Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Choctaw Bone Pickers, Burial Customs and Superstitions

Choctaw Bone Pickers, Burial Customs and Superstitions

Note : The information pertaining to Choctaw burials and customs could fill a book, and since this is just a mere blog article I have chosen a few sources that give brief descriptions of the customs and superstitions. To further study this amazing subject I have listed a few source references to aide in further study should the subject be of research interest to you, in an upcoming blog I will be featuring the Mound sites of the Mississippi Indians as the volume of information is to large to post here.
Angela L Burke

Choctaw Customs before 1800's

Choctaw belief in immortality is shown by its appearance in the burial customs. When a member of the tribe died, the body was covered with skins and bark and placed upon an elevated platform which was erected near the house for that purpose. Even if the death had occurred far from home, the body was carefully brought back and placed near the house.

Beside the corpse were placed food and drink, a change of clothing, and favorite utensils and ornaments which would be needed by the spirit in its long journey to the other world. A dog was killed to provide the deceased with a companion, and after the introduction of horses, ponies were also sacrificed so that the spirit might ride.

For the first few days a fire was kept constantly burning to furnish light and warmth for the journey.

The body remained upon the scaffold for a fixed period, which, however, seems to have varied from one to four or even six months according to local custom. During this time the relatives frequently resorted to the foot of the platform to wail and mourn, although in warm weather the stench from the decomposing body became so intolerable that the women sometimes fainted while performing this respect to the deceased.

Among the honored officials of the Choctaws were men - and possibly women - who were known as bonepickers. These undertakers were tattooed in a distinctive manner, and allowed their fingernails to grow long for their revolting occupation. When the body had remained upon the scaffold the specified time, a bone-picker was summoned, and all the relatives and friends were invited for the last rites.

These mourners surrounded the scaffold, wailing and weeping, while the grisly undertaker ascended the platform, and with his long finger nails thoroughly cleaned the bones of the putrefied flesh.

The bones were then passed down to the waiting relatives, the skull was painted with vermilion, and they were carefully placed in a coffin curiously constructed of such materials as bark and cane. The flesh was left on the platform, which was set on fire; or was carried away and buried.

The hamper of bones was borne with much ceremonial wailing to the village bone house, a rude structure built on poles and surrounded by a palisade. There it was placed in a row with other coffins, and the mourners returned to the house, where all participated in a feast over which the bone-picker presided (without having washed his hands, as shocked white observers were wont to state).

Apparently it was the custom at stated intervals once or twice a year, to hold a mourning ceremony at which the entire settlement participated. The hampers of bones were all removed at this time, but they were returned at the close of the ceremony. When the charnel house became full, the bones were buried; sometimes the earth was placed over it to form a mound, and sometimes the bones of several villages were carried out and placed in one heap and covered with soil. This custom accounts for the burial mound at Nanih Waiya and for the many smaller mounds that form such a distinctive feature of the old Choctaw country.

From The Rise and Fall Of The Choctaw Republic by Angie Debo, pages 4 and 5, Copyright © 1934, 1961 by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Customs & Superstitions

One custom peculiar to Choctaw Christians was carried over from earlier times into the post Civil War era. This was the famous funeral cry, concerning which accounts differ. In some instance, apparently, the funeral sermon for the deceased one was not preached until six to twelve months after burial had occurred. In the meantime, friends and relatives would accompany the wife or mother to the grave occasionally for a crying session. Since the Indians buried their dead near their homes, the cry furnished an occasion for a visit with the family of the deceased. The Choctaws felt that it would be "like you were throwing them away to take them away from home and bury them." Until quite recently it was customary in remote full-blood settlements to bury some of the belongings of the deceased with him. Clothing, perhaps some tan-fula, a saddle, and even the dog and pony of the departed one might be buried with him.

When the funeral sermon was preached under a brush arbor near the grave, there would be singing, praying and a final cry at the grave itself. Afterwards all present shared in a bountiful meal of barbecued beef and other foods. Other reports indicate that funeral cries took place at every summer camp meeting, or after any church service, for those who had died since the last meeting. The fact that this old tribal religious practice was not prohibited by the missionaries probably resulted from their belief that some compromise with native customs was necessary to ensure the adherence to the full-blood element to Christianity. In the 1880s a visiting white missionary pointedly asked Willis F. Folsom, a mixed blood minister: "Don't you encourage . . . superstitions by officiating at these funerals?" to which Folsom merely replied evasively: "You don't know the Indian." The funeral cry naturally disappeared over the years and is rarely or never practiced today,

