Monday, June 3, 2013

Native American's Death and Superstition

Native American Superstitions

An entire volume might well be written which should embrace only an account of the superstitious regarding death and burial among the Indians, so thoroughly has the matter been examined and discussed by various authors, and yet so much still remains to be commented on, but in this work, which is mainly tentative, and is hoped will be provocative of future efforts, it is deemed sufficient to give only a few accounts. The first is by Dr. W. Mathews, United States Army, and relates to the Hidatsa:

When a Hidatsa dies, his shade lingers four nights around the camp or village in which he died, and then goes to the lodge of his departed kindred in the “village of the dead.” When he has arrived there he is rewarded for his valor, self-denial, and ambition on earth by receiving the same regard in the one place as in the other, for there as here the brave man is honored and the coward despised. Some say that the ghosts of those that commit suicide occupy a separate part of the village, but that their condition differs in no wise from that of the others. In the next world human shades hunt and live in the shades of buffalo and other animals that have here died. There, too there are four seasons, but they come in an inverse order to the terrestrial seasons. During the four nights that the ghost is supposed to linger near his former dwelling, those who disliked or feared the deceased, and do not wish a visit from the shade, scorch with red coals a pair of moccasins which they leave at the door of the lodge. The smell of the burning leather they claim keeps the ghost out; but the true friends of the dead man take no such precautions.

From this account it will be seen that the Hidatsa as well as the Algonquins and Mexicans believed that four days were required before the spirit could finally leave the earth. Why the smell of burning leather should be offensive to spirits it would perhaps be fruitless to speculate on.

The next account, by Keating,relating to the Chippewas, shows a slight analogy regarding the slippery-pole tradition already alluded to:

The Chippewas believe that there is in man an essence entirely distinct from the body; they call it Ochechag, and appear to supply to it the qualities which we refer to the soul. They believe that it quits the body it the time of death, and repairs to what they term Chekechekchekawe; this region is supposed to be situated to the south, and on the shores of the great ocean. Previous to arriving there they meet with a stream which they are obliged to cross upon a large snake that answers the purpose of a bridge; those who die from drowning never succeed in crossing the stream; they are thrown into it and remain there forever. Some souls come to the edge of the stream, but are prevented from passing by the snake, which threatens to devour them; these are the souls of the persons in a lethargy or trance. Being refused a passage these souls return to their bodies and reanimate them. They believe that animals have souls, and even that inorganic substances, such as kettles, &c., have in them a similar essence.


In this land of souls all are treated according to their merits. Those who have been good men are free from pain; they have no duties to perform, their time is spent in dancing and singing, and they feed upon mushrooms, which are very abundant. The souls of bad men are haunted by the phantom of the persons or things that they have injured; thus, if a man has destroyed much property the phantoms of the wrecks of this property obstruct his passage wherever he goes; if he has been cruel to his dogs or horses they also torment him after death. The ghosts of those whom during his lifetime he wronged are there permitted to avenge their injuries. They think that when a soul has crossed the stream it cannot return to its body, yet they believe in apparitions, and entertain the opinion that the spirits of the departed will frequently revisit the abodes of their friends in order to invite them to the other world, and to forewarn them of their approaching dissolution.

Stephen Powers, in his valuable work so often quoted, gives a number of examples of superstitions regarding the dead, of which the following relates to the Karok of California:

How well and truly the Karok reverence the memory of the dead is shown by the fact that the highest crime one can commit is the pet-chi-é-ri the mere mention of the dead relative’s name. It is a deadly insult to the survivors, and can be atoned for only by the same amount of blood-money paid for willful murder. In default of that they will have the villain’s blood. *** At the mention of his name the mouldering skeleton turns in his grave and groans. They do not like stragglers even to inspect the burial place.*** They believe that the soul of a good Karok goes to the “happy western land” beyond the great ocean. That they have a well-grounded assurance of an immortality beyond the grave is proven, if not otherwise, by their beautiful and poetical custom of whispering a message in the ear of the dead. *** Believe that dancing will liberate some relative’s soul from bonds of death, and restore him to earth.

