The Great Mystery: Yankton Sioux's Beliefs about Death

By Nathan Stephany

What happens when we die?

Wars have been fought over that question. Every culture and religion has their own take on the afterlife, and the Yankton Sioux, the tribe of Maria Pearson, is no different.

Pearson dedicated her life to protecting the dead, not only on the strength of these beliefs, but on the general principle that people should respect the dead.

The tribal religion of the Yankton Sioux follows suit with other practices of Nakota people. The tribe worships multiple deities, among them The Great Spirit or The Great Mystery, Wakan Tanka. Wakan Tanka is a universal power and sacredness between all living things. Group worship is common, mass prayer and dances usually making up part of worship.

For the Yankton Sioux, death is simply the next step after life. Up until the 20th century, they often practiced scaffold burial, where the dead were placed on an elevated scaffold in nature. Animals would come for the body, returning them to nature, until the bones remained, which were promptly buried. In more recent decades, this practice has gone away and burial ceremonies take place soon after death, because the Yankton Sioux do not practice embalming.

The Yankton Sioux do not believe in disturbing the dead after burial. In fact, they had no word for reburial in their language because of how unfathomable it was to them. Objects left at their graves are things that would be useful to them in their current journey after death, a knife for men or a scarf for women, for example. For the Yankton Sioux, the dead are simply on the next leg of their journey.

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Nathan Stephany is the Editor for Simplex Stories. Originally from Huxley, IA he has four years of experience in videography, directing, news reporting and scriptwriting.

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