Deaths on a reserve(reservation)

3 May

I grew up on the reserve which in itself seems more tragic than privileged. It takes a lot of courage, strength, determination, will, pride, and spirituality to be happy to be in such a place. If you visit a rez, you will find that it is a very tight knit community. People don’t seem to understand that when you’re dealing with issues such as alcoholism, drug abuse, substance abuse, depression, etc., you also deal with the deaths of these diseases.

When someone dies in our community, the whole community comes together to support the family of the deceased.  Its never a family for themselves or to leave the family to grieve by themselves. Its the support that keeps the family strong.

In any case, I wanted to point out that dealing with death comes at an early age on the rez. Going to funerals sure is a tough time on anyone at any point in time in their lives. Yet people living on reserves deal with death every few months. I remember as a child losing my own cousins, aunts, uncles, and great grandma. I had to say goodbye in my own way. I didn’t cry much but was rather taken on a path to say goodbye. There is never getting over a death of a loved one. Your soul remains full of great memories of your time with them. Your heart weighs with the love that remains with the person no longer there to receive it. So the love stays in your heart.

There is a ritual for funerals on reserves. Before the body returns for the wake, you make a fire outside of the home of the wake. This fire serves as a guidance for the spirit…a connection between worlds of sort. You have the wake for 4 days and 4 nights…then on the 5th day, you bury the deceased. Every morning and night you say prayers. You say one last session of prayers before the funeral. Traditionally, people had their last viewing before the body was transported to the church. Now the last viewing is done at the church. After the funeral session, the body is transported to the graveyard. The grave is blessed and then body put into the ground. The dirt that was dug up is now put over the body manually. The men present take turns burying by shovels. When the person is buried, the people say their goodbyes and then go to the reception afterwards which is a celebration of the person’s life they lived. Then after the potluck dinner, its gambling and stick games which go all night and sometimes into the early next morning.

I have been keen to see that this is not the way for many cultures. I mean “this way” meaning dealing with death on a regular basis. I have observed that when people of other cultures go through losing loved ones they take it quite hard. Don’t get my wrong, my aunt has lost 4 children. She has taken each death as hard as anyone in the world. Yet she has strength that I have seen in only one other person, my grandma. To lose as much as they did and still have the courage and strength to not only wake up but to get through the day, is something I strive for. Its not good enough to just wake up, its in your best interest to get through the day as best as you can.

I look at my people who have gone through similar losses to my aunt and grandma. Where did they find the courage and strength to not only live but smile? I can only surmount that it was all ingrained onto them by their parents and grandparents. Its nothing you can talk someone into deal with such a tragedy. To get courage and strength is to live it…over and over. Not so that you become numb to it but you build more courage and strength.

I don’t want to question or doubt that others go through as much deaths. My point I’m making is that to go through so much pain and loss is hard…very hard.

I myself have seen close loved ones pass. I remember my first funeral as a young child. I had to be younger than five. Children are keen to others feelings that surround them. I remember feeling for the older people. I didn’t understand what death was at the time but the feeling of sadness around those people made me pray for them in a way. Losing my great grandma at the age of 7. She was an amazing granny. We called her “Granny Eliza”. She was so kind, always had food and candy ready for us. I remember shaking her hand all the time as a kid. I guess it was our hug. I loved her energy…so kind and gentle. She was the oldest on the reserve at the time and respected by all in our community. So when she passed away, the whole community was in sorrow. It was a big turnout of people who came out in support. In terms of relevance in our community, its as if the pope died. Being a child, the grieving process goes through quickly. Then a few years later, a dear cousin of mine passed away. She was so much fun. She used to babysit me while my parents went out. She treated us like her younger sibling so in a way she was our big sister. I remember seeing her body for the wake. I held her hand and looked at her wondering if she has gone to heaven like in the books I read. I didn’t cry but I understood that it would be the last time I see her again. The pain was there this time. This is the first time I had to feel hatred that I wouldn’t see her again. I missed her laugh and smile already.

Hospital visits and such are a norm it seems. Terminally ill. There is nothing you can do but be by the bedside or in the hall. Only one person allowed by the bed didn’t apply to such a big family. When the doctors say nothing can be done and its time to turn off the life support system. So they turn them off and you sit there watching him/her or look out into the window listening to the breathing slow. This is something that happens every year. You go to the hospital holding the hand of your loved one hoping they know that you will be there til the end and beyond.

It shouldn’t be okay that this is happens. Its good in a way though that the person ill is never alone and has all the love in the world.

What no one understands is after those first few times of losing someone so close, it happens yearly, sometimes quarterly, sometimes monthly. If I try to think of a timeline of who I have lost, someone related to me passed almost yearly. great grandma, big sister, best friend, godmother/aunt, grandma, grandpa, best friend, cousin/bestfriend/brother, cousin/brother, uncle, uncle, great friend, best friend/ brother/cousin, the list goes on. These people I list now I have spent a significant amount of time with. I have lived with these people. I would give names but it doesn’t do them justice of what they meant in my life. The slashes are meant to show the name and blood relationship. But the love I had for each of them went beyond than a name. Its as if they were mother, father, brother, and sister. I have missed each of them tons and tons. Each death hit me hard. I have cried for each of them. You can’t imagine burying two brothers one month apart. You can’t imagine burying someone close to you every year.

Yet this is the way it is for many Native communities around the world. This happens because each family is so tight knit. Every grandparent is so loved. Every aunt and uncle is like another mom and dad. Every cousin is like a brother or sister. Ever child is like your nephew or niece or you treat them as your own child for that matter. You only get like that by spending a lot of time with each other. So when you say your cousin, he was more like a brother.

I was partially raised by my grandparents on my dad’s side. I spent a lot of time with them as a kid. My grandma was blind but she made some of the best homemade bread I have ever tasted. My grandpa was a great man. His heart was bold, big, and gentle as I’ve ever felt. Their own stories apart and together is worth 2 novels and will be told at another time.

You don’t go through that much pain without knowledge from your ancestors. From a young age, as you go through such things, you learn by going through them. Each person older than you goes through the ceremony of burying a loved one. As a child you watch and observe. You are taught what to do in each ceremony. You learn to go through it with an open heart. You approach everything with respect and honour. We are taught that no matter what happens, we have the means to get through them. We ask for strength when we need it. We ask for help when we need it. By no means should you not be without help or beyond prayer if you ask for it.

To be clear, it is a very sad thing to have such experiences. If it were any other community anywhere, it would be subject to a lot of scrutiny and press. It is not news that people die. It is sad to have the ability and strength to deal with losing close loved ones. Yet we have it. Its nothing something to be proud of. Its not shameful. It should be encouraging though. This is only part of the struggle that Natives live through.

More stories of the struggles to come…


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