Letter of Transmittal
WASHINGTON, D C, April 5, 1880
DEAR SIR: I have the honor to offer for your consideration the
following paper upon the Mortuary Customs of the North American
Indians, and trust it may meet with your approval as an introduction
to the study of a subject which, while it has been alluded to by most
authors, has received little or no systematic treatment. For this and
other reasons I was induced some three years since to commence an
examination and collection of data relative to the matter, and the
present paper is the outcome of that effort. From the vast amount of
material in the Bureau of Ethnology, even at the present time, a large
volume might be prepared, but it was thought wiser to endeavor to
obtain a still greater array of facts, especially from living
observers. If the desired end is attained I shall not count as lost
the labor which has been bestowed.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
H C. YARROW.
Maj. J. W. POWELL,
"In charge of Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution"
The primitive manners and
customs of the North American Indians are rapidly passing away under
influences of civilization and other disturbing elements. In view of
this fact, it becomes the duty of all interested in preserving a record
of these customs to labor assiduously, while there is still time, to
collect such data as may be obtainable. This seems the more important
now, as within the last ten years an almost universal interest has been
awakened in ethnologic research, and the desire for more knowledge in
this regard is constantly increasing. A wise and liberal government,
recognizing the need, has ably seconded the efforts of those engaged in
such studies by liberal grants from the public funds; nor is
encouragement wanted from the hundreds of scientific societies
throughout the civilized globe. The public press, too--the mouth-piece
of the people--is ever on the alert to scatter broadcast such items of
ethnologic information as its corps of well-trained reporters can
secure. To induce further laudable inquiry, and assist all those who may
be willing to engage in the good work, is the object of this preliminary
work on the mortuary customs of North American Indians, and it is hoped
that many more laborers may through it be added to the extensive and
honorable list of those who have already contributed.
It would appear that the subject chosen should awaken
great interest, since the peculiar methods followed by different nations
and the great importance attached to burial ceremonies have formed an
almost invariable part of all works relating to the different peoples of
our globe; in fact no particular portion of ethnologic research has
claimed more attention. In view of these facts, it might seem almost a
work of supererogation to continue a further examination of the subject,
for nearly every author in writing of our Indian tribes makes some
mention of burial observances; but these notices are scattered far and
wide on the sea of this special literature, and many of the accounts,
unless supported by corroborative evidence, may be considered as
entirely unreliable. To bring together and harmonize conflicting
statements, and arrange collectively what is known of the subject has
been the writer's task, and an enormous mass of information has been
acquired, the method of securing which has been as follows:
In the first instance a circular was prepared, which is
here given; this at the time was thought to embrace all items relating
to the disposal of the dead and attendant ceremonies, although since its
distribution other important questions have arisen which will be alluded
"WASHINGTON, D. C, June 15, 1877.
"SIR: Being engaged in preparing a memoir upon the
'Burial Customs of the Indians of North America, both ancient and
modern, and the disposal of their dead,' I beg leave to request your
kind co-operation to enable me to present as exhaustive an exposition of
the subject as possible, and to this end earnestly invite your attention
to the following points in regard to which information is desired:
"1st. Name of the tribe
"3d. Manner of burial, ancient and modern.
"4th. Funeral ceremonies.
"5th. Mourning observances, if any.
"With reference to the first of these inquiries, 'Name
of the tribe,' the Indian name is desired as well as the name by which
the tribe is known to the whites.
"As to 'Locality,' the response should give the range
of the tribe, and be full and geographically accurate.
"As to the 'Manner of burial,' &c, it is important to
have every particular bearing on this branch of the subject, and much
minuteness is desirable.
"(_a_) Was the body buried in the ground; if so, in what position, and
how was the grave prepared and finished?
"(_b_) If cremated, describe the process, and what disposal was made of
"(_c_) Were any utensils, implements, ornaments, &c., or food placed in
the grave? In short, every _fact_ is sought that may possibly add to a
general knowledge of the subject.