According to the same author, when a Kelta dies a little bird flies away with his soul to the spirit land. If he was a bad Indian a hawk will catch the little bird and eat him up, soul and feathers, but if he was good he will reach the spirit land. Mr. Powers also states that—

The Tolowa share in the superstitious observance for the memory of the dead which is common to the Northern Californian tribes. When I asked the chief Tahhokolli to tell me the Indian words for “father” and “mother” and certain others similar, he shook his head mournfully and said, “All dead,” “All dead,” “No good.” They are forbidden to mention the name of the dead, as it is a deadly insult to the relatives, *** and that the Mat-tóal hold that the good depart to a happy region somewhere southward in the great ocean, but the soul of a bad Indian transmigrates into a grizzly bear, which they consider, of all animals, the cousin-german of sin.

The same author who has been so freely quoted states as follows regarding some of the superstitions and beliefs of the Modocs:

*** It has always been one of the most passionate desires among the Modok, as well as their neighbors, the Shastika, to live, die, and be buried where they were born. Some of their usages in regard to the dead and their burial may be gathered from an incident that occurred while the captives of 1873 were on their way from the Lava Beds to Fort Klamath, as it was described by an eye-witness. Curly-headed Jack, a prominent warrior, committed suicide with a pistol. His mother and female friends gathered about him and set up a dismal wailing; they besmeared themselves with his blood and endeavored by other Indian customs to restore his life. The mother took his head in her lap and scooped the blood from his ear, another old woman placed her hand upon his heart, and a third blew in his face. The sight of the group—these poor old women, whose grief was unfeigned, and the dying man—was terrible in its sadness. 201Outside the tent stood Bogus-Charley, Huka Jim, Shucknasty Jim, Steamboat Frank, Curly-headed Doctor, and others who had been the dying man’s companions from childhood, all affected to tears. When he was lowered into the grave, before the soldiers began to cover the body, Huka Jim was seen running eagerly about the camp trying to exchange a two-dollar bill of currency for silver. He owed the dead warrior that amount of money, and he had grave doubts whether the currency would be of any use to him in the other world—sad commentary on our national currency!—and desired to have the coin instead. Procuring it from one of the soldiers he cast it in and seemed greatly relieved. All the dead man’s other effects, consisting of clothing, trinkets, and a half dollar, were interred with him, together with some root-flour as victual for the journey to the spirit land.

The superstitious fear Indians have of the dead or spirit of the dead may be observed from the following narrative by Swan It regards the natives of Washington Territory:

My opinion about the cause of these deserted villages is this: It is the universal custom with these Indians never to live in a lodge where a person has died. If a person of importance dies, the lodge is usually burned down, or taken down and removed to some other part of the bay; and it can be readily seen that in the case of the Palux Indians, who had been attacked by the Chehalis people, as before stated, their relatives chose at once to leave for some other place. This objection to living in a lodge where a person has died is the reason why their sick slaves are invariably carried out into the woods, where they remain either to recover or die. There is, however, no disputing the fact that an immense mortality has occurred among these people, and they are now reduced to a mere handful.

The great superstitious dread these Indians have for a dead person, and their horror of touching a corpse, oftentimes give rise to a difficulty as to who shall perform the funeral ceremonies; for any person who handles a dead body must not eat of salmon or sturgeon for thirty days. Sometimes, in cases of small-pox, I have known them leave the corpse in the lodge, and all remove elsewhere; and in two instances that came to my knowledge, the whites had to burn the lodges, with the bodies in them, to prevent infection.

So, in the instances I have before mentioned, where we had buried Indians, not one of their friends or relatives could be seen. All kept in their lodges, singing and drumming to keep away the spirits of the dead.

According to Bancroft—

The Tlascaltecs supposed that the common people were after death transformed into beetles and disgusting objects, while the nobler became stars and beautiful birds.

