Journey Home


This weekend, we celebrated my good friend Celine Buckanaga’s wake and funeral, including not only Catholic Mass but also traditional Dakota customs for her all-night wake and burial.

It is usual for families to use St. Kateri Hall for funerals. The all-night wake includes a feed at evening meal, coffee and sweets all night, and hot breakfast in the morning. The evening wake service, in Dakota, was led by a medicine man who lives in St. Paul, MN. He also led the burial service the following day. After the burial up in Veblen, everyone reconvened at St. Kateri for a feast of traditional meats (deer and fish), potatoes, wild rice, corn soup, wojapi (pudding from chokecherries), and cake. 

Celine was the eldest tribal member for quite a while. But, after 99 years of hard living raising her family solo and raising several grandkids and nephews as her own as well, her body was just worn out. Our local funeral home did a great job preparing her body, then her daughter and grand-daughter did the ceremonial washing and dressing of the body.

In the Dakota way of thinking, the spirit of a person lives on after the body dies. The spirit may hang around, or may leave on its journey south at any time after death. If the spirit hangs around, it’s not a big scary thing… it is seen as normal, especially if a living family member is struggling with the grief process. In fact, most traditional families make a “spirit plate” of food at feasts and place it outside before serving the guests. A family member takes that plate of food and places it on the gravesite so that the spirit of the dead family member can eat. 

The spirit of a person may be seen or felt, or may cause certain things to  happen as a way of communicating with the families members who are still alive. For example, they might cause a dream. They might visit in the guise of a bird or animal, or even an insect like a butterfly! A family member might feel compelled to do something (bake a cake or visit someone) and will say “That’s the spirit of so-and-so, telling me to do that.” It is kind of an interesting and perhaps helpful way to allow the living relatives to move through grief, honoring their loved one in a very real manner. I suspect many people, not just traditional Dakota people, have similar thoughts and experiences after the death of someone they love. 

The loved one will continue their journey south “when it is a good time to do so”… no rush. “Those who have gone before us” will welcome the journeyer when he or she arrives, so there is always a sense of reunion with relatives as a celebration after death.

In a sense, all of Creation journeys in this way. I think of the Webb telescope images allowing us to peer back in time to the beginning of the universe’s journey. We certainly journey too… each day, each month, each year… celebrating at various milestones along the way… and also saying good-bye a thousand thousand times, practicing for our final good-byes and our own journey home to God.

Ake wacin ake kte, Tahampa Duzaha Win.

(Rest in Peace, Fast Runner Woman.)