Native American Perspectives on Ghosts and Evil Spirits
The many diversified nations that occupied what is now called North America have mythologies and beliefs tracing back thousands of years. Those beliefs include respect for the afterlife, and spirits becoming part of nature. They also believed in good and evil… and spirits to represent each. However, in these mythologies… the concepts were not quite so black and white. Many times a spirit that was considered to be evil was actually necessary to keep the balance.
Native Americans and Ghosts
In the native Pacific Northwest, the fear and avoidance of ghosts was evident in the places they chose for burial. Cemeteries were located in remote areas and islands, far away from homes. There were also many nations who believed that the spirit of someone who was not buried properly or whose grave has been desecrated would be doomed to walk the earth, unable to rest. Generally it was believed that a spirit who was at peace when they passed went on to the next plane of spirituality. A spirit who was not or whose rest was disturbed would stay earth-bound.
Many of the Navajo nations called ghosts “chindi”… and it was believed that if someone did not get the burial rites that were due upon death… their spirit was doomed to remain on the earthly plane. In turn, they would torture the living… afflicting them with what was referred to as “ghost sickness”. Symptoms of ghost sickness included nausea, fever, fatigue, and sometimes even a sense of being suffocated or hallucinating. Many of these symptoms can be attributed to other causes… but the belief was strong that it was a sign of a ghost attempting to take one of the living with them. Death and burial rituals were taken very seriously by these nations, and any disruption in the cycle would cause unrest for the spirits… who in turn, cause unrest for the living.
Native Americans and Evil Spirits
These nations believed strongly in the existence of spirits both “good” and “evil”… however the concept was not quite as cut and dried as the Judeo/Christian ideas many of us are familiar with. Destructive spirits were feared, yet their existence was vital for the balance of all things. Without negative… there could be no positive. They were equal in the creation of the universe. Such is the case with Iya, the Lakota “storm monster”. While the destruction this spirit can bring is feared, it is also respected. Much care is taken to show reverence, so not to incur its wrath. Many Lakota believed that Iya was a bit of a head-hunter, using human beings as trophies. However, when Iya was pleased, protection was offered. As much as they fear Iya.. they recognize that the destruction is part of the life cycle.
In Pueblo mythology, the serpent Pishuni is represented much as the serpent in the Christian bible… a deceiver sent to tempt the first human beings. Just as in the Christian doctrine, humanity was intended to be perfect and live in harmony with nature… and an antagonist entered the equation to separate human beings from the Creator. Pishuni is mentioned several times throughout Pueblo writings as an interloper whose purpose it is to create strife. The nations along the Trinity River in California believed in the spirits of Omaha (in the form of a large bear) and Makalay, a one-horned deity who is thought to represent death and destruction. It is said that to see the face of Makalay is a precursor to death. In these accounts, the ancestors of these people turned against the divine deity, who in turn cast them towards the deities of evil. Again, we see a separation of mankind from the Creator, caused by mankind itself.
Ghosts and spirits of negativity are a large part of these cultures, however the two are not the same. While most nations did not see ghosts as inherently evil, they believed that they represented the circle of life not being completed. Evil or negative spirits ARE part of that life cycle… a part that must be accepted and respected. In the end, it seems that it is more desirable to run across a negative spirit with some chance of being able to appease it, rather than an unrested spirit looking for revenge… or another to take with them!