An excerpt from the new book by Gary R. Varner, "Ghosts, Spirits & the Afterlife in Native American Folklore and Religion."
Many cultures around the world believe, or have believed, in reincarnation—the return of the soul to the world to be reborn. What is the basis for beliefs in reincarnation? According to Antonia Mills, a belief in reincarnation “fits into the basic shamanic belief that typifies hunting and gathering peoples wherever and whenever they are found and…it was probably part of the most ancient human culture.” Belief in reincarnation is still prevalent in many parts of the world today, however—and not just in hunter/gatherer societies. In some Native American cultures this belief was modified in that only certain people were believed to be reborn—normally the disabled or deformed who had not been able to live a normal life previously. The Yuman tribes not only believed that the deformed would be reborn but also twins. “They were believed to come from a village of their own, an adjunct of the village of the dead lying to the northwest,” wrote Spier. “Some of the deformed there were without arms, others without noses or mouths; some had an eye in the middle of the forehead.”
Reportedly, twins and the deformed were born on earth as “visitors.” These individuals, after death, did not journey on to the land of the dead but returned to their village until they were reborn yet again.
Some Canadian Indians believed that both animals and humans are reincarnated. “The physical features of a newborn child are always referred to those of some dead forebear,” noted Werner Müller, “every child is thus a reincarnation.”
Generally speaking, the Plains Indians did not have a definite idea of a final afterworld. That is because they believed that reincarnation occurs to allow a soul to be “finished.” According to St. Pierre “If the soul does not become complete, dies too soon, or fails successfully to traverse a part of the path of life, then it will be sent back to live on this earth again until it completes the journey ‘in a good way.’”
Few in-depth studies have been conducted by anthropologists concerning Native American beliefs in reincarnation. One tribal study by Antonia Mills is that of the Gitxsan on the British Columbia coast. According to Mills, the Gitxsan believe that one soul can be reincarnated simultaneously as multiple people. One such individual reportedly has been reincarnated in seven different bodies since 1987. According to the Gitxsan all of these incarnations “have been within the bodies of her own descendants.”
New England tribes, especially the Algonquian, believed that reincarnation was one form of afterlife that was generally available. Like the Narragansetts, the Huron also believed that the individual was composed of at least two souls and possibly as many as five. One stayed near the corpse until a ceremony called the Feast of the Dead was performed. The feast resulted in the soul being set free to be reborn. The other soul went on its own way to a Village of the Dead where life continued much as it had prior to the individual’s death. Children younger than one month of age were buried along a well-used pathway so that their soul could reenter the womb of a woman who passed by to be reborn. According to anthropologist Alexander von Gernet, “some aspect of the infant’s underdeveloped soul configuration was deemed recyclable and that the Huron attempted to control the fate of this aspect through a strategic placement of the corpse.”
Among some Native American groups, such as the Northern Athapaskan Dene Tha, the soul is regarded as a dual entity. The soul is believed to remain in the afterworld and can be prayed to and, at the same time, exists in the human form of the reincarnated individual, also known as “Those Made Again.”
In some instances, reincarnation occurs as in human to animal form. This is not the common form however with four times more human to human transmigrations reported than human to animal forms. Animal incarnations were commonly believed to occur among the Kwakiutl, Zuni and Mohave. The Zuni and Mohave believed that a human spirit was incarnated four times in a series of animal and insect births. At each incarnation, the spirit became more powerful. Such animal-insect transformations were said to be temporary with human incarnations remaining part of the cycle. Some Native American cultures believed that animal transformations were reserved only for bad people. The Yurok, according to 19th century ethnologist Stephen Powers, “fully believe in the transmigration of souls; that they return to earth as birds, squirrels, rabbits, or other feeble animals liable to be harried and devoured. It is more especially the wicked who are subject to this misfortune as a punishment.” The Wintūn of Northern California, according to Powers, believed that the souls of the wicked “return into the grizzly bear, for that is the most evil and odious animal they can conceive of. Hence they will not partake of the flesh of a grizzly, lest they should absorb some wicked soul. For the most part, however, reincarnation was viewed as a desirable form of soul continuity, be it in animal or human form.