Black Elk explained that the practice originated when a young boy of the tribe died and his grieving father sought out the shaman for help. The shaman told the father, “This boy seems to be dead, yet he is not really, for we shall keep his soul among our people, and through this our children and the children of their children will become wakan [holy].”
The shaman then addressed the soul of the child: “Behold O soul! Where you dwell upon this earth will be a sacred place; this center will cause the people to be as wakan as you are. Our grandchildren will now walk the path of life with pure hearts, and with firm step!” And to the parents: “We shall gain great knowledge from this soul which has here been purified. Be good to it and love it, for it is wakan.”
The ritual itself was lengthy and involved a number of steps to be performed by the shaman, the family members, and the rest of the tribe. In an early phase, the shaman purified a lock of hair of the dead person and wrapped it in sacred buckskin. This bundle then was seen as housing the soul and was hung in a special place in the family’s tipi. The keeper of the soul, usually a family member, would take special care of the bundle. He or she would pray to it, “feed” it, and show it many other signs of respect. As the shaman would tell the parents:
You are now keeping the soul of your own son, who is not dead, but is with you. From now on you must live in a sacred manner, for your son will be in this tipi until his soul is released. You should remember that the habits which you establish during this period will remain with you always. You must take great care that no bad person enters the lodge where you keep the soul, and that there be no arguments or dissensions; there should always be harmony in your lodge, for all these things have an influence on the soul which is being purified there.
Your hands are wakan; treat them as such! And your eyes are wakan; when you see your relatives and all things, see them in a sacred manner! … Every day and night your son will be with you; look after his soul all the time, for through this you will always remember Wakan-Tanka [the Great Spirit]. From this day on you will be wakan, and as I have taught you, so you too will now be able to teach others.
During the time that a soul was being kept, the keeper was not supposed to fight or use a knife for any reason. “The people should love and honor this holy man, frequently bringing food and gifts to him, and the keeper of the soul should in turn offer up his pipe very often to Wakan-Tanka for the good of the nation.” In good weather, the bundle was to be hung outside. By bringing it gifts and praying before it, the people of the tribe gained blessings from this soul.
The concluding part of the ritual, the “Releasing of the Soul,” would typically take place a year after the person’s death. Everyone participated in it. After offering gifts to the various powers of earth and sky, the holy keeper spoke to the soul within the bundle:
You, O soul, were with your people, but soon you will leave. Today is your day, and it is wakan. Today your Father, Wakan-Tanka is bending down to see you; all your people have arrived to be with you. All your relatives love you, and have taken good care of you. You and the holy woman of the four ages, who brought to us the sacred pipe, are now together here in this lodge. . . .
The bundle was carried past the threshold of the tipi–leaving the circle of this life–and thus the soul was released. In its purified state, the soul was ready to rejoin the Great Spirit.
The shaman would say to the parents, “You loved your son, and you have kept him at the center of our people’s hoop. As you have been good to this your loved one, so be good to all other people! This sacred influence of your son’s soul will be upon the people; it is as a tree that will always bloom.”
It was through this rite, Black Elk wrote, “that we purify the souls of our dead, and that our love for one another is increased.” Through purification the soul becomes one with Wakan-Tanka and need not wander the earth, he declared, “as is the case with the souls of bad people.” And further, “the keeping of a soul helps us to remember death and also Wakan-Tanka, who is above all dying.”
Through the survivors’ prayers, respect, and peaceful behavior, a mutual benefit would occur. The presence of the bundle continually reminded the family that how they behaved would affect the soul, for good or ill. For a year they focused on the good that this soul was bestowing on them and their tribe; they found inspiration in it to purify themselves and share this goodness with others. Survivors gained consolation in knowing that their loved one’s spirit remained near them and that they were helping to prepare the soul for its journey.
This ritual helped to make real the notion that the death of a loved one can serve life-giving purposes for those who remain behind. No soul ever truly leaves his or her loved ones. He or she remains with them for a time in spirit and, through their mutual love and respect, they create a lasting legacy of goodwill.