Shawnee Death Feast

Shawnee Death Feast

Type of Holiday: Religious (Shawnee)
Date of Observation: Varies Where Celebrated: Oklahoma Customs and Symbols : Darkened Room, Food, Speaking to the Spirits


The Shawnee Death Feast is part of the Native American religious tradition. The history of Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The historical development of religious belief systems among the Shawnee and other Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

The Shawnee Death Feast is an annual ceremony held in memory of loved ones who have died. One of the traditional beliefs of the Shawnee is that the spirits of the dead have the ability to influence the circumstances of the living, for better or worse. The Death Feast is offered to assure the dead that they are remembered fondly and to respectfully request that the living remain undisturbed by their spirits. Although many older Native American religious practices have been overtaken by Christianity, some Shawnee continue to observe the Death Feast as a way of honoring ancestors and other deceased loved ones.

The Death Feast is normally conducted in private, at the home of the family or friends of the deceased. Special FOOD is prepared and served on a table just as it would be for any guest. This is usually also an opportunity for SPEAKING TO THE SPIRITS . The food is then left in a DARKENED ROOM for a period of time. The family and/or friends of the deceased return to the room later to clear away the food, which can then be eaten by the living. It is believed that the spirits of the departed consume the essence (aroma) of the food, although sometimes portions of the food are missing when the family returns.


Darkened Room

The feast is left undisturbed in a darkened room for a few hours or overnight. It is believed that during this time the spirits of the dead will consume the feast.


The food that is left out for the spirits usually includes traditional Native American dishes but can include anything that was preferred by the deceased in life.

Speaking to the Spirits

After the feast is set on the table, someone present usually addresses the spirits of the deceased, speaking aloud of fond memories and asking for help, insight, and guidance from the spirits.


Hirschfelder, Arlene B., and Paulette Molin. "Death Feast." In Encyclopedia of Native American Religions. New York: Facts on File, 2000. Hultkrantz, Ake. "North American Indian Religions: An Overview." In Encyclope- dia of Religion. Edited by Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.


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