Journey of the spirit

Claudia Windal, owner of the Indian Burial Assistance Project, is often seen about town with her colorful macaw, Apollo. Photo by Janet Hostetter.

Claudia Windal, owner of the Indian Burial Assistance Project, is often seen about town with her colorful macaw, Apollo. Photo by Janet Hostetter.

To the staff and patrons of Betsy’s Back Porch Coffee, where she often relaxes with her gorgeously plumed macaw, Apollo, she is known simply as Claudia. To her Lakota sisters and brothers, however, she is called Wanbli Hto Win, or Grey Eagle Woman. In her Episcopal community, she is Reverend Windal. Once a practicing RN, she’s now Dr. Windal, though with a doctorate, not an MD. And early this fall, she’ll be able to add “licensed funeral director” to her list of titles.

None of Claudia Windal’s roles, however, unites her abilities and experiences more thoroughly than does her position as founder, CEO and director of the Minneapolis-based Indian Burial Assistance Project. The project’s mission is twofold. First, it aims to help Native American people—locally and nationally—defray the costs of funeral services and burials. Second, it encourages and facilitates not only the accommodation but the celebration of the diverse wake and burial practices unique to Native American cultures, practices with which many professionals in the funeral industry are unfamiliar and have difficulty supporting.

When she was a child, Windal said, “I wanted to be an astronaut. I used to draw spaceships.” For many years of her adult life, she was ignorant of her Native American ancestry. Only after working at Minneapolis’ Indian Health Board did she uncover the fact that her father was of Delaware heritage. Now, however, she can’t imagine not being part of what she calls “a visionary process”: assisting a community often overlooked and underserved.

Flight of imagination

For most of her life, Windal has served others. She believes the foundation of this life was probably her 10 years as a Roman Catholic nun. After entering a Franciscan order at 17, Windal attended nursing school while living as part of the religious community. She pursued her undergraduate degree in the early 1970s.

“I became a mover and shaker while in college, when I was also working as an ER nurse. I lived with two professor-nuns who were activists themselves,” she said. After witnessing the mistreatment of a patient by two ambulance drivers, Windal decided to contact the governor and initiate legislation that would regulate who could run ambulance services. “We had meetings in our house,” she said, “and we got legislation passed. The nuns urged me to be all that I could be. They’d tell me ‘You are limited only by your lack of imagination: let it fly.’”

Her imagination, however, took her places that her sisters couldn’t have expected. When she met a woman who introduced her to the Episcopal Church, which was on the verge of ordaining woman as deacons, Windal thought, “It can’t be too long before they ordain women priests.”

The thought moved her to action. She returned to her hometown of Chicago. In 1977 she left the convent. In 1978 she entered the Episcopal seminary in Evanston, Ill., and was subsequently ordained in Chicago.

Coming into the circle

In the early ’80s Windal focused on HIV/AIDS work. She volunteered at a summer camp for children with hemophilia and lent support to gay men with the disease.

“Being gay,” she said, “I was really worried about my gay brothers who were getting sick. At that time, many gay men had not come out to their families and now they had to say, ‘Mom and Dad, I’m gay and by the way I have AIDS.’ I started spending a lot of time with these guys…”

Windal came to Minnesota to work at a church in Alexandria, but it wasn’t long before small-town culture, with its denial that AIDS or gay people even existed, drove her into the Twin Cities.

“I bought a house at 42nd and Blaisdell; it had two bedrooms and I only needed one,” she recounted. “I called the Minnesota AIDS Project and asked it they had a need for housing. They did. Over the course of five years I had five or six men who lived with me for varying lengths of time.”

During this period, Windal joined the Indian Health Board’s staff, first as an HIV/AIDS caseworker and then as director, and began to forge ties with the Native community.

The burial business

The Indian Burial Assistance Project began in 2000, when Windal learned of a woman from the Red Lake Reservation whose family member had died in Chicago. The woman was faced with a $3,000 bill to have the body returned to Red Lake, and she simply didn’t have the money. Windal rented a van herself and took the woman to Chicago to retrieve her relative. They made the trip for $400 and were able to prepare the van, smudging it with dried sage, for its trip home.

On the road they discussed how Native families, especially widows with children, struggle to pay off funeral expenses when they can’t meet their day-to-day expenses and how poor Native Americans have to use cheaply made, unattractive coffins provided by the county in which to bury their dead. “The woman said to me ‘Now Claudia, you need to do this for our people,’” Windal remembered. “And I said, ‘All right.’ After all, she was an elder; we listen to our elders. I thought, ‘What is lacking?’ and it occurred to me: dignity, affordability and cultural appropriateness.”

The project took shape quickly. Windal located sources for plain but beautifully made coffins, grave markers and other funerary items with Native American motifs.

People who contact Windal usually need some kind of service. When a family member dies, “many people are not even able to give $100 to a funeral director as down payment. And so we’ll send that first hundred dollars. I’ve had calls from social workers on behalf of a family—a lot from the Portland/Seattle area. Someone will have died there who was from White Earth and the question is how to get him home. I’ll make the phone calls to find the best price and to make arrangements.”

Early on in the project’s development, a colleague suggested Windal become a licensed funeral director. Windal was at first reluctant, but reminded herself that it would serve the greater good. Soon after, she enrolled in the mortuary science program at the University of Minnesota. She graduated in 2003. She is completing her internship now and will be a fully licensed mortician in early November.

In addition to presiding over wakes and funerals, Windal helps funeral professionals understand the ritual needs of Native Americans. Native tradition, for example, may require a hole be drilled at the head of the casket, so that the person’s spirit can come and go easily during the first year, and that a red stake be placed at the person’s grave, so that the spirit, as Windal says, “will know where it is coming from and going to.”

She’s on target to assist more than 160 families and individuals this year. The project’s current needs are office space and money. It is not short, however, on vision. Windal seeks to offer services not only to Native Americans, but to the homeless, and to establish a consortium among groups and funeral professionals interested in serving communities with special needs.

Though she’s not an astronaut, Windal still thinks the sky’s the limit.