The Traditional Death of Crow Woman: A Brief Summary

Jayne Gackenbach

MacEwan University

This is an unpublished paper written in 2010 about an unpublished book written about a decade earlier.

            Over a decade ago I was fortunate to be able to witness and then write about the death of a woman of Plains Cree heritage. The book which resulted was never published but rather was given to each of her immediate family members. This is a brief summary of that book.[i]

Despite my experiences with Lillie’s family and Lillie during her dying and death and the support I had found among my Native friends, I still felt it was inappropriate for me to write this book as a woman not of aboriginal heritage. I wasn’t even considering it when shortly after Crow Woman, Lillie’s Cree name, died I had a couple of dreams about doing such a book. The night after she died I dreamt that I was talking to the co-author of my a book I had co-written on dreams. Jane was telling me in my dream that a friend of hers had recently died. I thought in the dream that our lives continue to parallel each other as Lillie had just died and that we should do another book together. A month later I dreamt that a young Native woman had written a book about the death of her mother-in-law. She was unable to get it published until she contacted a Native publisher at which point I helped her and the publisher come to an agreement on the publication of the book. In the dream it was clear that the way that the book was published was a good compromise for the parties involved. Unlike the first dream I awoke from the second dream excited and energized about the idea of doing a book about the death of my friend Lillie.

Thus this second dream spurred me to ask Crow Woman’s older sister Sara about the idea. Sara was very positive and in a matter of a few weeks many of Crow Woman’s immediate family had been contacted and had agreed to the idea of the book and to being interviewed. Still I was uncertain, although by Christmas of the year of Crow Woman’s death I was deeply involved in interviews with the major people in Lillie’s life. My uncertainty remained for several years including even doing this chapter summarizing the Lillie’s story of her death. Why? In part because of something Crow Woman herself said to me during my last visit with her a week before she died. Drifting in and out of sleep she quite suddenly said to me, “The Old Man will give you trouble.” I was puzzled, and replied, “But, why would he, I like him and admire him.” She simply repeated the warning, “The Old Man will give you trouble.” As it turned out he did and he didn’t as the book was never published. This medicine man’s main message to me was that Crow Woman wanted to die in the traditional way. Thus this book’s title is very much a product of my talks with The Old Man. He focused especially on her funeral in our conversations, but strongly suggested that Lillie’s entire relationship with him was about dying in the traditional way including her use of the traditional medicines and her experiences of spirit near the end.

The Subject of this Story

The subject of this story is the death of a Canadian Native woman who died in the early 1990’s at the age 49. The undercurrent of the story of this remarkable woman is how her death was in part a product (socially and culturally) of what’s happened to the First Peoples of Canada. Crow Woman was caught between two worlds – the Cree culture in which she was raised and the Western culture which surrounded and dominated her life. Her quandary was finding a balance between these worlds as it is for all aboriginal peoples in North America.

The paradox of her finally attaining psychological health and in the last weeks of her life profound spiritual transcendence, at the time of her physical bodies’ disintegration is a story which is in some ways characteristic of North American Natives today. Crow Woman’s life echoes the extremes in Native communities: the existence of bodily illness in the mentally healthy; histories of violence/abuse paralleling states of spiritual ecstasy; and a pattern of family and community obligations and support in the context of a larger culture which stresses the supremacy of the individual. Whereas many in the dominant white culture seem clustered in the hill of the normal distribution curve in terms of a variety of psychological indicates, Aboriginals cluster at both ends at once. That is, often evidencing the highest and the lowest levels of functionality.

As was her personal goal, the telling of Crow Woman’s story strives for understanding and integration of the extremes in life. By looking at these extremes we are able to see the full range of human experience into which we are all thrown. Her shaman spoke to this during a sweat in Crow Woman’s honor after her death. The Old Man told the story of Jesus Christ. He had to be born of a woman’s body, so he would be like you and I. So we could see him as us and he could see us and know us. Then The Old Man talked about suffering. When Jesus went out into the dessert to fast, he was suffering. And likewise Native peoples go to fast every year and suffer. You need suffering because you can only teach from your own suffering. And not until you suffer can you teach. Crow Woman suffered psychologically throughout her life and physically in the end of her life. She rose above it, not through denial, but rather through deep self awareness and thus the integration of her psychological and physical suffering made her and makes her a great teacher.

