Mushkoob Aubid’s wife, Winnie LaPrairie (left), and his sister, Lala Shingode, are seen through a veil of smoke from a fire lit at dusk at UMD on Sunday. LaPrairie waited to claim her husband’s body in order to carry out traditional funeral services. Aubid, a spiritual leader for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, died after an automobile accident, and band members are protesting an autopsy planned for Tuesday, saying it would violate their spiritual beliefs. (Clint Austin / email@example.com)
More than a dozen members of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe gathered Sunday on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus, demanding the release of the body of a spiritual leader who died a day earlier and was scheduled to undergo an autopsy.
Mushkoob Aubid, 65, was involved in a serious car accident Friday and died Saturday at Cloquet Memorial Hospital. His body was taken to the medical school at UMD, where an autopsy is set for Tuesday.
His family pleaded Sunday with authorities to allow them to take the body back home to Aitkin County, saying an autopsy would violate their spiritual beliefs.
“We just want to prepare his body for his journey to the next world,” his widow, Winnie LaPrairie, said. “This is the way it’s been done for thousands of years.”
The family’s spiritual beliefs require that a body remain intact and that the mouth be sewed shut. The body also must be washed and properly dressed, they said.
In addition, family members also were seeking to have a ventilator removed from Aubid’s body, saying that rigor mortis likely would make it impossible to sew the mouth shut.
Aubid, a drumkeeper for the Mille Lacs Band and the brother of an elected tribal officer, was driving on Minnesota Highway 210 near Cromwell on Friday night when his car left the roadway and struck a utility pole, according to the Minnesota State Patrol. He died the next night at the Cloquet hospital.
Family members said he had a heart condition, and they suspect that was the cause of the crash. Despite their objections, they said they were told that an autopsy would have to be performed because Aubid did not die as a result of the crash itself.
Aubid’s death occurred in Carlton County, which contracts with the St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office, operating at the medical school at UMD.
Dr. Thomas Uncini, the St. Louis County medical examiner, could not be reached for comment Sunday.
St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin, who provides legal representation for the office, said he was aware of the situation and was looking into it. He said he planned to speak with Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler today.
“If I can help in the whole situation, I’ll do what I can,” Rubin said.
Band administrators and attorneys said they believe a forced autopsy would violate the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. They said they would speak with Rubin and possibly file for an injunction today seeking to block an autopsy.
“We’re trying to do this peacefully and according to the law,” said Dan LaPrairie, Aubid’s son. “But our beliefs supercede those laws. Our father gave us explicit instructions for what to do when he passed, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Family members said they initially were told that an autopsy would be performed at 3 p.m. Sunday, but the medical examiner’s office later postponed it until Tuesday.
The family, most of whom live in the McGregor area, followed the body as it was transported Sunday from Cloquet to UMD, where they said they were not allowed access.
Family members and band representatives were on campus all day Sunday. At about 5:30 p.m., they lit a fire outside the medical school, and several family members began to sing traditional songs.
Their cultural teachings dictate that the fire should have started much earlier, family members said said. Traditionally, a fire is lit the first four nights after the death, with tobacco and food offered as the spirit revisits everywhere it had been on Earth.
Tradition also requires that the men clean and dress the body, which is to be buried on the fifth day.
“The sooner they release the body and let my sons go and do what needs to be done, the happier I’ll be,” Winnie LaPrairie said, vowing to stay all night.
Family members said they faced similar circumstances about 25 years ago, when Mushkoob Aubid’s father, George Aubid, passed away in Aitkin County. The family said Mushkoob took the body from the hospital and faced the threat of prosecution, sparking national news coverage.
A quarter-century later, they say they’re disappointed that they’re dealing with a similar set of circumstances.
“We respect other people’s ways,” an emotional Winnie LaPrairie said. “Why can’t they respect ours?”
Iyawbance LaPrairie, the son of Mushkoob Aubid, holds sage, tobacco ties, and a traditional pipe with tobacco during a gathering at the University of Minnesota Duluth on Sunday. (Clint Austin / firstname.lastname@example.org)