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Aquatic Burial

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Aquatic Burial

     As a confirmed rite or ceremony, this mode of disposing of the dead has never been followed by any of our North American Indians, although occasionally the dead have been disposed of by sinking in springs or watercourses, by throwing into the sea, or by setting afloat in canoes. Among the nations of antiquity the practice was not uncommon, for we are informed that the Ichtliyophagi, or fish-eaters, mentioned by Ptolemy, living in a region bordering on the Persian Gulf, invariably committed their dead to the sea, thus repaying the obligations they had incurred to its inhabitants. The Lotophagians did the same, and the Hyperboreans, with a commendable degree of forethought for the survivors, when ill or about to die, threw themselves into the sea. The burial of Baldor "the beautiful," it may be remembered, was in a highly decorated ship, which was pushed down to the sea, set on fire, and committed to the waves. The Itzas of Guatemala, living on the islands of Lake Peter, according to Bancroft, are said to have thrown their dead into the lake for want of room. The Indiana of Nootka Sound and the Chinooks were in the habit of thus getting rid of their dead slaves, and, according to Timberlake, the Cherokees of Tennessee "seldom bury the dead, but threw them into the river."

     After a careful search for well-authenticated instances of burial, aquatic and semi-aquatic, but two have been found, which are here given. The first relates to the Gosh-Utes, and is by Capt J. H. Simpson: [Footnote: Exploration Great Salt Lake Valley, Utah, 1859, p. 48.]

     "Skull Valley, which is a part of the Great Salt Lake Desert, and which we have crossed to-day, Mr. George W. Bean, my guide over this route last fall, says derives its name from the number of skulls which have been found in it, and which have arisen from the custom of the Goshute Indians burying their dead in springs, which they sink with stones or keep down with sticks. He says he has actually seen the Indians bury their dead in this way near the town of Provo, where he resides."

     As corroboration of this statement, Captain Simpson mentions in another part of the volume that, arriving at a spring one evening, they were obliged to dig out the skeleton of an Indian from the mud at the bottom before using the water.

     This peculiar mode of burial is entirely unique, so far as known, and but from the well-known probity of the relator might well be questioned, especially when it is remembered that in the country spoken of water is quite scarce and Indians are careful not to pollute the streams or springs near which they live. Conjecture seems useless to establish a reason for this disposition of the dead.

     The second example is by Catlin [Footnote: Hist. North American Indians, 1844, II, p. 141] and relates to the Chinook.

     "This little cradle has a strap which passes over the woman's forehead whilst the cradle rides on her back, and if the child dies during its subjection to this rigid mode its cradle becomes its coffin, forming a little canoe, in which it lie floating on the water in some sacred pool, where they are often in the habit of fastening their canoes containing the dead bodies of the old and young, or, which is often the case, elevated into the branches of trees, where their bodies are left to decay and their bones to dry whilst they are bandaged in man skins and ominously packed in their canoes, with paddles to propel and ladles to bail them out, and provisions to last and pipes to smoke as they are performing their 'long journey after death to their contemplated hunting grounds,' which these people think is to be performed in their canoes."

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Introduction to the Study of Mortuary Customs Among the North American Indians

Native American Nations


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