The belief in some form of rebirth or reincarnation is widespread among indigenous people throughout the world,1 so it is not surprising to find it in native North American cultures. The earliest recorded mention of Amerindian reincarnation is in an account from 1612 by William Strachey, concerning the Powhatan of Virginia.2 Jesuit missionaries with the Huron and other Iroquoian groups recorded reincarnation beliefs among them beginning in the 1630s.3 For more than a century after that, there are no allusions to Amerindian reincarnation, and then only occasional mentions until the last decades of the eighteenth century, when references become more plentiful.4 Anthropologist Antonia Mills speculates that the beliefs were under-reported, partly because early settlers and missionaries did not expect to find them and so did not ask the right questions concerning the postmortem destiny of the soul. Also, Amerindian ideas of survival and reincarnation are complex and varied, making simple characterizations impossible.5
Amerindian ideas differ in important respects from the Hindu and Buddhist precepts that many people connect with reincarnation. Amerindian beliefs lack the concept of karma and do not uniformly allow for humans to return as nonhuman animals or for nonhuman animals to return as humans. Several societies posit either transmigration across species lines or human-to-human reincarnation, but not both.6 Some societies credit neither cross-species transmigration nor human-to-human reincarnation. By contrast, the assumption that nonhuman animals reincarnate in their own species is common, perhaps universal. Mills found the belief that the souls of game animals returned in their own species in all ten of the Amerindian societies she surveyed.7
A curious feature of Amerindian beliefs about the soul—shared with animistic belief systems throughout the world—is the idea that part of the spirit can persist in the afterlife while another part reincarnates. For some peoples, the body is associated with more than one type of soul during life and these different souls go their separate ways at death; for other peoples, a unitary soul splinters at death.8 When it comes to human-to-human rebirth, some Amerindian cultures expect it only for those who die young or those who die violently. Generally, reincarnation is thought to occur within the society. In groups with unilineal social organizations—where kinship is reckoned strictly through either the mother or the father—reincarnation follows a similar pattern. In some groups, it is thought possible to decide on one’s next parents before one dies. A few cultures—mostly in the Arctic and the Pacific Northwest—say that more than one soul may possess a single body at the same time or one spirit may divide or replicate postmortem, then reincarnate in multiple bodies simultaneously.9
Reincarnation is not embraced with the same intensity throughout the continent. In some societies, belief is left to the individual, whereas in others, it is an element of the common culture. Interestingly, however, wherever they are found, human-to-human reincarnation beliefs are linked to the same set of signs that appear in conjunction with reincarnation beliefs throughout the world. These signs include dreams and apparitions announcing rebirth;10 birthmarks and other congenital physical traits;11 behavioural traits; and past-life memories. There may also be memories of the intermission period between lives.12 Sometimes shamans or similar practitioners may tell who a baby was before, but often announcing dreams, birthmarks, and telltale behaviors are employed to identify a newborn so that he or she may be given the same name as before and stand to inherit property, prerogatives, and status enjoyed in the previous life.13
The following is a list of North American native children with past-life memories. These cases were studied and reported by Mills and other anthropologists and by Ian Stevenson.
North American Native Children with Past-Life Memories
Edited by Thoth101, 11 July 2020 - 04:26 AM.