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Article: Toby Blackstar Discusses Funeral Customs in Native American Communities

Article: Toby Blackstar Discusses Funeral Customs in Native American Communities

Mar 08, 2016

If you haven’t had a chance to listen to the Funeral Pro Chat podcast with Toby Blackstar about Native American funeral customs, a portion of the interview was published in American Funeral Director. Toby is a Native American Funeral Director from Oklahoma. In this podcast interview, Steven C. Turner talks to Toby about the history of the unique and time honored funeral traditions of the Native American tribes of Oklahoma, how those beliefs have evolved and how they differ from the beliefs of other Native American tribes.

Funeral Pro Chat is a new podcast series where funeral professionals discuss funeral trends, news and customs. The goal of Funeral Pro Chat is to inform and enlighten funeral professionals on a range of subjects that interest them. American Funeral Director will periodically provide edited excerpts from the podcasts to spur the discussion on topical issues affecting the industry. Funeral Pro Chat is now also available on iTunes.

Funeral service, it's not a job, it's a calling.

Steven C. Turner chats with Toby Blackstar about the unique funeral traditions of the Native American tribes of Oklahoma.

Steven C. Turner: Welcome, Toby. Toby Blackstar is a Native American Funeral Director who will enlighten us about funeral customs in his community. Most Native tribes believe that the soul of the dead pass into a spirit world and become part of the spiritual forces that influence every aspect of their lives. Many tribes believe in two souls, one that died when the body died and one that may wander on and eventually die.
Toby Blackstar: That’s correct. Thank you Steven. I am representing the Kiowa and Comanche tribes of Oklahoma and Comanche Nation Funeral Home in Lawton, Oklahoma.
Steven: I’ve heard that modern day Native Americans incorporate death rituals handed down from their ancestors in their modern day funeral services. Do you find this to be true and can you explain some rituals associated with Native American Burials?
Toby: I do find this to be true and I’ll be giving you aspects from both the Kiowa death ceremonials and Comanche death ceremonials. We have our own funeral home and when you work with a member of a Native American culture there are a lot of traditions that must happen. For example there is a cedar or smoke that is tethered upon the body for a blessing and a prayer to the body that is now taking off to what they call “their journey”. The “cedar or smoke ceremony” is for the members that have been left behind so they don’t take the death too hard . Now, the Kiowa are more prone to have Christian burials that have been taught by the missionaries of long ago. Regarding the Kiowa tribe, my great, great grandfather was actually a member of what is called the “Sun Dance” and I don’t know if you have ever witnessed the movie “a Man Called Horse”?
Steven: Yes, I truly enjoyed that movie.
Toby: In “A Man Called Horse” you see the Kiowa people’s ceremony. They dance whenever a young boy was growing up into manhood with the bones placed in their chest and that was called the “Sun Dance.” They had to go and pull it until they could pull away from the pole itself, the tree, and that proved that they were in the man field now. This is all part of the piercing ritual of the sun dance. Steven: I remember watching that movie and it made me cringe to see that scene where they were putting those pins to the person’s chest and just raising them off the ground. Does that ritual actually happen or was that something fictionalized for the sake of the motion picture?
Toby: That actually happened,—the Kiowa tribe name is derived from sun people, so they actually are people of the sun. They did the sun dance in order to honor the sun for the heat that it gives off, for the warmth, the things to which it allowed to grow, to plant the crops that they were trained to take care of and also the ritual that the sun was the one that allowed the man to grow from young adult into adulthood.
Steven: Very Interesting, I was also amazed to learn that there are 162 recognized Native American tribes and those burials and death rituals among Native American tribes differ because they all have unique rituals and religious beliefs. Is that true Toby?
Toby: It’s very true. Living among the Otoe-Missouria of North Oklahoma in Ponca City was very different from the customs and the burials of the Kaw, the Osage and the Ponca tribal communities. Their practices are that the body is taken to the home, a church or a cultural centre. If somebody were to die this morning, we would take the body to the prep room to prepare the body. They would come to the funeral home to make the arrangements and on the fourth day from the time of death, their rituals are that they would feed the body at different times. They have cooks that made breakfast, lunch and supper. These things are things of the Otoes that they recommend for the soul to continue to be nurtured and the body to continue to be nourished. The belief is when that soul leaves the body on the day of death, that soul wanders wherever family members may live, whether it be in Oklahoma, Ohio, Georgia etc., Wherever there are family members, that loved one will actually go and visit them before they make their journey up to the heavens and they take four days to do so.
Steven: There is also the fear of the deceased. Some Native American tribes felt that the deceased person was resentful of those that were still living and so the ghost of the dead would come back and haunt and make trouble for anyone who used their possessions. This led them to burn their house and all their possessions. The family would move to a new house in a new location to escape the ghost of the deceased. Is that still done today?
Toby: That goes on today in the Ponca tribe. They take all the property that belonged to the deceased out into the country and they would burn them, ridding every trace of that deceased person. They would not give anybody an opportunity to steal any of their belongings to use, such as the sacred eagle fan or spear. This is still practiced today, the Ponca tribe would actually move from house to house. They practice the burning of the personal belongings and if the person had cancer they would take the hair and burn it --- they leave nothing behind.
Steven: Another thing that I am curious about is; the guiding of the spirit. I’ve heard that Native Americans believe they should not impede the spirit from finding its way into the afterlife and they should help guide or aid the spirit’s accent. Have you heard of death rituals like this being done today at all?