"Answers to the fourth and fifth queries should give as
full and succinct a description as possible of funereal and other
mortuary ceremonies at the time of death and subsequently, the period of
mourning, manner of its observance, &c.
"In obtaining materials for the purpose in question it
is particularly desirable that well-authenticated sources of information
only be drawn upon, and, therefore, any points gathered from current
rumor or mere hearsay, and upon which there is doubt, should be
submitted to searching scrutiny before being embraced in answers to the
several interrogatories, and nothing should be recorded as a "fact"
until fully established as such.
"In seeking information from Indians, it is well to
remember the great tendency to exaggeration they show, and since
absolute facts will alone serve our purpose, great caution is suggested
in this particular.
"It is earnestly desired to make the work in question
as complete as possible, and therefore it is especially hoped that your
response will cover the ground as pointed out by the several questions
as thoroughly as you may be able and willing to make it.
"In addition to notes, a reference to published papers
either by yourself or others is desirable, as well as the names of those
persons who may be able to furnish the needed information.
"Permit me to assure you that, while it is not offered
in the way of inducement to secure the service asked, since it is barely
possible that you can be otherwise than deeply interested in the
extension of the bounds of knowledge, full credit will be given you in
the work for whatever information you may be pleased to furnish.
"This material will be published under the auspices of Prof.
J.W. Powell, in charge of the U. S Geographical and Geological Survey of
the Rocky Mountain Region.
"Communications may be addressed to me either at the
address given above or at the Army Medical Museum, Washington, D. C.
"H. C. YARROW."
This was forwarded to every Indian agent, physicians at
agencies, to a great number of Army officers who had served or were
serving at frontier posts, and to individuals known to be interested in
ethnologic matters. A large number of interesting and valuable responses
were received, many of them showing how customs have changed either
under influences of civilization or altered circumstances of
Following this, a comprehensive list of books relating
to North American Indians was procured, and each volume subjected to
careful scrutiny, extracts being made from those that appeared in the
writer's judgment reliable. Out of a large number examined up to the
present time, several hundred have been laid under contribution, and the
labor of further collation still continues.
It is proper to add that all the material obtained will
eventually be embodied in a quarto volume, forming one of the series of
contributions to North American Ethnology prepared under the direction
of Maj. J. W. Powell, Director of the Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian
Institution, from whom, since the inception of the work, most constant
encouragement and advice has been received, and to whom all American
ethnologists owe a debt of gratitude which can never be repaid.
Having thus called attention to the work and the
methods pursued in collecting data, the classification of the subject
may be given and examples furnished of the burial ceremonies among
different tribes, calling especial attention to similar or almost
analogous customs among the peoples of the Old World.
For our present purpose the following provisional arrangement of burials
may be adopted:
1st. By INHUMATION in pits, graves, holes in the
ground, mounds; cists, and caves.
2d. By CREMATION, generally on the surface of the
earth, occasionally beneath, the resulting bones or ashes being placed
in pits, in the ground, in boxes placed on scaffolds or trees, in urns,
3d. By EMBALMENT or a process of mummifying, the
remains being afterwards placed in the earth, caves, mounds, or
4th. By AERIAL SEPULTURE, the bodies being deposited on
scaffolds or trees, in boxes or canoes, the two latter receptacles
supported on scaffolds or posts, or on the ground. Occasionally baskets
have been used to contain the remains of children, these being hung to
5th. By AQUATIC BURIAL, beneath the water, or in
canoes, which were turned adrift.
These heads might, perhaps, be further subdivided, but
the above seem sufficient for all practical needs.
The use of the term "burial" throughout this paper is
to be understood in its literal significance, the word being derived
from the Anglo-Saxon "birgan," to conceal or hide away.
In giving descriptions of different burials and
attendant ceremonies, it has been deemed expedient to introduce entire
accounts as furnished, in order to preserve continuity of narrative.
This site includes some historical
materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language
of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the
historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in
any way endorse the stereotypes implied.
Introduction to the Study of Mortuary Customs
Among the North American Indians
Native American Nations