Raised in a dysfunctional family and repeating the pattern in her adult life, as have her children, Crow Woman became involved in the recovery movement through individual and group work and successfully recovered from alcoholism and drug addiction. She herself became a counselor. The hundreds of people at her funeral and constant stream of visitors during her last weeks attested to the success of her personal efforts at helping other Natives to recover from their own histories of addiction, violence, and abuse.

At the time she was diagnosed with cancer, she was deeply committed to her culture’s traditional beliefs and practices. Yet she also embraced western therapeutic techniques in her own work and was profoundly affected by Catholicism. Despite a grim prognosis, she rejected surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy as culturally inconsistent. Instead she immediately turned to the “Old Man”, an 92-year-old shaman who spoke six Native languages. She lived with his family, fasting, using poultices and herbal/root remedies the Old Man prepared, and taking sweats to purge the cancer from her body. Despite her immersion in her traditional Native healing methods she also tried what she found in alternative/holistic medicine. Yet her primary commitment to the Native way never wavered. No matter what she tried she always sought the Old Man’s approval before she began.

The Last Weeks

At the end she was eaten away explained one of her sisters, “There was nothing left, absolutely nothing, it was unbelievable that she was [still] trying. . . She was fighting to live” yet she also wanted to go to the light which she saw in her room. Another sister told me that Lillie, “kept saying but I can’t, cause she didn’t have her shoes.” She kept telling me, “I’m staying because of the old man.” Lillie kept saying The Old Man was holding her back because, “he has my shoes.”

Glenna told me that The Old Man said Crow Woman had a message. Her life was a message and he had only seen this a couple of times in his life. Shelly elaborated on this for me. The Old Man “told her he wasn’t going to let her go until she was ready to go and they were ready to take her and she kept slipping in and out and The Old Man said they weren’t ready for her.”

About two weeks before she died, The Old Man said he had to do a pipe for her. Sara, the first born of this large family, commented, “Lillie seemed to understand it. I didn’t.” Lillie had told Sara that the Old Man had to be gotten ahold of as there was something he’s got to do. Sara explained, “so we phoned The Old Man [who] was [out west] somewhere. The Old Man came home the next morning to see Lillie. Crow Woman told him, you know what you have to do. He said, ‘yeah, I have to do the pipe’.” According to Sara The Old Man explained to Lillie, “you’ve got to do it for four days. You can’t die in this four days.” She said, “I know”. He continued, “while I’m doing this pipe for four days it closes the door for you. There is no option, you have to be here for that”. She said, “I know”.

Lillie’s faith in The Old Man seemed to deepen as her consciousness got clearer and more detached from her body, mind and emotions. In other words, she became more purely in spirit. This depth is evidenced by her endorsement of this special four day ceremony about two weeks before she died. The Old Man “turned the pipe”, that is led a special ceremony ostensibly to keep Lillie alive for an unknown amount of time; days, weeks, months, and even perhaps years. Until this ceremony Lillie seemed to have come to terms with her forthcoming death and was experiencing peace. But during the four day  ceremony she was afraid to go to sleep. “She thought that if she slept she’d die”, explained a friend. It was thought that if The Old Man could keep her here for four more days than she would stay for some undetermined length of time.

The next morning they began this ceremony. The thing that struck Lillie’s closest sister Della the most about those four days was, “intense pain, just intense pain”. . Della told me that Lillie was awake a lot but she didn’t really attend to that perhaps as much as some others might have. It was the intensity of the pain which dominated Della’s memory, “it was just hard to watch her at that time. She wasn’t clear”.

As Della talked about those four days and Lillie’s pain Della was crying, her voice was trembling, her nose was running. It was obvious that even talking about it brought a lot of pain for Lillie’s surviving sister. This was quite a contrast to the peaceful state that Lillie had attained for a day or two just preceding this four day vigil. When speaking of it Della’s voice and intonation reflected that joy and peacefulness that Lillie seemed to have touched upon.

The recollections of five people who were in the vision tell the tale of Lillie’s vision for the future of humanity. The tellers of the vision are her oldest sister, Sara, a Cree dream shaman in her own right, and the four people Lillie saw in the vision, Sara’s husband Rick, a white businessmen; her baby brother Robert, a counselor to Natives in the criminal system; her beloved sister Della, a workshop facilitator dealing with recovery issues; and her brother-in-law Ernie, who runs his own sweats and helped with Lillie’s medicines.

