often attempt suicide and overdose drugs.

The main reason for today’s high suicide rate is the economical devastating situation of the majority of American Indians, living in and outside a reservation. The rising unemployment and poverty rate is mirrored on a raising suicide rate.[13] Those fundamental fears of existence can find its release in hurting or killing oneself or in killing another person.

American Indian Homicide/Parricide

In former times, people honestly injured or ill were frequently left behind or abandoned to death by freezing or starving. Sometimes, an incapacitated person would ask a relative to end his/her life, because the involvement of a non-relative person could lead to a fight within the tribe.[14] In many arctic settlements, a dispute over a woman was the most common cause for murder, similarly to many modern societies. However, even when the cause of a murder was not a woman, the murderer had to take care for the woman and children left behind. These children might often, when grown up, have taken revenge on his father’s murderer, who had taken care of them all their life. One anthropologist found out that, in one special settlement in Canada, every man over thirty had murdered one other Inuit in his life.

Murder fixed the man’s position in the societies hierarchy, as long as he didn’t kill to many people in a short amount of time.[15] On the Plains, Prairies and in the East, for young men, killing an enemy and bringing back his scalp was kind of a condition before entering adulthood. The pressure on those men was that heavy, that they rather killed a tribe member then coming back home without anything after a war had failed.[16]

A form of murder, under another definition, is human sacrifice. Along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida and then up to Virginia, Chiefs had the power over life and death of the tribal members. Men sacrificed their own children to gain honor and step up in latter of the chief’s favor. In case the chief died, wives and slaves were killed in order to accompany him to the next world.

Today, the American Indian homicide rate is one of the highest of all racial or ethnic groups in the Unites States, and there is no explanation dealing with tradition.[17] However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, a positive trend in the murder statistic. From 1991 to 1996 the murder rate fell 20 percent, this is more and faster than the national decline of 15 percent.[18] About 90 percent of all homicides are alcohol-related, 70 percent of all suicides are alcohol-related.[19]

Alcoholism is the explanation as well for the high suicide rate, as for homicide as for violence within families. On a investigation on a Midwestern reservation, the social scientist Whittaker found out, that almost the entire reservation population had alcohol problems.[20] As for suicide, the economic situation also explains the homicide rates. Poverty leads to frustration, which appears “to be manifested in acts of violence”.[21]

But, there is also violent crime against Indian Americans from non-Indian people. As the first comprehensive study of crimes involving Indians, released by the U.S. Justice Department shows, American Indians are the victims of violent crimes at more than twice the national average. The important factor is, that 70 percent of the offenders against Indians are of a different ethnicity. According to this study, Indians are far more likely to become a victim of a violent crime than any other group within the United States; with 124 per 1000 people the number of Indians as victims of crimes is more than double the national average. Violent crimes committed against Indian woman are double the number than those against black males. Sidney Harring, a professor of Law, at the City University of New York School of Law, sees racism and alcoholism as driving forces for those crimes “[...] with Indians being victimized by poor drunken whites, people on the margins hurting each other”[22]

Other explanations for these two death causes other than unemployment are poverty and hopelessness resulting in alcoholism and violence is the inadequate medical aid on the reservation. The possibility to save a severely wounded victim in an urban area is much higher than on an Indian reservation. Therefore, unnatural death is not only caused actively by Indians or “Whites” by doing something wrong, it is also caused by not doing anything at all. By Indians accepting the situation and by “Whites”, who do not care about the living conditions of American Indians. In former times, certain forms of unnatural death had a reasonable or traditional explanation.


[1] Driver, H. E. Indians of North America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1972. 493


[3] New York Times. Study Says Indians Are Violent Crime Victims at Twice National Average. By Fox Butterfield. 15.02.99.


[5] Bachman, R: Death and Violence on the Reservation. Homicide, Family Violence, and Suicide in American Indian Populations. Auburn House, Westport Connecticut. 1992.


[7] Oswalt, W. H.; Neely, S. This Land was Theirs. A Study of North American Indians. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 19955. 52

[8] New York Times. Study Says Indians Are Violent Crime Victims at Twice National Average.



[11] Bachman, R. Death and Violence on the Reservation. 7

[12] Driver, H. E. Indians of North America. 374

[13] Bachman, R. Death and Violence on the Reservation. 120

[14] Driver, H. E. Indians of North America. 374

[15] Driver, H. E. Indians of North America. 311

[16] Driver, H. E. Indians of North America. 311

[17] Bachman, R. Death and Violence on the Reservation. 29

[18] New York Times. Study Says Indians Are Violent Crime Victims at Twice National Average.

[19] Oswalt, W. H.; Neely, S. This Land was Theirs. 66

[20] Bachman, R. Death and Violence on the Reservation. 51

[21] Bachman, R. Death and Violence on the Reservation. 121

[22] New York Times. Study Says Indians Are Violent Crime Victims at Twice National Average.

Excerpt out of 33 pages


American Deathways: The Meaning of Death in the American Indian Society
LMU Munich  (American Cultural History)
American Cultural History
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
598 KB
American, Deathways, Meaning, Death, American, Indian, Society, American, Cultural, History
Quote paper
Claudia Casagrande (Author), 2000, American Deathways: The Meaning of Death in the American Indian Society, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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