Death Song

A three-mile walk north of a two-lane road through the Nebraska Sandhills transports me to another plant. Or perhaps the planet Earth as it was three hundred years ago. Pausing at the top of a high dune, I can view the sweep of this semi-arid landscape for miles, its ridges of wind-formed hills, its swaying clumps and patches of little bluestem, cordgrass, sideoats grama, wheatgrass, yucca, cheatgrass, wild rose. buffalo brush, and a dozen native species of cacti of which I can name only one: prickly pear.

A mile or so to the northeast in a flatland between two soaring ranges of dunes lies a long narrow lake, groundwater from the Ogallala aquifer that has risen from its subterranean reservoir to pool in a small lake and revive a bordering fringe of cattails and bullrushes. A passing cloud is mirrored in the pond, a reflection distorted by the wind-ruffled chop of the water’s surface.

Far down the valley, a half mile at least, eleven dark-hided buffalo are grazing. A movement catches my eye to the east, downwind of the buffalo, and a Sioux hunting party of eight mounted warriors appears from a dip between two pyramidal dunes. They spy the buffalo, then me, halt their horses, and huddle for a quick rendezvous. I realize that either a buffalo or I, or both will soon become the morning’s conquest and the evening’s campfire story of this band of Dakota Sioux. The time has come for my Death Song.

Reality returns, and the buffalo revert to a loose herd of Angus cows and calves. The Sioux hunting party is entirely imaginary. But the echo of the Death Song keeps bouncing around in my head, discordant notes and free verse chants that refuse to blow away with the ever-present Sandhills wind. The Sioux may have been ephemeral, but not the lingering power of their spiritual presence in this open country.

The Death Song was an honored and sacred Native American ritual practiced by many, if not most, of the tribes of the Great Plains at the height of that horse-warrior culture from the early 18th to the late 19th century. My ignorance of Native American traditions and ceremonies is vast; I know little about the history and practice of the Death Song ritual of the Sioux, or any other tribe. Few credible anthropologists do, judging by the dearth of authoritative literature on the topic.

But then, Native Americans in their wisdom and reverence never intended us to know.

We have only the briefest of historical mentions of the Death Song, a few incidents and storied anecdotes barely mentioned in the narratives of the conquerors superimposed over the accounts of conquered. About 560 tribes survived the ravages of European civilization over the previous six centuries. Hundreds more tribes may have been exterminated, and it is likely that the Death Song may have been widespread among many of them. It is also likely that the sacred ritual continues to this day outside the scope of our civilization’s notice.

The Death Song is antithetical to our concept of passing through the transition from life to death. More accepted is the rant of the poet Dylan Thomas who beseeches us to “…not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” To me, rage is a useless and unworthy emotion to express when confronted with an ending that is so obviously inevitable.

The warriors of the Apache, Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, Arapahoe, Aracari, Navaho, Pawnee, and more than a dozen other tribes sang or chanted a Death Song at the time of their impending death, or potential death due to combat or other great danger. We know little about the ritual as practiced by tribal women because of our cultural blindness, but the poet Jim Harrison wrote about a seven-year-old Hopi girl who composed and recited her death chant “…in a slightly quivering voice…” as she neared the end of her short life.

A glimpse of the ritual through Western eyes is provided by the paintings of the artists Charles M. Russell (“The Death Song of Lone Wolf”) and Frederick Remington (“His Death Song”), but I find these representations to be trite, cliched, and more than a little demeaning. The most engaging and representative of Native American portraits that depict a man accepting his end-of-life passage is George Catlin’s painting “Ah-Yaw-Ne-Tak-Oar-Ron, a Warrior,” although Caitlin did not state that this was the theme or intent of his painting.

I also find the portraits of Native Americans produced by the Swiss-French artist Karl Bodmer (1809-1893) to be more authentic than the illustrations and paintings of American artists who engaged Native Americans only after the glory of their civilization was past its pinnacle and had begun its rapid decline. Bodmer (formal name Johann Carl Bodmer or Jean-Charles Bodmer) was a printmaker, etcher, lithographer, engraver, draughtsman, painter, and illustrator who toured the American West as the hired artist of German adventurer Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied from 1832 through 1834 on his Missouri River expedition. He is best known in the United States as the artist who created detailed and accurate depictions of Native Americans and Western landscapes during the first half of the19th century

Sadly, one of the few written records of a Native American’s Death Song is from the history of the Dakota War of 1862, a rebellion of four Dakota Sioux tribes in southwest Minnesota that had been coerced to sign treaties ceding their lands for white settlement. After the bloody Dakota Uprising had been put down, 38 Mdewakanton and other tribal leaders were hanged, the largest one-day mass execution in United States history.

Sioux chief Chaska’s song (in English translation) was the same chant of defiance as that of 37 of his tribesmen before their execution in Mankato, Minnesota.

I, Chaska, do sing;
I care not where my body lies,
My soul goes marching on.
I care not where my body lies,
My soul goes marching on.

Would that I will do as well on my final day of life.

If my passing could be honored by the recitation of Stephen Vincent Benét’s poem “The Ballad of William Sycamore,” the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, or the tune “Here Comes the Sun” by George Harrison, I would consider myself to be suitably remembered, but those would be someone else’s choice of memorial tributes, not mine. A Death Song, to have any validity, must be self-composed. If you venture to create one, I recommend you follow the pattern established by Native American tradition.

A Death Song should be brief, uncomplicated, and easy to memorize. It should give voice to what you most value. Find the words or phrases that express your sustaining hope, your abiding truth. Make it personal, simplify it, write it down, and recite it to yourself from time to time.

As with the prayerful wish that one makes on the first star seen on a secluded night, it is best if you do not share your Death Song. It is not a performance; you are the only one who needs to hear it and believe it at the end of your time.

Having gone through a near death experience, I have composed my own. My song may make my passage easier. Or not. At the very least, it will comfort me at the end.


About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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2 Responses to Death Song

  1. Christ – pray that I don’t sing your death song. It would be profane, inappropriate, and just … not good. We shall toast to life and to our current adventures.

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