Toby: Yes, I have actually seen this among some of the traditionalists, (the ones that are still trying to keep the customs alive and well), and then there are the non-traditionalist who have become Christians or have moved on to a better understanding and accepting of death. The traditionalist would actually use wooden planks inside the casket, to encase the soul inside the casket so it is not allowed to go anywhere. This is the reason that the spirit can be around the family whom the person loved and not wander off, but when the time comes on the 4th day there is a window that opens up and they will be allowed to go on their journey, on their spiritual journey and go into another world and start their journey.
Steven: Can we discuss something that might be taboo in Native American customs? With cremation on the rise in the general population, how is it treated in your community? Is it accepted or rejected and why?
Toby: Cremation in our Kiowa’s community, Otoe’s and Ponca’s is unaccepted. The belief is that the Creator or the one that we call God has given us a body and that body must then be allowed to break down and go back to mother earth just as mother earth formed our bodies. We were birthed from mother earth. If somebody is in cremated form that is really unacceptable because that won’t go along with the traditions of keeping the body around and allowing the soul to go visit or do what it has to do last minute and then come back into the casket. It’s very taboo towards the tribe. The body is considered a sacred temple.
Steven: What about the embalming, how is that done if at all?
Toby: First, someone from the funeral home will come to pick the body up from the place of death; hospitals, nursing home, hospice care, even the home. Native Americans tribes do have a problem with whenever somebody dies at home without a care giver --- we as funeral directors understand that whenever these things happen the body is taken to the morgue or to the medical examiner and then an autopsy is performed. It really hurts the family because whenever the medical examiner has to cut the loved and they know that some of the organs are removed from the body, it really upsets them. They prefer the body to be whole, rather than be cut or to be disturbed.
Steven: I can understand that. So after a burial how do the family and friends comfort the mourners?
Toby: I lived and grew up among the Otoe-Missouria and the Ponca and their custom is a feast at high noon on the day of the funeral. Somebody in the community will take responsibility of being a cook and will fix the deceased’s favorite foods. They fry bread soup called corn soup with cut up beef in it and hominy with cut up pork in it. Then they would come all together and feed the community. They would go into the funeral ceremony and sing some native songs. An elder would then get up to talk about the person that has died then there would be gifts. Pelican blankets are usually given to the men that either helped throughout the life or helped after the death, doing things for the family. They’d give these gifts and women wear shawls and carry food baskets. Some people would go ahead and buy baskets of food and bread and milk and things of that magnitude and these are all included in the ceremony. The give-away is mostly the family giving things back to those that have helped them. Whenever their loved one was sick those who tried to help them and stayed with them doing the best to care for their loved one would receive gifts.
Steven: That’s beautiful. Toby let’s focus a little bit about you now. How long have you been a funeral director and when did you actually find your calling?
Toby: I have been in the funeral business for 20 years now. Everybody has always told me I have a good voice and I was always called upon to sing at funerals…not just Native American funerals, but growing up in the black church singing was always important to me and the family of the deceased would love to hear my songs, it would be a comfort to them. Then it occurred to me that I could be working at a funeral home and whenever someone needed a singer or somebody needed someone to talk or give a eulogy, I would already be there and so that interested me. I was also just fascinated as a young boy by the funeral coach and limousines. At the local funeral home I’d go to visit somebody that had passed away and being 9 or 10, I always told the secretary “One of these days I am going to work here at Grace Memorial Chapel”, and she remembered that when I first started doing my practicum.
Steven: Do you have anything else you would like to tell us about Native American burials?
Toby: Native Americans go into a year of mourning. I have just lost my father and buried him just this past week.
Steven: I am so sorry, Toby.
Toby: He passed away from cancer, so the elder braided our hair really tight and he took a bone knife and cut it off. That is a sign of mourning, but back in the day they used to cut off a finger. They did it because they were hurting so much.
Steven: They actually cut a finger off? Then what?
Toby: If a mother lost a son and she was hurting so much, she would show her mourning for her son by losing a finger; because she lost a son. They buried the finger on top of the son or daughter that had passed away. The father or mother would separate themselves from the tribe for a little bit and just go into a year of mourning. Then after that year you come back and have a big feast and give away to pay your way back into society. During that year you don’t participate in anything fun like native dancing, even bazaars you may have at the church. You just concentrate on the death; the loss. Also, after the anniversary of the death you won’t speak about the person anymore. I’ll have this whole year to talk about my dad and what he meant to me. This time next year May 18, 2016 I won’t be allowed to mention him anymore. That’s our tradition.
Steven: Toby, that was truly fascinating and thank you for discussing Native American funeral and burial traditions. Now in closing how can our listeners get in contact with you?
Toby: tblackstar@omtribe.org is my email or you can find me on Facebook.
Steven: Thank you and you can contact me on Facebook or on the Funeral Pro Chat website.

Click here to listen to the full podcast & hear the interview in its entirety.


Funeral Pro Chat is a production of Burban Turner Media. Contact: Nancy@nancyburban.com.

© Nancy Burban 2015



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About The Author

Jess Farren (Fowler)

Jess Farren (Fowler) is a Public Relations Specialist and Staff Writer who has been a part of the ASD team since 2003. Jess manages ASD's company blog and has been published in several funeral trade magazines. She has written articles on a variety of subjects including communication, business planning, technology, marketing and funeral trends. You can contact Jess directly at Jess@myASD.com


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