Another superstition which the Christian missionaries found extremely difficult to eradicate was the belief in witchcraft. The missionary influence can be seen in a law passed by the General Council as early as 1834 which declared, "That any person or persons who shall kill another for a witch or wizard, shall suffer death." There was reason for the missionaries to worry about the power of the Choctaw superstitions. As late as 1899 a full-blood Presbyterian minister, who had been educated at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, and had held important posts in the Choctaw government, was found guilty of murdering witches. Nothing shows the power of Choctaw superstitions more that the deeds of this man, who was considered a progressive Choctaw and a firm believer in the need of the education of his people. Yet, faced with the sudden death of three of his children from diphtheria and the insistence that the deaths were attributed to witchcraft by the full-blood neighborhood, this man disregarded his excellent education, reverted to tribal belief in witches, and remembered only the Biblical injunction, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live, " As a result, he shot and killed two women and one man, and wounded another man - all of whom the community believed were the witches causing the plague. After his arrest by federal officers, the minister wrote a friend, "I have done the act because I love the Lord's work and because I love the people." he was sentenced to death by a federal court, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by President Theodore Roosevelt. The witch-killer died in the Atlanta penitentiary in 1907, where he had been known as an exceptional man and a distinguished prisoner.

From The Social History of the Choctaw Nation: 1865-1907, by James D. Morrison, edited by James C. Milligan and L. David Norris, pages 25-26, copyright © 1987, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

Mourning and Burial, Southeast (Choctaw)

As with so many other customs in the Southeast, mourning and mortuary practices were never uniform. In the Adena culture, concentrated farther north in the Ohio River Valley, while most dead persons were cremated, specific individuals were selected to be encased in log tombs that were subsequently covered by mounds of dirt. These varied traditions gave way to Hopewell and then Mississippian cultures. While it is true that the Yuchi buried their dead in individual stone-lined coffins in restful-appearing positions, facing west, the same tribe sometimes buried them under the floors of their houses, placed them on scaffolds in the woods, or cremated them on a funeral pyre. Others reused these tombs, often placing two individuals in them.

Sometimes the dead were buried where they fell: the eighty-five-year-old Choctaw chief Puckshenubbe collapsed en route to Washington in October 1824. In other cases, tribal and family burial grounds were used. Cherokee chiefs had caves made into tombs on the borders of the lands they ruled (present-day Blount County, Alabama). Moshulatubbee, the last grand chief of the Choctaws, was buried in 1838 under a pile of stones near the spring on his farm in the Choctaw Nation West (now LeFlore County, Oklahoma). The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Yuchi, and other groups continued the various traditions of burial mounds (for example, at Ft. Walton Beach in northwest Florida). The environs of Nashville with its numerous mounds served as a popular “City of the Dead,” a kind of Native Jerusalem where as many as eight distinct tribes made pilgrimages. Such mixed traditions, obviously expressive of individual preferences and changing fashions, just like today, beggar any attempts, however studious and well meaning, of the federal government and state archaeologists to assign pre-Columbian human remains or funerary artifacts to the “relevant tribal culture.” Many tribes also buried the placenta or afterbirth.

This entry specifically describes Choctaw mourning and burial customs, which illustrate the region’s great variety and continual synthesis of traditions, notwithstanding the different origins and lack of uniformity even within that large group, probably the most populous one at the time of European contact. “The sun was the supreme being, and fire, its mate, gave the sun information about human activities,” according to Choctaw historian Kidwell. “It had the power of life and death, which explains its importance in the funeral customs of the Choctaws. A dead body was exposed to the rays of the sun on a raised platform and allowed to decay, thus giving itself back to the supreme power.” The deceased were scaffolded in their best clothing and painted in an elaborated and personal fashion, so that the sun would recognize them. Often a favorite weapon or (in the case of a woman) her beauty stone or household heirloom was included on the bier. A period of mourning followed for family members. Signs of mourning included cutting the hair (which represented accumulated memories), assuming a negligent appearance, not remarrying, staying segregated by sex, and being seen only by other clansmen. It did not entail visits to the scaffold, usually rather distant in the woods. In fact, the family was expected to have little to do with the burial. After about a year, the bone picker, a revered figure of the Turkey Buzzard Society, scraped the bones clean with his long fingernails, a sign of rank and power, then prepared a feast for the entire village “only wiping his filthy, bloody hands on grass,” according to a French eyewitness in the eighteenth century. The cleaned bones were wrapped, often painted with red ochre, placed in a special willow reliquary, and hung or shelved in the communal or clan bone-house. A coastal Virginian ossuary appears in John Smith’s drawings. Periodically, the relics were brought out and made part of a mourning ceremony, ballplay, or other tribal occasion.

