Tree and Scaffold Burial

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

Letter of Transmittal


Tree and Scaffold Burial

     We may now pass to what may be called aerial sepulture proper, the most common examples of which are tree and scaffold burial, quite extensively practiced even at the present time. From what can be learned, the choice of this mode depends greatly on the facilities present; where timber abounds, trees being used; if absent, scaffolds being employed, the construction of which among the Yanktonais is related as follows: [Footnote: Life of Belden, the White Chief, 1871, p. 87.]
     "These scaffolds are 7 to 8 feet high, 10 feet long, and 4 or 5 wide. Four stout posts, with forked ends, are first set firmly in the ground, and then in the forks are laid cross and side poles, on which is made a flooring of small poles. The body is then carefully wrapped, so as to make it watertight, and laid to rest on the poles. The reason why Indians bury in the open air instead of under the ground is for the purpose of protecting their dead from wild animals. In new countries, where wolves and bears are numerous, a dead body will be dug up and devoured, though it be put many feet under the ground. I noticed many little buckets and baskets hanging on the scaffolds.... These had contained food and drink for the dead. I asked Washtella if she was sure the soul ate and drank on its journey, and if the food did not remain untouched in its basket. She replied, 'Oh, no, the food and water is always gone.' I looked at the hundreds of ravens perched on the scaffolds and could account for what became of most of the food and water."
     John Young, Indian agent at the Blackfeet Agency, Montana, sends the following account of tree-burial among this tribe:
     "Their manner of burial has always been (until recently) to inclose the dead body in robes or blankets, the best owned by the departed, closely sewed up, and then, if a male or chief, fasten in the branches of a tree so high as to be beyond the reach of wolves, and then left to slowly waste in the dry winds. If the body was that of a squaw or child, it was thrown into the underbrush or jungle, where it soon became the prey of the wild animals. The weapons, pipes, &c., of men were inclosed, and the small toys of children with them. The ceremonies were equally barbarous, the relatives cutting off, according to the depth of their grief, one or more joints of the fingers, divesting themselves of clothing even in the coldest weather, and filling the air with their lamentations. All the sewing up and burial process was conducted by the squaws, as the men would not touch nor remain in proximity to a dead body.
     "When an Indian of any importance is departing, the squaws assemble in the lodge or teepee and sing the death-song, recounting the prowess and virtues of the dying one, and the oldest man at hand goes into the open air and solemnly addresses the 'Great Spirit,' bespeaking a welcome for him into the happy hunting grounds. Whatever property the deceased has--lodge, arms, or ponies--if a will was made, it was carefully carried out; if not, all was scrambled for by the relatives. I have often had, when a man wanted to go out of mourning, to supply the necessary clothing to cover his nakedness.
     "Further mourning observances were and are, the women relatives getting on some elevated spot near where the body rests, and keeping up a dismal wail, frequently even in extreme cold weather, the greater part of the night, and this is kept up often for a month. No cremation or burying in a grave was practiced by them at any time. Pained by often coming on skeletons in trees and the stench of half-consumed remains in the brush, and shocked by the frequent mutilations visible, I have reasoned with the poor savages. In one case, when a woman was about to cut off a finger in evidence of her grief for the loss of a child, she consented on entreaty to cut off only one joint, and on further entreaty was brought to merely making a cut and letting out some blood. This much she could not be prevailed upon to forego.... Their mourning and wailing, avoiding the defilement of touching a dead body, and other customs not connected with burial observances, strongly point to Jewish origin."
     Keating [Footnote: Long's Exped. to the St. Peter's River, 1834, p. 392.] thus describes burial scaffolds:
     "On these scaffolds, which are from 8 to 10 feet high, corpses were deposited in a box made from part of a broken canoe. Some hair was suspended, which we at first mistook for a scalp, but our guide informed us that these were locks of hair torn from their heads by the relatives to testify their grief. In the centre, between the four posts which supported the scaffold, a stake was planted in the ground; it was about six feet high, and bore an imitation of human figures, five of which had a design of a petticoat, indicating them to be females; the rest, amounting to seven, were naked, and were intended for male figures; of the latter four were headless, showing that they had been slain; the three other male figures were unmutilated, but held a staff in their hand, which, as our guide informed us, designated that they were slaves. The post, which is an usual accompaniment to the scaffold that supports a warrior's remains, does not represent the achievements of the deceased; but those of the warriors that assembled near his remains danced the dance of the post, and related their martial exploits. A number of small bones of animals were observed in the vicinity, which were probably left there after a feast celebrated in honor of the dead.
