Death and the Tree of Life

Blair A. Moffett

What is the native American's view of death? Tribal traditions about the matter vary in expression but are not at variance one with another on fundamentals. The Tillamook of Oregon, for example, have an interesting account about one of their number who died. Because the people wanted him back, the tribe performed a sacred dance for five days, after which the "dead" one awakened, asked for food, and then told them what the after-death experience is. He said the soul of man after physical death travels "a long way." A point is reached where those who have not lived rightly on earth take the "wrong trail," while those whose lives were upright go forward along the true path of souls to paradise.

Statements from his tradition by a contemporary Chippewa medicine man, Sun Bear, extend the native perspective of death. Since life is movement, but movement that is cyclical and not linear, physical death is nothing more than a "change of both worlds and forms," because it is "a circle, from birth to death to rebirth." So native peoples' acceptance of the fact of human rebirth or reincarnation on earth is pervasive and shapes their conception of death. As early as 1868 the well-known student of native American religions, Daniel Brinton, asserted it "was in fact one of their most deeply-rooted and wide-spread convictions . . . indissolubly connected with their highest theories of a future life, their burial ceremonies, and their modes of expression." The teaching of reincarnation is one of the major distinguishing features of North American native religious life. Not only that, it is a belief that forms an important element in the world view of Andean peoples of South America, as it did among the Incas of that region during the Spanish conquest.

Another idea shaping American Indian treatment of death, one that is perhaps less well known and certainly little understood by Western students, is that Death was born or appeared at a certain point or on a specific date in mankind's early evolutionary history. Before that, Death did not exist, and human beings did not die as they now do. For example, in the sacred scriptural history of the Quiche-Mayas of Central America, the Popol-Vuh, the word death does not appear until mankind's Third Age is described (humanity now being in its Fourth Age according to this tradition). Specifically, in the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, a related Mayan scripture, Death is mentioned as an "invention" of the creative deities that was needed to destroy the crude humans of the Third Age because of their imperfections. "On Three Cimi, there occurred the invention of death. It happened that Deity Our Father invented the first death." Therefore some tribes look upon death with aversion, as an unfortunate interruption of our conscious existence and a threat to life, but one that because of past wrongs committed by man must now be undergone by him until his debt to the Creator is paid. But this conception involves too many complexities for a more detailed treatment here.

Much more pertinent are the native teachings that a human being is an entity compounded of a number of "souls" or aspects of consciousness, and that man and all the kingdoms of life exist and evolve in a multilevel or multiplane solar universe. Brinton, discussing American Indian notions of the plurality of a man's "souls," compared these with the Rabbinical teaching of the nephesh, ruahh, and neshamah, or animal, human, and divine souls; and with St. Paul's division, in his Epistle to the Romans, into the bodily soul, the intellectual soul, and the "spiritual gift." Turning to the Siouan peoples of North America's great plains, the Lakota word wanagi, "soul," according to tribal elders really means the totality of the inner entities of the human being, with the presence of Wakan-Tanka or "pure spirit" at their center. Most native peoples in South America east of the Andes mountains believe that a human being has several "souls," which are responsible for the various manifestations of life in the body. And then, we have the beautiful Navajo saying that "Man is Made From Everything."

Our multiplaned solar universe is likened in many American cultures to a cosmic tree of many branches: the World Tree or Tree of Life. For some North American peoples the spruce is its symbol, while for Mayans of Central America it is the ceiba tree. Life itself and human generations descend from the root through its branches to the earth or surface plane; in the Quiche-Maya language, for example, the verbs "to descend" and "to be born" are synonyms. This conception of the circulation of lives from top to bottom and on around the great cosmic tree in repetitive cycles of learning, experience, and growth is implicit in every major expression of native American spiritual thought. Physical death, therefore, is simply a temporary departure from the earth plane to others invisible to us, to be followed in due season by a return here for resumption of our unfinished tasks and duties.

The manner in which this perspective is set forth in native art forms, ceremonies, architecture, and even implements and utensils such as painted pots and bowls, woven baskets, and designs sewn or woven into dress apparel, is almost endless. Perhaps the most complete statement we have of this solar universe of life is the classical Mayan and Central American image of thirteen heavens or "above-worlds" and nine "underworlds" below the earth world.

Comparable are the North American Leni Lenape and Hopi viewpoints. The Big House of the Leni Lenape of Delaware stands for this universe: its floor, the earth, its vault the sky dome over which lie twelve extended levels or planes of being up to the abode of the "Great Spirit, even the Creator," while the ground beneath contains the "underworld." The Hopis of Arizona have their "seven universes, each with its successive worlds, comprising the total of forty-nine stages of man's development along his Road of Life." The Seneca of New York have a closely-held teaching of the Seven Worlds of being. If we turn to South America, it is the same. The Guarani peoples of Southern Brazil and Paraguay, for example, have their seven "paradises" or planes above the earth plane.

If we consider all of these ideas together, a most beautiful vision emerges of the place in native American spiritual conception of what we call death, the dissolution of the physical body: it is a mere transition of our real self to other and wider arenas of life and consciousness. Consciousness, then, does not die but endures as part of the unity of all life, the relationship of all living creatures as kindred beings moving in association through the great Tree. This vision is confirmed when we realize, as Hartley Burr Alexander tells us, that the Indian is attached to the form of anything only because of the principle, the conscious essence, that is contained within the transient form. At the same time, the native American approaches these sacred conceptions with awe and reverence because as our great evolution is not completed — is still in progress — what is beyond us and what is still to come remains the Great Mystery. This is something to be thought over, contemplated carefully, and served by a high standard of ethical living in the present world so that we may be helped by the higher souls in us, the "spirit beings," more clearly to understand. Carried to its logical conclusion, this conception tells us that some inner portion of our totality is native to each and all of the branches of the cosmic tree that is our solar universe, and therefore undying until the universe itself undergoes its periodic death.

(From Sunrise magazine, November 1980. Copyright © 1980 by Theosophical University Press))

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