Long Hollow, S.D. – Braving bitter cold and gusting winds, nearly a dozen people said prayers in their native Dakota language as they watched a bonfire blaze through a deceased man's clothing, sending a thin trail of smoke drifting over the snow-covered hills on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

The traditional burning of garments represented a final rite of passage for the spirit of Francis Jay Country Jr., a 66-year-old tribal elder and musician whose life was cut short this month by the coronavirus. The bonfire also culminated two days of elaborate ceremonies in which a tribal chief, dressed in an eagle feather headdress, led family members in songs, drumming and prayers facing the four directions.

For Mary White-Country, now a widow, the rituals brought much-needed comfort that her husband's spirit was no longer suffering and had begun its journey. "Today, I have cried all my tears," she said after the ceremony. "There is closure because my husband was sent off in a respectful manner, in a way that honored his traditions."

But the burial customs and ceremonies that many Indigenous communities have cherished for generations are under pressure from an unforeseen enemy — COVID-19.

The coronavirus is killing American Indians at staggeringly high rates, inflicting incalculable trauma and exposing historic gaps in the predominantly white-owned funeral services industry. Only a handful of morticians in the region have specialized training in the diverse Indigenous customs that follow a tribal member's death and know how to navigate the complex process for arranging burials on reservations. Overwhelmed by an upsurge of bodies, these funeral directors are being forced to turn away many Native families, depriving them of a traditional ceremony and emotional closure.

Nationwide, American Indians are perishing from COVID-19 at nearly twice the rate of white people, but the disparities are even greater across the Upper Midwest. Over 10 months of the pandemic, Native Americans in Minnesota have died at four times the rate of white Minnesotans, and they are being hospitalized at nearly 3.5 times the rate of whites after adjusting for age, according to state Department of Health data.

Few have borne closer witness to this deadly toll in Indian Country than Robert Gill of Buffalo, Minn., a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe and among the only Native American morticians in the country.

A gentle hero to many tribal members, Gill has made it his life's mission to restore Native burial customs and to "decolonize," as he calls it, the process of honoring and burying those who die on Indian reservations. Since the arrival of the coronavirus, death has become an all-encompassing specter of Gill's daily life, consuming his days and even his nights. He travels hundreds of miles each week to remote tribal communities as far west as the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana and as far north as the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation near the Canadian border.

Before the pandemic, Gill was being asked to arrange three to four burial ceremonies a month for Native families. Now the 50-year-old mortician is receiving that many funeral requests every week.

Even with a punishing work schedule, he sometimes struggles with guilt over his inability to meet the surging demand for traditional burial services. He knows that many tribal families are being left with no choice but to turn to white-owned funeral homes with morticians who do not understand their language and customs. Without ceremonies rooted in their culture, Gill argues, tribal members are disconnected from their history and unable to mourn properly.

"Where is our humanity?" Gill asked, as he prepared to load a casket into his waiting hearse. "An expression of a life that was lived brings closure for a family. And if they can't have that, then it's not dignified."

A dark legacy

The dearth of funeral options, some tribal leaders argue, is a legacy of America's dark history of racial subjugation of American Indians and their religious practices. Until 1978, when Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, spiritual ceremonies like the sweat lodge and drum dances were still technically illegal. The prohibitions enabled Christian churches to establish deep footholds on reservations and further restrict Indigenous customs — including their ceremonies for honoring the deceased.

"As a kid, they called us 'devil worshipers,' and we were taught to be ashamed of our own culture and traditions," said Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe and elder of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. "Even our funeral ceremonies were outlawed."

For Gill, the doors to becoming a professional seemed all but sealed as a child growing up along the wooded shores of Buffalo Lake on the Lake Traverse reservation. Gill suspects that, were it not for his unrelenting mother, he never would have graduated from the reservation's public high school in Sisseton, S.D., which still calls its sports teams "the Redmen."

