[Episcopal News Service] When a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe dies, the person’s family begins an extended period of mourning, spending up to a year in sad contemplation, which is rooted in the sacred Sioux rite of ‘keeping the soul, ”said Elaine Brave Bull. McLaughlin, Chairman of the North Dakota Indian Council of Ministries.
At the end of this year, family usually invites friends and relatives to a memorial party in honor of their lost loved one, but under pandemic precautions last year, families were forced to postpone such celebrations for prevent transmission of the coronavirus. Now, some families are eager to resume in-person community gatherings like memorial celebrations, McLaughlin told Episcopal News Service. “There are families who would like to do something like this, or just for us to pray and give them a sense of normalcy in this time of madness.”
Conditions on Standing Rock have improved considerably this spring. COVID-19 vaccines are now widely available for tribe members aged 12 and older, and the number of new cases every day has has fallen to single digits in recent months. On some days, no new cases of COVID-19 are reported.
As families seek to postpone celebratory gatherings and meals this summer, the Diocese of North Dakota plans to use a $ 17,000 grant from The Episcopal Church’s United Thanksgiving to provide part of the food for up to 30 of the memorial meals. “We believe these traditions, these practices are so central to the grieving process, we thought we would help our members and others in the community,” Reverend John Floberg told ENS.
Floberg, as rector of three of the six Standing Rock Episcopal Congregations, saw the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic on families and the community. He estimated he had presided over about three funerals per month over the past year, of which about a third were related to COVID-19. These services had to respect tribal and diocesan prohibitions concerning large gatherings. Sometimes services were limited to a small group of close family members attending a burial.
“Families who were planning to have a memorial for a death that occurred the previous year, these were also put on hold,” said Floberg. “A very important aspect of the grieving process of a family has been interrupted in a very significant way.”
Last fall, when the weather became too cold for field services, he was able to move funerals to churches while respecting diocesan limits on the length of service and the number of people present. Social distancing was a challenge.
“These situations are really difficult because, again, we are dealing with the way things are normally done, the customs and the ways people are used to crying, so tell people ‘please don’t you don’t hug ‘and’ even though you ‘are related, the virus doesn’t care,’ it was hard to deal with, ‘he said.
Of more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 on the Standing Rock Sioux reserve, about two dozen people have died, according to North Dakota and South Dakota statistics. McLaughlin, who is a member of St. James’s Episcopal Church in Cannon Ball, said his son contracted the coronavirus in September. He had a high temperature for a few days and was quarantined for two weeks, but otherwise everything was fine. Another relative, a cousin, died in December less than two weeks after testing positive for COVID-19.
McLaughlin described the traditional year-long period of mourning, during which Sioux families partially retreat from community activities to focus their thoughts on the memories of the deceased. “By the end of this year, the food was ready to be shared with people,” she said. “What they called it was ‘let go of the spirit’ so they would invite people to come and have a meal for them. A special plate was prepared for the deceased.
Families would also provide clothes, quilts and other items as gifts to those who came for the meal, acknowledging their connection to the deceased and thanking them for their kindness during the year of mourning. The participation rate could range from 30 people to a few hundred. Sometimes during the meal a gust of wind swept over the gathering, which mourners interpreted as the final exit of their deceased loved one, McLaughlin said. “They say, ‘the spirit has left us.'”
Floberg said he expected paying for those meals to be more difficult this year for families facing job losses linked to a pandemic, especially in communities already struggling with poverty. The idea behind the UTO grant was to buy the most expensive part of the meals, the meat, and give it to families.
Floberg plans to buy premium beef in large quantities for a better price, then cook it in a large roaster or smoker in their backyard. The meat will then be sealed in bags and kept in freezers at St. James, St. Luke Episcopal Church in Fort Yates, and St. Gabriel Camp in Solen. When families gather for their memorials, the meat can be thawed and reheated, enough to feed about 125 people per meal.
Meat will also be served with meals during the Summoning of Niobrara, an annual gathering of Indigenous Episcopalians, to be held this year on June 26 and 27 at Camp Saint-Gabriel. The rest of the meat will be served during an episcopal youth camp this summer aimed at helping the young people of Standing Rock recover from a year of disruption caused by the pandemic.
McLaughlin praised the work of the Tribal Government and Federal Indian Health Services in organizing and promoting vaccination clinics on Standing Rock, which has helped reduce the threat of COVID-19 this year. As summer approaches and large community gatherings resume, commemorative celebrations will once again become the heart of families’ mourning.
“It’s kind of a healing process for the family,” she says. “When they let go, it’s a good feeling. They let the person go with a good mood and good feelings.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. It can be reached at email@example.com