     "The boxes in which the corpses were placed are so short that a man could not lie in them extended at full length, but in a country where boxes and boards are scarce this is overlooked. After the corpses have remained a certain time exposed, they are taken down and buried. Our guide, Renville, related to us that he had been a witness to an interesting, though painful, circumstance that occurred here. An Indian who resided on the Mississippi, hearing that his son had died at this spot, came up in a canoe to take charge of the remains and convey them down the river to his place of abode, but on his arrival he found that the corpse had already made such progress toward decomposition as rendered it impossible for it to be removed. He then undertook, with a few friends, to clean off the bones. All the flesh was scraped off and thrown into the stream, the bones were carefully collected into his canoe, and subsequently carried down to his residence."
     Interesting and valuable from the extreme attention paid to details is the following account of a burial case discovered by Dr. George M. Sternberg, U. S. A., and furnished by Dr. George A. Otis, U. S. A., Army Medical Museum, Washington, D.C. It relates to the Cheyenne of Kansas:
     "The case was found, Brevet Major Sternberg states, on the banks of Walnut Creek, Kansas, elevated about eight feet from the ground by four notched poles, which were firmly planted in the ground. The unusual care manifested in the preparation of the case induced Dr. Sternberg to infer that some important chief was inclosed in it. Believing that articles of interest were inclosed with the body, and that their value would be enhanced if they were received at the Museum as left by the Indians, Dr. Sternberg determined to send the case unopened.
     "I had the case opened this morning and an inventory made of the contents. The case consisted of a cradle of interlaced branches of white willow, about 6 feet long, 3 feet broad, and 3 feet high, with a flooring of buffalo thongs arranged as a net-work. This cradle was securely fastened by strips of buffalo-hide to four poles of ironwood and cottonwood, about 12 feet in length. These poles doubtless rested upon the forked extremities of the vertical poles described by Dr. Sternberg. The cradle was wrapped in two buffalo-robes of large size and well preserved. On removing these an aperture 18 inches square was found at the middle of the right side of the cradle or basket. Within appeared other buffalo-robes folded about the remains, and secured by gaudy-colored sashes. Five robes were successively removed, making seven in all. Then we came to a series of new blankets folded about the remains. There were five in all--two scarlet, two blue, and one white. These being removed, the next wrappings consisted of a striped white and gray sack, and of a United States Infantry overcoat, like the other coverings nearly new. We had now come apparently upon the immediate envelopes of the remains, which it was now evident must be those of a child. These consisted of three robes, with hoods very richly ornamented with bead-work. These robes or cloaks were of buffalo-calf skin about four feet in length, elaborately decorated with bead-work in stripes. The outer was covered with rows of blue and white bead-work, the second was green and yellow, and the third blue and red. All were further adorned by spherical brass bells attached all about the borders by strings of beads.
     "The remains with their wrappings lay upon a matting similar to that used by the Navajo and other Indians of the southern plains, and upon a pillow of dirty rags, in which were folded a bag of red paint, bits of antelope skin, bunches of straps, buckles, &c. The three bead-work hooded cloaks were now removed, and then we successively unwrapped a gray woolen double shawl, five yards of blue cassimere, six yards of red calico, and six yards of brown calico, and finally disclosed the remains of a child, probably about a year old, in an advanced stage of decomposition. The cadaver had a beaver-cap ornamented with disks of copper containing the bones of the cranium, which had fallen apart. About the neck were long wampum necklaces with _dentalium, unionida, and auricula, interspersed with beads. There were also strings of the pieces of "Haliotis" from the Gulf of California, so valued by the Indians on this side of the Rocky Mountains. The body had been elaborately dressed for burial, the costume consisting of a red- flannel cloak, a red tunic, and frock-leggins adorned with bead-work, yarn stockings of red and black worsted, and deerskin bead-work moccasins. With the remains were numerous trinkets, a porcelain image, a China vase, strings of beads, several toys, a pair of mittens, a fur collar, a pouch of the skin of "putorius vison", &c."
