MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says American Indians and Alaska Natives are dying from COVID-19 at a rate nearly two-and-a-half-times higher than white Americans.

It’s an alarming statistic. One that’s bringing attention to the effort by one Minnesota man to keep Native traditions alive.

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Indian Mounds Park in St. Paul is a place for picturesque viewing, but it’s what you can’t see that’s most special. Rob Gill’s Dakota ancestors were some of the many whose remains were buried at the park. There were 36 mounds, but only six remain today due to city development in the late 19th century.

Rob Gill (credit: CBS)

“We have Aboriginal rights from Creator to be here on earth,” Gill said. “This was our beginning spot.”

As burial grounds were overtaken, so were the Native traditions surrounding death. The nature-based approach is all but lost, if not for Gill. He says he is the only person who does what he does in the way of traditional Indigenous mortician care.

“This is very, very, very important. We’re the only nationality on our own home lands that don’t have funeral homes to even go discuss death,” he said.

The Buffalo-based mortician travels the country performing traditional Native ceremonies, and with COVID-19 hitting the Native community extra hard, he’s been extra busy.

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“That isn’t the first disease that we had within our communities,” he said. “We had the smallpox. We still remember those things, too.”

(credit: Rob Gill)

No matter what ends a life, he’s making sure traditions live on. For one recent service, the casket was elevated in the air and a buffalo skull was placed underneath. In another service, the casket was covered in a buffalo robe.

“Customs, traditions, heritage. To be stripped of that, and then to have that be available to you, it kind of, it helps you bring closure, as a Native, a person,” he said.

And Rob Gill is a person making sure his people properly end their lives with honor and tradition.

“Just like they say in the good book, we too believe the very soil, it’s the flesh and blood of us,” he said.

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Gill says he has more requests than he can accept right now. His biggest hope now is that more people of Indigenous heritage choose a career in mortuary care.

Susan-Elizabeth Littlefield