Sara told me about the “picnic” on the outdoor patio of the hospital that cold October afternoon when the family gathered around to hear the details of Crow Woman’s vision.

At the picnic outdoors there was a light that came to her and for a few minutes she quit breathing. Then she came back and told the grandfathers, “no, I want to go with you. I don’t want to stay here, take me with you. The lights leaving, the lights leaving me behind.” Then she said, “the grandfathers told me I have to stay here for awhile, I can’t go with them yet. I haven’t finished my work.”

According to one sister, Lillie then went on to explain the details of the vision:

We have to get the nationalities working together, the Native people, the white people and the Oriental [with] The Old Man. They have to learn from each other. Della your job is to do nothing else but to get the money for them. You’re not even to control anything, you’re to just get the money”. [Lillie] said the grandfathers’ took her across and there [were] two places. [One is where] the other people go, not Native people. The Native people go on the side where the tee pees [are]. The place she went to was [filled with] tee pees [and] lots of Native people. “You continue the work you’re doing here on earth, what you’re doing, [but] there you have love and peace. There is no hate and no anger. Make sure you’re doing work that you enjoy, because you’re going to be doing it for a long time.

Della understood Lillie’s vision as all four races of humanity were there and no one was more important than any other and no religion was more important than any other. “All of the ways that we connect to the spirit were important.” She said we don’t have much time and repeatedly mentioned two years. Della felt that they had only two years, or not much time, to create something. She said that the grandfathers said that she would be able to come and help them from the other side but for only two years but then everything would be all gone. She would be able to work with the grandmothers. According to Della, Lillie said “The grandmothers said I could sit with them, and I could work with them on the other side.”

Crow Woman and Pale Bear – The Work Goes On

About two years after Crow Woman’s death her closest sister Della came home from Ontario. She had had a very powerful experience of Crow Woman and came home to act on it. The first thing Della did when she got back in town was to phone Lillie’s only daughter, Shelly, telling her she needed to talk. Della said she had made a deal with Crow Woman that if Della did this Crow Woman would continue to support and guide Della’s work. Della got all the immediate family members and some extended family together for a sweat.

In the sweat Shelly felt safe as it had always been a safe place for her. Shelly and Della have some tension in their relationship somewhat reminiscent of Shelly’s tension with her mom and possibly because of the closeness of Della and Crow Woman. About half way through the sweat Della started telling the family that they have to pray and focus on the rocks. But her direct style sparked Shelly’s defense mechanisms although she kept her resentment to herself. Shortly thereafter, Della leaned over to Shelly and told her to take out her sister-in-law and her baby. Shelly simply told them to leave but again as the flaps went down for the last part of the sweat. Shelly’s sense of confusion and conflict with her aunt increased. “All of a sudden I got this incredible sense that something just whooshed over my body, and it said ‘this is all she could do, she brought you guys here and that is all she can do.’ ” Shelly felt that was her mom. Shelly’s tension was swept out of her body. When talking to her Aunt Della afterward Della said that it came to her that all she could do was get Crow Woman’s children there. She realized that she had been trying too hard to make other things happen. “It was left up to us to do what we wanted with this.”

When I later asked Shelly, “Is Crow Woman still alive for you?” She replied, “Crow Woman is in my prayers. I pray to the creator, I pray to mother earth, I pray to the grandfathers and grandmothers of the four directions and I pray to Crow Woman. To me she is like an angel so she can listen and can help. She is all around; her spirit has never died for me.”

As we talked it became clear to me that Della had developed a much deeper understanding of the relationship between personal pain and spirituality. I asked her how she understood their relationship before Lillie died relative to now, three years later? She replied, “My understanding was so limited. I would talk about spirituality and looking at healing, holistically. So for me having the ceremonies with just the pipe or having the preying was bringing that in.  Since then we have been literally shown” how to bring spirit into the healing. She elaborated:

What I have seen [is that due to] the trauma [we] literally . . . shut down and part of our spirit leaves us.  It does not feel safe, like it almost leaves us.

