American Indian life was steeped in ritual. These rituals varied from tribe to tribe and played an important role in their daily life. The Hopi of Arizona, for example lived and farmed in a land of little rainfall so most of their rituals and ceremonies dealt with their gods bringing rain to a dry land. The culture of the Plains Indians on the other hand, revolved around warfare and hunting the bison, most of their rituals had to do with being great hunters and warriors. The tribes were at war over such things as raiding for horses, tribal lands and supremacy.
Prior to going into battle the warriors would have certain rituals to perform both for themselves and their horses. The death song varied among the warrior tribes and when a warrior believed they were mortally wounded they began their death song.
However, not all warrior tribes had death songs. Paulino Weaver was half-Cherokee and half white. He was one of the earliest mountain men and lived among both the Plains and Mountain warrior tribes where he adopted many of their customs. Weaver was actually more Indian than white. By the 1860s he was living in Arizona’s Central Mountains. The password for the Indians in the area was “Paulino-Tobacco.” He shared his tobacco with the Yavapai and taught them to say that when they encountered a party of whites. This would signify that they were friends of the old Pauline and would give them safe passage. This prevented a lot of unnecessary bloodshed until the area became overpopulated with white people who weren’t aware of didn’t care about the local custom. One day he was attacked by a war party of Yavapai, angry over some transgression and badly wounded. As they were preparing for their final charge. Weaver lay down his rifle and began his death song. Unaccustomed to such strange rituals the Yavapai believed him to be crazy and left immediately. After a while the tough old mountain man picked himself up and walked home. The Yavapai apparently regretted shooting Weaver. For months afterward, they frequently made inquiries as to the condition of their friend “Paulino.” Today Weaver is recognized as Prescott’s First Citizen.
One of Hollywood’s best Death Song scenes was Canada’s Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins in the 1970 film, Little Big Man. Old Lodge Skins to a nearby hill, the Indian burial ground, where the old man, dressed in full chief’s regalia, has declared “It is a good day to die,” and decides to end his life with dignity. He offers his spirit to the Great Spirit and lies down at his spot at the Indian Burial Ground to await death.
Instead, it begins to rain. Old Lodge Skins is revealed to still be alive, and says, “Well, sometimes the magic works. Sometimes it doesn’t.” He returns to his lodge to have dinner.