Native American Nations
                   Your Source for Indian Research
                   Rolls ~ History ~ Treaties ~ Census ~ Books


 Native American Nations | Burial Customs                     



     These are placed at the head or foot of the grave, or both, and have painted or carved on them a history of the deceased or his family, certain totemic characters, or, according to Schoolcraft, not the achievements of the dead, but of those warriors who assisted and danced at the interment. The northwest tribes and others frequently plant poles near the graves, suspending there from bits of rag flags, horses tails, etc. The custom among the present Indians does not exist to any extent. Beltrami [Footnote: Pilgrimage, 1828, ii, p. 308.] speaks of it as follows.
     "Here I saw a most singular union. One of these graves was surmounted by a cross, whilst upon another close to it a trunk of a tree was raised, covered with hieroglyphics recording the number of enemies slain by the tenant of the tomb and several of his tutelary Manitous."


     It is extremely difficult to determine why the custom of building fires on or near graves originated, some authors stating that the soul thereby underwent a certain process of purification, others that demons were driven away by them, and again that they were to afford light to the wandering soul setting out for the spirit land. One writer states that "the Algonkins believed that the fire lighted nightly on the grave was to light the spirit on its journey. By a coincidence to be explained by the universal sacredness of the number, both Algonkins and Mexicans maintained it for four nights consecutively. The former related the tradition that one of their ancestors returned from the spirit land and informed their nation that the journey thither consumed just four days, and that collecting fuel every night added much to the toil and fatigue the soul encountered, all of which could be spared it". So it would appear that the belief existed that the fire was also intended to assist the spirit in preparing its repast. "Stephen Powers [Footnote: Cont. to N. A. Ethnol., 1877, ii, p.58] gives a tradition current among the Yurok of California as to the use of fires.
     "After death they keep a fire burning certain nights in the vicinity of the grave. They hold and believe, at least the 'Big Indians' do, that the spirits of the departed are compelled to cross an extremely attenuated greasy pole, which bridges over the chasm of the debatable land, and that they require the fire to light them on their darksome journey. A righteous soul traverses the pole quicker than a wicked one, hence they regulate the number of nights for burning a light according to the character for goodness or the opposite which the deceased possessed in this world." Dr. Emil Bessels, of the Polaris expedition, informs the writer that a somewhat similar belief obtains among the Esquimaux.


     An entire volume might well be written which should embrace only an account of the superstitions 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 simply preliminary, 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, U. S. A., [Footnote: Ethnol. and Philol. of the Hidatsa Indians. U.S. Geol. Surv. of Terr., 1877, p. 409] 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
Algonkins and Mexicans believed that four days were required before the spirit could finally leave the earth. Why the smell of burning leather should he offensive to spirits it would perhaps be fruitless to speculate on.
     The next account, by Keating, [Footnote: Long's Exped., 1824, ii, p. l58.] relating to the Chippewas, shows a slight analogy regarding the slippery-pole tradition already alluded to:
     "The Chippewa 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 at 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 that 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 etc., 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-e-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 moldering 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-toal 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 Mosquito Indians of Central America studiously and superstitiously avoid mentioning the name of the dead, in this regard resembling those of our own country.

Previous | Index | Next

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


Copyright 2000-2019 by and/or their author(s). The webpages may be linked to but shall not be reproduced on another site without written permission from NaNations or their author. Images may not be linked to in any manner or method. Anyone may use the information provided here freely for personal use only. If you plan on publishing your personal information to the web please give proper credit to our site for providing this information. Thanks!!!