Thus when a person goes back and tries to deal with these experiences that have happened in their lives, “we find that when we are able to help create a safe place with the spiritual help that we get. They are able then to go back to that experience and relive that pain and learn from [it by seeing] it from another perspective.  It is like seeing it whole.”  Della explained to me that by seeing what has happened to them from the perspective of the other person who was involved, the pain associated with the experience is resolved.  “What commonly happens [is] people will want to reach out and help” the person who did the abuse.  “They see him though the spiritual eyes.” Having been somewhat familiar with Della’s work before through Pale Bear and Associates, I commented that before Lillie died there were a lot of people who wanted to go out and help others after having done some work with your organization.  Is there a difference?

There seems to be more depth to it and it seems to be coming much more [from a] sense of spirit . . . There is not just a concept but there seems to be an experience.  They felt good, excited about it, some healing has happened, but now it is like [at] their soul level.

Mothering Her Children from Death

About three years after Crow Woman died her eldest son, Wil, and his common-law wife, Carla, separated. Carla and their children had moved to a downstairs apartment. At 28 years of age, this 6 foot young man is not only good looking and well built but he has a personal presence that makes many a woman’s head turn.

A day after the separation Wil had a powerful dream of his mother. The room where Wil slept seemed so empty without the baby’s crib and the other things that make a home with children seem so much a home. He had taken in a roommate who slept in the same room. The roommate liked to sleep with the window open and Wil felt quite cold that night as he fell asleep. He did not feel that he was warm enough and was quite aware as he fell asleep how cold, barren and dark the room was in which he slept. But he said, “I made myself to go to sleep because I had to get up for work in the morning.”

He dreamed that he was with his mother and his older sister, Shelly. There “was only us three through that whole dream and we were quite simply having fun”. He continued, “I can remember us joking around, having fun, actually being happy. It’s nothing I felt before.” He wished he had written it down but the thing that stands out the most for him was how “happy, really, really, happy.” they were. “It was like she was alive, it wasn’t now, it wasn’t like it was before. It was like it [would have been] now [and mom and] Shelly were with me and we were having fun. It wasn’t something that has to be explained. We were close.” It was a “sign for me that that is how it would be if she was here.” Then he awoke.

“It was dark, it was cold, and it was dead silent. I felt so scared. I couldn’t go to sleep. I couldn’t move. It was totally different. It was like I was pulled from good to evil.” He was so scared that he could not sleep. So he got up and went downstairs to his wives apartment. “I went into the bedroom and I [picked up] my daughter and hugged her. Everything in that room downstairs was so opposite of what it was upstairs. If you can ever understand what love feels like that was it.” He cried for about 10 or 15 minutes while his tiny daughter stroked his head. She knew daddy was sad and unlike the normal restlessness of the terrible twos when being held, this time she quietly stroked his hair as he cried. “I couldn’t understand what this was all about. It was almost like my mother was saying ‘what are you doing up there, you should be downstairs with your family.’ I did not try to understand why that happened or why those emotions were so strong. . . . It felt like she pushed me, she made me, she was there, I know she was there.”
According to Wil, ordinarily if he would have awoken in the middle of the night he would not have gone downstairs and done what he did. It would have been a matter of pride for him to not let his feelings and his need for his family show. He admitted that he is often too stubborn to say “I love you, or I need you”. The feelings Wil had were towards everybody there, not just his daughter. When he told his wife about the dream she commented, “Willey you have to deal with this, that is probably why we are not together.” He reflected, “I agree with her. It’s almost like I have taught myself how not to be vulnerable in any way.” The invulnerable aura that many young men use to “hunt” women was catching up with Crow Woman’s son.

As his eyes watered, he said, “There are things that I keep inside of me, a lot of feelings, from growing up, repressing a lot of emotions. I let those feelings out that night and I was happy to do it,” because of the continuing presence of his mother, Crow Woman.

Crow Woman’s Dying Is a Message to Us All

As I understand Aboriginal ways of thinking and being in the world, everything is in some manner spirit. Many of Crow Woman’s family members have had experiences of a spiritual nature but toward the end of her life Crow Woman was more in spirit than in waking reality. From these visits to the spirit world, or what I would call moments of expanded consciousness embracing broader states of being, Crow Woman brought deeply personal messages for others; insights about the nature of being human, the nature of faith and the nature of the divine; and a vision about the peoples of the world in the coming times. Thus Crow Woman’s dying is a message for us all from the process of dying she went through to the levels of spirit/consciousness she attained. And most importantly for her family she remains a guiding and nurturing presence in their lives.


[i]  All names and other identifiers have been changed.