     Another extremely interesting account of scaffold burial, furnished by Dr. L. S. Turner, U. S. A., Fort Peck, Mont., and relating to the Sioux, is here given entire, as it refers to certain curious mourning observances which have prevailed to a great extent over the entire globe:
     "The Dakotas bury their dead in the tops of trees when limbs can be found sufficiently horizontal to support scaffolding on which to lay the body, but as such growth is not common in Dakota, the more general practice is to lay them upon scaffolds from 7 to 10 feet high and out of the reach of carnivorous animals as the wolf. These scaffolds are constructed upon four posts set into the ground something after the manner of the rude drawing which I inclose. Like all labors of a domestic kind, the preparation for burial is left to the women, usually the old women. The work begins as soon as life is extinct. The face, neck, and hands are thickly painted with vermilion, or a species of red earth found in various portions of the Territory when the vermilion of the traders cannot be had. The clothes and personal trinkets of the deceased ornament the body. When blankets are available, it is then wrapped in one, all parts of the body being completely enveloped. Around this a dressed skin of buffalo is then securely wrapped, with the flesh side out, and the whole securely bound with thongs of skins, either raw or dressed; and for ornament, when available, a bright-red blanket envelopes all other coverings, and renders the general scene more picturesque until dimmed by time and the elements. As soon as the scaffold is ready, the body is borne by the women, followed by the female relatives, to the place of final deposit, and left prone in its secure wrappings upon this airy bed of death. This ceremony is accompanied with lamentations so wild and weird that one must see and hear in order to appreciate. If the deceased be a brave, it is customary to place upon or beneath the scaffold a few buffalo-heads which time has rendered dry and inoffensive; and if he has been brave in war some of his implements of battle are placed on the scaffold or securely tied to its timbers. If the deceased has been a chief, or a soldier related to his chief, it is not uncommon to slay his favorite pony and place the body beneath the scaffold, under the superstition, I suppose, that the horse goes with the man. As illustrating the propensity to provide the dead with the things used while living, I may mention that some years ago I loaned to an old man a delft urinal for the use of his son, a young man who was slowly dying of a wasting disease. I made him promise faithfully that he would return it as soon as his son was done using it. Not long afterwards the urinal graced the scaffold which held the remains of the dead warrior, and as it has not to this day been returned I presume the young man is not done using it.
     "The mourning customs of the Dakotas, though few of them appear to be of universal observance, cover considerable ground. The hair, never cut under other circumstances, is cropped off even with the neck, and the top of the head and forehead, and sometimes nearly the whole body, are smeared with a species of white earth resembling chalk, moistened with water. The lodge, teepee, and all the family possessions except the few shabby articles of apparel worn by the mourners, are given away and the family left destitute. Thus far the custom is universal or nearly so. The wives, mother, and sisters of a deceased man, on the first, second, or third day after the funeral, frequently throw off their moccasins and leggins and gash their legs with their butcher- knives, and march through the camp and to the place of burial with bare and bleeding extremities, while they chant or wail their dismal songs of mourning. The men likewise often gash themselves in many places, and usually seek the solitude of the higher point on the distant prairie, where they remain fasting, smoking, and wailing out their lamentations for two or three days. A chief who had lost a brother once came to me after three or four days of mourning in solitude almost exhausted from hunger and bodily anguish. He had gashed the outer side of both lower extremities at intervals of a few inches all the way from the ankles to the top of the hips. His wounds had inflamed from exposure, and were suppurating freely. He assured me that he had not slept for several days or nights. I dressed his wounds with a soothing ointment, and gave him a full dose of an effective anodyne, after which he slept long and refreshingly, and awoke to express his gratitude and shake my hand in a very cordial and sincere manner. When these harsher inflictions are not resorted to, the mourners usually repair daily for a few days to the place of burial, toward the hour of sunset, and chant their grief until apparently assuaged by its own expression. This is rarely kept up for more than four or five days, but is occasionally resorted to, at intervals, for weeks, or even months, according to the mood of the bereft. I have seen few things in life so touching as the spectacle of an old father going daily to the grave of his child, while the shadows are lengthening, and pouring out his grief in wails that would move a demon, until his figure melts with the gray twilight, when, silent and solemn, he returns to his desolate family. The weird effect of this observance is sometimes heightened, when the deceased was a grown-up son, by the old man kindling a little fire near the head of the scaffold, and varying his lamentations with smoking in silence. The foregoing is drawn from my memory of personal observances during a period of more than six years' constant intercourse with several subdivisions of the Dakota Indians. There may be much which memory has failed to recall upon a brief consideration."
     Perhaps a brief review of Dr. Turner's narrative may not be deemed inappropriate here.
     Supplying food to the dead is a custom which is known to be of great antiquity; in some instances, as among the ancient Romans, it appears to have been a sacrificial offering, for it usually accompanied cremation, and was not confined to food alone, for spices, perfumes, oil, etc., were thrown upon the burning pile. In addition to this, articles supposed or known to have been agreeable to the deceased were also consumed. The Jews did the same, and in our own time the Chinese, Caribe and many of the tribes of North American Indians followed these customs. The cutting of hair as a mourning observance is of very great antiquity, and Tegg relates that among the ancients whole cities and countries were shaved (_sic_) when a great man died. The Persians not only shaved themselves on such occasions, but extended the same process to their domestic animals, and Alexander, at the death of Hephastin, not only cut off the manes of his horses and mules, but took down the battlements from the city walls, that even towns might seem in mourning and look bald. Scarifying and mutilating the body has prevailed from a remote period of time, having possibly replaced, in the process of evolution, to a certain extent, the more barbarous practice of absolute personal sacrifice. In later days, among our Indians, human sacrifices have taken place to only a limited extent, but formerly many victims were immolated, for at the funerals of the chiefs of the Florida and Carolina Indians all the male relatives and wives were slain, for the reason, according to Gallatin, that the hereditary dignity of Chief or Great Sun descended, as usual, by the female line; and he, as well as all other members of his clan, whether male or female, could marry only persons of an inferior clan. To this day mutilation of the person among some tribes of Indians is usual. The sacrifice of the favorite horse or horses is by no means peculiar to our Indians, for it was common among the Romans, and possibly even among the men of the Reindeer period, for at Solutre, in France, the writer saw horses' bones exhumed from the graves examined in 1873. The writer has frequently conversed with Indians upon this subject, and they have invariably informed him that when horses were slain great care was taken to select the poorest of the band.