The Mosquito Indians of Central America studiously and superstitiously avoid mentioning the name of the dead, in this regard resembling those of our own country.

Enough of illustrative examples have now been given, it is thought, to enable observers to thoroughly comprehend the scope of the proposed final volume on the mortuary customs of North American Indians, and while much more might have been added from the stored-up material on hand, it has not been deemed advisable at this time to yield to a desire for amplification. The reader will notice, as in the previous paper, that discussion has been avoided as foreign to the present purpose of the volume, which is intended, as has been already stated, simply to induce further investigation and contribution from careful and conscientious 202observers. From a perusal of the excerpts from books and correspondence given will be seen what facts are useful and needed; in short, most of them may serve as copies for preparation of similar material.

To assist observers, the queries published in the former volume are also given.

1st. Name of the tribe; present appellation; former, if differing any; and that used by the Indians themselves.

2d. Locality, present and former.—The response should give the range of the tribe and be full and geographically accurate.

3d. Deaths and funeral ceremonies; what are the important and characteristic facts connected with these subjects? How is the corpse prepared after death and disposed of? How long is it retained? Is it spoken to after death as if alive? when and where? What is the character of the addresses? What articles are deposited with it; and why? Is food put in the grave, or in or near it afterwards? Is this said to be an ancient custom? Are persons of the same gens buried together; and is the clan distinction obsolete, or did it ever prevail?

4th. Manner of burial, ancient and modern; structure and position of the graves; cremation.—Are burials usually made in high and dry grounds? Have mounds or tumuli been erected in modern times over the dead? How is the grave prepared and finished? What position are bodies placed in? Give reasons therefor if possible. If cremation is or was practiced, describe the process, disposal of the ashes, and origin of custom or traditions relating thereto. Are the dead ever eaten by the survivors? Are bodies deposited in springs or in any body of water? Are scaffolds or trees used as burial places; if so, describe construction of the former and how the corpse is prepared, and whether placed in skins or boxes. Are bodies placed in canoes? State whether they are suspended from trees, put on scaffolds or posts, allowed to float on the water or sunk beneath it, or buried in the ground. Can any reasons be given for the prevalence of any one or all of the methods? Are burial posts or slabs used, plain, or marked, with flags or other insignia of position of deceased. Describe embalmment, mummification, desiccation, or if antiseptic precautions are taken, and subsequent disposal of remains. Are bones collected and reinterred; describe ceremonies, if any, whether modern or ancient. If charnel houses exist or have been used, describe them.

5th. Mourning observances.—Is scarification practiced, or personal mutilation? What is the garb or sign of mourning? How are the dead lamented? Are periodical visits made to the grave? Do widows carry symbols of their deceased children or husbands, and for how long? Are sacrifices, human or otherwise, voluntary or involuntary, offered? Are fires kindled on graves; why, and at what time, and for how long?

6th. Burial traditions and superstitions.—Give in full all that 203can be learned on these subjects, as they are full of interest and very important.

In short, every fact bearing on the disposal of the dead; and correlative customs are needed, and details should be as succinct and full as possible.

One of the most important matters upon which information is needed is the “why” and “wherefore” for every rite and custom; for, as a rule, observers are content to simply state a certain occurrence as a fact, but take very little trouble to inquire the reason for it.

Any material the result of careful observation will be most gratefully received and acknowledged in the final volume; but the writer must here confess the lasting obligation he is under to those who have already contributed, a number so large that limited space precludes a mention of their individual names.

Criticism and comments are earnestly invited from all those interested in the special subject of this paper and anthropology in general. Contributions are also requested from persons acquainted with curious forms of burial prevailing among other tribes of savage men.

The lithographs which illustrate this paper have been made by Thos. Sinclair & Son, of Philadelphia, Pa., after original drawings made by Mr. W. H. Holmes, who has with great kindness superintended their preparation.