Palliative Care-Medicine Wheel-spirit
Palliative Care (The "Spirit" of the Medicine Wheel)
Medicine WheelSpritualPhysicalEmotionalMental

Native cultures are very diverse. We perceive death as part of the circle of life, yet many of our tribes have distinctive views.

Vincent H. Bointy
Dx 1991 Colon Cancer

"I was going out. I knew I was going out cause I couldn't breathe or nothing, and so, in my mind my brother said, "the Lord have my grandfather, my grandmother Jenny, and my mother-in-law pray for me." Then I went out. I left, I left my body and I went to the ceiling and I was up in the ceiling went to work on me, they was pounding me, working on me those two doctors and about four nurses and then I went on. Someone might have told you that you have a lot of things and it was most serene, or most tranquillity, the most peaceful feeling I ever had in my mind when I was going. Somewhere along the way, I saw a lot of beauty somewhere along the way, the big "boy" stops. Right here you have to decide whether to go on or to go back. It seemed like I was on this, like a feather, just, sort of balanced . Looked like if I went back. Looked like I went forward and go on and I really didn't say that I would back. I just thought wonder what I should do. I wondered if I should go back. That's all I thought, wondered if I should go back I didn't say I wouldn't go back but I started back. I went back to the same area I came to, I don't how I got there, and I come and see they were still working on me, pounding on me, throwing me around. So I come on down and when I went into my body I opened my eyes."

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Why is it important to have funerals and death ceremonies?

  • Death ceremonies, like funerals, are important for many reasons. They help the:
  • Person who is dying to prepare for death and ceremonies or songs completed before the person dies

    Abigail Nashoolpuk
    Dx 1991 Colon Cancer

    "They sent the biopsy. They told me in five days they would find out, when it comes back. I didn't sleep. The fifth day, I must have prayed all through the night. I said, "Lord, I can't just take dying from cancer." Maybe somebody that know how to take this they would know how to do it, but not me. I'll have to know that I have cancer and know that I'm dying with, maybe I'm not ready for it."

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    Angela Russell
    Dx 1987 Breast Cancer

    "I think at some point you've gotta reconcile that death is possible, of course death is inevitable for all of us down the road but when you get a diagnosis of cancer I think you've gotta really decide, do you really want to fight this, because if you decide you don't wanna fight it, I think you really can die faster but I determined somewhere early on that I really wanted to live and I was I believe about 43 at that time, and you know they say, life begins at 40 a lot of interesting things were going on in my life"

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  • Person who is dying and the loved ones see "death" as part of the / wheel / "circle"

    Thunderhand Joe
    Dx 1990 Pancreatic Cancer

    "I really didn't feel that bad. I mean I really didn't feel like this was the end of the world. And I came to the understanding that if I was going to die then that's okay too. I didn't put any pressure on myself or did I give anymore weight to living or dying. It's all one and the same. You're going to live and to die. But I say it's not up to me. What's up to me is today to live and be happy and what I want to do today. If I want to cry today, I can cry today. I never wanted to cry. I always wanted to laugh. I think my chances were better at laughing so I laughed through my whole treatment of chemotherapy and everybody around me completely busted up with me."

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  • Family and friends with the grieving process

    Bonnie Craig
    Dx 1991 Ovarian cancer

    "Indian people generally, don't deal well with death. We don't take lightly losing someone that we love. We hold that death with us for a long time. When it comes to the point of examining your own mortality, that's a real difficult task. Because then you have to ask yourself questions of I don't want to deal with not being here. I love life. That's where I am at. I can't imagine not being here. But there's no guarantee that, you know, tomorrow I won't be here because of some other intervening cause that I have no control over. But right now, you know, Creator knows that I am not ready. He knows all the reasons, but whether or not that's within my control, I don't know. So examining mortality, I think is a real healthy thing to do for Indian people and for cancer survivors, in particular. I know that a lot of people that are Indian that have cancer and that have survived have a real difficult time finding other people to talk to about mortality. And we need to do that. We need to slay the dragon. Because if we are really being true to our cultural beliefs and our spirituality, then there's no fear. Because we are being taken care of. It doesn't matter."
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  • Community recognize and honor the loss of a valued individual
  • Family and grievers know that they are supported by the community
  • Grievers "express" and not "hide" their grief (hiding grief creates other problems)
  • Cultures view the funeral or death ceremonies differently from one another
  • Non-Native cultures frequently perceive death as a very separate part of the life cycle.
  • But all cultures have special ceremonies that accompany the death of a loved one.

    "Punkin" Shananaquet
    Potawatomie and Ojibwa

    "So we were able to send her her bundle with her on that three-day road. We believe that the spirit takes four days to reach that, that realm of sacredness, that realm where the Creator dwells. And we don't believe in death being final, we just believe it's another step, where we leave this physical earth, to go on to the next and that our relatives that are waiting there and our Creator (Native language) who sits in that sacred realm. We are just being called to another part of home."

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    CeCe Whitewolf, JD
    Confederated Tribes of Umatilla and Nez Perce
    Dx 1998 Breast Cancer

    "And at the end I couldn't figure out what do I have to do to help my mom die. That last day, my sister Judy and I with the hospice person came and we gave her a bath. We washed her we put baby power on her we gave her lotion on her body and rubbed her skin down and combed her hair and was drying her hair. After we finish cleaning her within about a minute or so later, she left us. And it was kind of a peaceful leaving because she wasn't hurting anymore, her death rattle was gone."

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    CeCe Whitewolf, JD
    Confederated Tribes of Umatilla and Nez Perce
    Dx 1998 Breast Cancer

    "People started coming back to the house. I said how did you guys know? Wilson said the Eagle came and got me. He said he saw the eagle outside and he knew something happened so he came back. Sam was coming back from town and he was coming up by the creek and he said he saw the eagle. And the boys came back they had already gotten their kill and they came back. So we believe that the Eagles took her when she died. That it was proof she was a good woman. But we, I also believe that they took her to see her at go see her mom and her aunties and the people who had gone before her. Because towards that very end she was telling the names of the people, it looked like she was shaking their hand. She was only talking in Nez Perce then too but she was shaking their hands and I think the eagles took her to that other world where other people have gone before her. So I am not scared of death anymore because I gonna go see her."

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  • Commonalities among most cultures (Native and non-Native)
  • Most cultures bring food to the family most closely affected by the death. The food may be left near the front porch, or include a visit by neighbors and friends who are interested in helping the family
  • Families are supported
  • Native communities and the dying, death and/or grieving process
  • Traditionally, ceremonies were implemented, sometimes over many months, for the chronically ill or dying patient.
  • Allows the dying patient make peace with this world and prepare for the next.
  • Allows the loved ones to raise upsetting issues and consequently to address them with the help of others.
  • Changes your perceptions of what is and is not a problem ("things that used to bother me, don't concern me any more. I realize they are minor issues and nothing to really become upset about." "Don't make a mountain out of a molehill." "Realizing I was dying was very freeing. Things that used to bother me I just realized I didn't have time to waste with such silliness. Now my family and I enjoy every day to the fullest. I still feel fine. I know that my prognosis is not good, but I've tricked the doctors before and I plan to outlive their predictions again (giggles)"
  • The entire family is affected.
  • This includes the extended family which can consist of adopted relatives and respected elders and healers within our communities.
  • Most Natives choose to"go to the spirit world" while in their home setting, surrounded by family and community members.
  • Many of the cultural support systems that help prepare for the passing existed a few decades ago. These may or may not be present in our local communities today.
  • Preparation for death by the individual and the family differs among tribal Nations
  • Preparation of the body
  • Preparation of the spirit
  • "Passing" ceremonies

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