     Tree-burial was not uncommon among the nations of antiquity, for the Colchiens enveloped their dead in sacks of skin and hung them to trees; the ancient Tartars and Scythians did the same. With regard to the use of scaffolds and trees as places of deposit for the dead, it seems somewhat curious that the tribes who formerly occupied the eastern portion of our continent were not in the habit of burying in this way, which, from the abundance of timber, would have been a much easier method than the ones in vogue, while the western tribes, living in sparsely wooded localities, preferred the other. If we consider that the Indians were desirous of preserving their dead as long as possible, the fact of their dead being placed in trees and scaffolds would lead to the supposition that those living on the plains were well aware of the desiccating property of the dry air of that arid region. This desiccation would pass for a kind of mummification.
     The particular part of the mourning ceremonies, which consisted in loud cries and lamentations, may have had in early periods of time a greater significance than that of a mere expression of grief or woe, and on this point Bruhier [Footnote: L' des signes de la Mort, 1742, I, p. 475 _et seq._] seems quite positive, his interpretation being that such cries were intended to prevent premature burial. He gives some interesting examples, which may be admitted here.
     "The Caribs lament loudly, their wailings being interspersed with comical remarks and questions to the dead as to why he preferred to leave this world, having everything to make life comfortable. They place the corpse on a little seat in a ditch or grave four or five feet deep, and for ten days they bring food, requesting the corpse to eat. Finally, being convinced that the dead will neither eat nor return to life, they throw the food on the head of the corpse and fill up the grave."
     When one died among the Romans, the nearest parents embraced the body, closed the eyes and mouth, and when one was about to die received the last words and sighs, and then loudly called the name of the dead, finally bidding an eternal adieu. This ceremony of calling the deceased by name was known as the "conclamation," and was a custom anterior even to the foundation of Rome. One dying away from home was immediately removed thither, in order that this might be performed with greater propriety. In Picardy, as late as 1743, the relatives threw themselves on the corpse and with loud cries called it by name, and up to 1855 the Moravians of Pennsylvania, at the death of one of their number, performed mournful musical airs on brass instruments from the village church steeple and again at the grave
[Footnote: The writer is informed by Mr. John Henry Boner that this custom still prevails not only in Pennsylvania, but at the Moravian settlement of Salem, North Carolina.] This custom, however, was probably a remnant of the ancient funeral observances, and not to prevent premature burial, or, perhaps, to scare away bad spirits.
     W. L. Hardisty [Footnote: Rep. Smithsonian Inst., 1866, p. 319] gives a curious example of log-burial in trees, relating to the Loucheux of British America:
     "They inclose the body in a neatly-hollowed piece of wood, and secure it to two or more trees, about six feet from the ground. A log about eight feet long is first split in two, and each of the parts carefully hollowed out to the required size. The body is then inclosed and the two pieces well lashed together, preparatory to being finally secured, as before stated, to the trees"
     With regard to the use of scaffolds as places of deposit for the dead, the following theories by Dr. W. Gardner, U.S.A., are given:
     "If we come to inquire why the American aborigines placed the dead bodies of their relatives and friends in trees, or upon scaffolds resembling trees, instead of burying them in the ground, or burning them and preserving their ashes in urns, I think we can answer the inquiry by recollecting that most if not all the tribes of American Indians, as well as other nations of a higher civilization, believed that the human soul, spirit or immortal part, was of the form and nature of a bird, and as these are essentially arboreal in their habits, it is quite in keeping to suppose that the _soul-bird_ would have readier access to its former home or dwelling-place if it was placed upon a tree or scaffold than if it was buried in the earth; moreover, from this lofty eyrie the souls of the dead could rest secure from the attacks of wolves or other profane beasts, and guard like sentinels the homes and hunting-grounds of their loved ones."
     This statement is given because of a corroborative note in the writer's possession, but he is not prepared to admit it as correct without farther investigation.

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