When he was in second grade, Gill's mother became alarmed when her son kept coming home from school with headaches. Gill, then just 9, told her that white teachers were beating him with rulers and regularly pulling on his ears and hair. His mother, Patricia Gill-Eagle, then learned of another boy who was beaten so badly with a broomstick that welts formed on his back. Fed up, Gill's mother and 10 other parents removed their children from the local elementary school in Sisseton and opened their own tribal school.

"The public school made my son feel little, like he couldn't make it in the world," said Gill-Eagle, a retired nurse who is still active in the tribal school system. "He didn't learn to be a proud Native until we pulled him out."

After attending a nursing program, Gill spent nine years working as an ambulance driver and emergency medical technician (EMT) on the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations in the Dakotas, where he says the poor treatment of deceased Natives became impossible to ignore. It sometimes took hours for a mortician to arrive and remove a body after someone died; and the bodies could be decomposed beyond recognition, he said. The non-Native morticians who arrived at the death scenes would sometimes talk or joke about a recently deceased person as if grieving relatives were "invisible or not in the room," Gill recalled.

"I witnessed a deep lack of respect," Gill said. "It opened my eyes and made me realize that we have customs and traditions that allow us to care for the deceased, but we weren't being allowed to practice them."

Determined to bring more dignity to the burial process, he enrolled in the Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Chicago, where he graduated in 2012. He is believed to be the only licensed mortician of Dakota heritage in the country.

Long-distance house calls

Today Gill is virtually alone in the funeral business for his willingness to make long-distance house visits — sometimes driving entire days, through sleet and snow, to meet with tribal families in their homes. Each visit carries the risk that he will contract the virus still raging through Indian Country. Gill is the only one of five morticians who work at Chilson Funeral Chapel in central Minnesota who has not been sickened by COVID-19.

"You've got to have nerves of steel to do this work in a pandemic," Gill said.

Beyond the ceremonies, he spends long hours in the embalming room preparing bodies for public viewing. Too often, Gill said, he heard tribal members complain of how their loved ones "looked like clowns" after non-Native morticians failed to recognize their darker skin hues and used bright-colored makeup (purples and reds) meant for white skin, he said. Gill carries a cosmetics kit on the road and often touches up a body before a ceremony.

"Sometimes I ask myself, 'Why do my people not have their own funeral homes?" he said. "We buried our own for hundreds of years."

On a frigid day in mid-January, Gill traveled 200 miles through an unforgiving blizzard to a hamlet on the far reaches of the Lake Traverse Reservation to meet with relatives of Ronald Allen Goodsell, a 69-year-old former construction worker who died just days earlier from COVID-19. The evening light was still pouring through the windows of the family's kitchen when Gill and his broad, 6-foot-3-inch frame appeared in the doorway with a suitcase full of documents.

He was greeted by three generations of Goodsell family members — including siblings, cousins and grandchildren — who came and went through the crowded kitchen as Gill talked them through the traditional burial process. The family had decided to give Goodsell an Indian name, "Tatanka Ob Mani" (Walks with Buffalo), which involved a separate naming ceremony. Then came a long discussion over the limited choice of caskets. Goodsell's widow wanted a coffin decorated in the Native colors of the four directions (black, red, yellow and white). But such a casket, the family learned, simply did not exist.

The family would have to settle on a generic brown coffin that lacked any exterior symbols of the deceased's Dakota heritage.

"It's unfortunate, but there are no Native funeral casket-making companies anywhere in this country," Gill calmly explained to the Goodsells.

"We're always having to deal with these 'wasichu' (whites) for everything and they just don't understand us," responded Nola Ragan, the widow's sister.

Before departing, the family handed Gill a small collection of Goodsell's clothes — including a traditional, white-ribbon shirt made by the deceased's grandson — to dress his body when he returned to Minnesota.

Gill politely thanked the family and stepped out into the clear, star-filled night on the reservation.

On the long return trip to Minnesota, he could smell the faint scent of the man's clothes next to him on the passenger seat, and he rehearsed what he would say at his ceremony.

Finally arriving home past 10 p.m., Gill had a late supper with his wife, Bonita, and then laid out a suit for the next day's journey back to the reservation.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres