Lingering with the Living

Lingering with the Living

A Story by Alex P.

A medical anthropological look at Native American ghost sickness written for my Medical Anthropology class in Summer 2014



This essay examines the cultural factors behind the diagnosis and treatment of Native American ghost sickness among the Navajo and Apache tribes of the Southwestern United States.


Ghost sickness is a culturally bound illness specific to Native American tribes. Though seeming to originate among the Navajo and Apache tribes of the Southwest United States, cases of ghost sickness have been reported in tribes across America, and even spanning as far up as Canada. The illness is primarily characterized by a preoccupation or obsession with death. However, other symptoms include: loss of appetite, feelings of terror and/or suffocation, reoccurring nightmares, fatigue, dizziness, fainting, and hallucinations. As can be determined from the above symptoms, ghost sickness is primarily a psychosomatic illness. Psychosomatic illness is defined as: “a condition in which psychological stresses adversely affect physiological functioning to the point of distress”7.

From a biomedical standpoint, it can be argued that ghost sickness is also diagnosed as a complicated type of grieving2 or depression. Many of the symptoms overlap, and outside of Native American communities, it is entirely likely that ghost sickness would be diagnosed as one of those two ailments. However, in order to properly understand a culturally bound illness, the cultural components behind it must be understood. In this paper, I will be discussing the cultural context of ghost sickness, and how it affects diagnosis and eventual treatment of the illness. For the purposes of this essay, I will confine my focus to Navajo and Apache cases of ghost sickness, as these were the tribes with the most extensive studies of legitimate cases.

Navajo Ghost Sickness

Death is one of the few things in life that is an inescapable constant, no matter what culture one is part of, and every culture has its own practices on how to deal with death. Cultural beliefs on death and the dead are so closely linked with a variety of illnesses, that many cultures have traditions that relate those illnesses and subsequent deaths to the dead themselves. “Spirits” or “ghosts” may be viewed by such cultures as being directly or indirectly linked to the cause of an event, accident or illness…”3 Unlike in Western cultures, Native American cultures, specifically the Navajo, do not have the dichotomy of the mind and body. The two aspects are one in the same.

Among the Navajo, disease is considered a symptom of disharmony within the individual. Therefore, disease is diagnosed by the underlying cause behind it, rather than from the manifested symptoms.4 Navajo base how sick they are from the intensity of physical discomfort they are experiencing. If the discomfort is not strong enough to impede their daily functions, they will disregard it completely.

Ghost sickness, however, is not seen as an illness, but rather as a violation by the living of the dead. Such violations can include improperly performed burial rituals, unresolved attachment, and premature deaths. The Navajo believed that there was no such thing as a “natural death,” aside from death of old age. All other deaths were determined to be the result of some kind of malevolence3. These transgressions keep the spirits from properly passing into the afterlife, and consequentially, they (the spirits) affect the living with physical and mental discomfort in retaliation2.

Navajo spirits may persist in the realm of the living after their bodily deaths for a number of reasons. For instance, they may be lacking an object or offering that had not been buried with them that was otherwise integral for them to pass on into the afterlife. If this were the case, they would linger until the appropriate item or offering is realized by their living kin and properly added to their burial site.

When a spirit connects itself to an individual (and thereby seriously afflicting them with ghost sickness), however, there is generally a more precise motive. Attachment due to loneliness is common; some studies even suggest that ghost sickness is the cause of bereavement suicide among relatives of the deceased3. Spirits could also linger amongst loved ones whom they were very attached to, or similarly, people whom the spirit’s living soul had harboured a vendetta against. Additionally, children are highly susceptible to a ghost’s advances, and are taught at an early age to ignore them. Infants are guarded by older tribe members so as to not be drawn in by a ghost.

Not every death results in harmful ghosts, however. In Navajo belief, children and those who died of old age were not considered threats (unless there was a grievous offence to their memories) 4. Those who had been “killed”3 prematurely were much more likely to remain amongst, and cause harm, to the living. These spirits would either wander in an echo of their lives, or otherwise “haunt” those they had known in life; usually family members. These living connections are the individuals most likely to contract ghost sickness.

The Navajo seem to determine ghost sickness on a very personal basis. The illness is usually noticed by the sufferer himself/herself, or by a member of the immediate family. The affected individual will begin to have obsessive thoughts about someone deceased, or about death in general. These thoughts eventually progress to nightmares, and eventually manifest into physical and psychological symptoms including nausea and hallucinations3.

By the time the illness’ symptoms reach the point of nightmares, the sufferer would seek out the help of the tribe’s spiritual leader, oftentimes a shaman. A ceremony will then be set up. This ceremonial will be specific to the cause of the illness itself, or otherwise will be tailored to specific symptoms4. In most modern cases of ghost sickness, the traditional Navajo ceremonials will accompany Western biomedical treatments.

Only the spirits of those who were killed in their prime are capable of becoming malignant spirits, according to Navajo beliefs. These spirits can be placated through offerings of gifts and prayers. These offerings are can also be beneficial for the living, as they can urge the spirit to lend strength to the living, defending them from the other dead3. Additionally, the creation of ghosts can be avoided altogether if the deceased’s burial ceremony was performed properly.

Apache Ghost Sickness

Among the Apache, death and the dead are feared, as both are thought to be aligned with evil forces. The Apache believe that the vital force which gives people life (“dà•ą•”5) is entirely neutral, and this neutrality persists from birth until after death. However, that purity can be sullied by evil tendencies (“bà•’è•h5) acquired in life. These tendencies cause the living individual to behave antisocially and destructively. Such behaviour is apparent evidence of a ghost’s activities after death, and can lead to the “contamination” of the living.

The primary source of spiritual contamination is the corpse of the deceased, especially the skull. Consequentially, within Apache culture, the deceased are prepared for burial in such a way as to minimize contact between it and the living. People outside the family are generally kept away from the remains altogether in an attempt to keep the spirit from “infecting” anyone. In fact, only one or two members of the immediate family dress the body for burial.

The Apache belief of what causes ghosts to loiter in the realm of the living is similar to that of the Navajo (as previously discussed), but not identical. After a death, the immediate family of the deceased is isolated from the greater community, as to limit the breadth of the spirit’s reach. The Apache believe that the more closely related one is to the deceased, the more susceptible that person is to ghost sickness4. Along a similar vein, women and children are at a much greater risk than men are to contracting the illness, as they are considered to be much more pure.

The Apache’s distinction of those who are more likely to return as ghosts also varies from Navajo beliefs. Those who were kindly in life are generally not feared, nor are the ghosts of children. However, like with the Navajo, if an individual had had a feud with the deceased, then they are more likely to contract ghost sickness. Strangely, this condition does not apply to enemies from outside the tribe; the Apache believe that: “when you kill someone in battle, he is totally eliminated. There is nothing left, not even his ghost”4.

Diagnosis and treatment of ghost sickness among the Apache differs in the method of treatment, though the symptoms tend to remain the same. An individual may be depressed after the death of a loved one, which in and of itself is not alarming, considering the circumstances. If the individual begins dreaming of death, however, then the sufferer will self-treat by fumigating himself/herself with a combination of sage and other herbs. Sage, which has purifying properties according to Apache beliefs, is one of the remedies primarily used with the removal of spiritual contamination, and is always burned after a death6. If the dreams are about a departed loved one, the individual will also burn that loved one’s property, and does not speak about them from then on. As, to speak of a deceased loved one would give them more power4.

If the symptoms of ghost sickness extend beyond simple dreams and melancholy, the consultation of a shaman is often required. Acute ghost sickness is characterized by a “twisting” of the mouth and eyes4, areas believed to be touched by the ghost itself. Other symptoms include anxiety, irregular heartbeat, faintness, and choking sensations7.

Despite the need for shamanic intervention to alleviate these conditions, the Apache are wary of these practitioners. Apache shamans deal frequently with the very same entities that cause ghost sickness. Many have been known to perform a kind of spiritual witchcraft to achieve their own ends by inflicting ghost sickness upon others for a fee, or simply because the individual had offended the shaman. Some even believe that many of the ghosts afflicting sickness upon the living are the ghosts of shamans past, as the religious practitioners are commonly known to have many of the previously mentioned “evil tendencies” 4.

There are several precautions that the Apache take to protect themselves from death and the dead, due to the culture’s apparent necrophobia. After an individual has died, the Apache have rather elaborate ceremonies to ensure that the spirit of the deceased passes on into the afterlife. For instance, the body is removed from the back of the tipi, rather than the front door. It is buried as quickly as possible, along with the deceased’s close personal effects. All other possessions are destroyed or distributed amongst next-of-kin to deter the spirit from attaching to an item. Close kinsman are fumigated with a mixture of cedar and sage, and rubbed with “medicine fat” to ward off spiritual contact4.

Children, while not dangerous as spirits, are particularly vulnerable to spiritual contact while still alive. Therefore, great precautions are taken to ensure that children do not come into contact with spirits. Like the Navajo, Apache children are quickly taught to ignore or look away from signs of spiritual activity. The footprints of infants learning how to walk are erased behind them, and babies were protected when left alone by placing a stick across the cradle over the infant’s chest4.


Despite the many unique cultural factors that Native American ghost sickness possesses, other cultures share this phenomenon. Although cultural practices and perceptions differ regarding death, the effects that death has on loved ones transcends culture. Cultures all around the world share similar traditions of mourning, regardless of whether they are Native American tribes or part of the hill tribes of East Asia, for instance4.

From a Western standpoint, the symptoms of ghost sickness would generally be diagnosed as aspects of an anxiety disorder or depression; they would be projections of the living, rather than the dead. It is important to remember that not all cultures share the Western ideals of health, disease, and death. Although some modern tribes seek out both traditional and modern medical treatment, the traditional responses cannot be forgotten. Ghost sickness is intrinsically tied into how Native American cultures (among others) traditionally handle death and mourning the dead. Failure to understand an individual’s cultural beliefs affects proper diagnosis in a clinical setting, and can cause problems beyond the symptoms the patient is suffering. 

© 2015 Alex P.

Author's Note

Alex P.
1 Editors. Psychosomatic disorder (pathology). In: Encyclopedia britannica [updated 2013, April 9; cited 2014, June 17]. Available from:
2 Hauck, A. (2013, January 20). Ghost sickness among Native Americans. Available from:
3 Putsch, R. W, III. (2006). Ghost illness: a cross-cultural experience with the expression of a non-Western tradition in clinical practice. In: Drumlummon views. 2006 – 2007: 126 – 145. Available from:
4 Gerrold, L. Traditional Navajo health beliefs and practices. In: Kunitz, S. J., editors. Disease change and the role of medicine: the Navajo experience. California: University of California; 1983. p. 119 – 145. Available from:
5 Opler, M.E., and Bittle, W.E. The death practices and eschatology of the Kiowa Apache in Southwestern journal of anthropology. University of New Mexico: JSTOR. 17 (4): 383-394. Available from:
6 Opler, M.E., Chris. Chris’ life story. In: Apache odyssey: a journey between two worlds p 248. University of Nebraska Press; 2002.
7 Greenberg, Y.K., Editors. Ancestors. In: Encyclopedia of love in world religions. Vol. 2, p. 52. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Inc.; 2008.

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Added on May 22, 2015
Last Updated on July 9, 2015


Alex P.
Alex P.

AB, Canada

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