Males and females in the Turkey Buzzard Cult were venerated and trusted, never feared, since their powers were benign and beneficial, unlike most witchcraft. Often they were also healers. Only they could perform the Turkey Buzzard Dance at festivals. Significantly, their totem animal fed only on carrion and did not kill for its meat as did the owl, eagle, hawk, panther, and other carnivores.

Choctaws divided themselves into two moieties, or iksa. When Great Spirit created people, he placed half of them on the north side of the mother mound Nanih Waiyah and half on the west side. These two groups were the kashapa okla or imoklasha and the okla inholahta or hattak inhaolahta, the “younger brother” group and the “elder brothers.” Your mother’s iksa determined which moiety was yours, and you were expected to marry into the opposite one. The interdependence of the two was also observed in death. When the charnel house was full, the opposite iksa carried the reliquaries to a nearby burying ground, piled up the bones, and covered them with a mound, using the reliquaries now as baskets to carry earth. Some rather recent burial mounds of this type may be seen along the Natchez Trace Parkway.

From the middle to late nineteenth century, the Choctaw favored burying their dead directly in the ground. The deceased was buried in a seated position. Seven men placed seven red poles about the grave, with thirteen hoops of grapevines and a small white flag. Mourning went on for several weeks as the family performed the required thirteen cries for the dead. Then a feast and dance were given in the dead person’s honor.

Like most indigenous people in North America, the Choctaws believed that it took four days for a soul to become embodied in a person, and four days for that soul to be prepared for its long and final journey. Ghosts were pitiful spirits somehow lost or stuck in this world, often because their deaths went unavenged. Witches had the ability to steal a person’s dying spirit and thus increase their power, defying death. In some traditions, the entire town sang a funeral dirge to direct the released spirit to the other world. Listening to this chorus, the spirit went away from the music until it could no longer hear sounds of the living. The words of such a song by the Tihanama (a tribe often hired to conduct funerals) may be translated as follows: Blanket him (her) with spirit/ Raise everything to the highest sky.

These lyrics are sung over and over to a sad tune, often all night, with the participants beating sticks together but no other accompaniment, until the priest senses that the spirit has taken its departure, at which moment the concluding verse is sung to a different melody, only once: May he (she) never have need for anything again, forever and ever.

Like the Yuchi, Natchez, and other surrounding tribes, the Choctaw believed in four distinct spirits, one of which remained in the bone marrow after death and one of which went to an afterworld, conceived of as a beautiful gathering place in the west with good hunting, perpetual games, and plenty of food (legend’s “happy hunting ground”). The Milky Way was the path toward the Creator, and its multitudinous stars were said to be the souls of the ancestors. Reincarnation was assumed without thinking. Newborns often received the name of a recently passed uncle or aunt in the hope or recognition that they would also carry the elder one’s spirit. Once a relative was dead and mourned, his or her name was never spoken again. This taboo was so strong among the Choctaw that Indian agents could not force mothers to name their dead children on claims forms.

Many traditional Indians today dismiss the issue of repatriation by saying, “Leave them be; they’ve already been mourned.” In practice, most Indians of old had a thousand taboos about death and would go to great lengths to avoid even the subject. For instance, it was unlucky to see an owl, and wise to avoid cemeteries with a wide detour. None of the clothing or effects of a dead person were kept, for fear of contagion. Suicides were usually not honored with a proper funeral, as they were considered to have squandered their life and cheated their families and community. It was believed that the time and place of everyone’s death was foreordained. This belief gave warriors courage in battle but caused a lot of superstitions concerning graveyards, journeys, and funerals.

When the Choctaw first encountered the English, they could not understand why the Europeans had left the bones of their ancestors across the ocean. It horrified them to see how casually and unfeelingly the white people dealt with death. The reason why many Natives buried their parents in the floors of their lodges—a practice that continues among the Maya in Central America—was to remain close to them. Death was a part of life, and the dead were still members of the community. Thus the Choctaw and many other tribal cultures throughout the Americas practice a symbolic cannibalism. Whenever a new fire is kindled, the ashes of the ancestors are mingled with it and inhaled in its smoke by the descendants. Among the Yanomami, a soup containing a small amount of finely ground dust of the deceased person’s remains is served. The intent is to keep a person’s spirit and power within the living circle of the community.

If tribes had a “heaven,” they also had a concept closely approximating the Christian idea of hell, for they believed in divine retribution, though they had no corresponding devil figure. A very bad person’s spirit did not automatically go to the happy hunting ground to join his kinsmen; it was judged by the Master of Breath, then sentenced to torments commensurate with the pain he had wrongfully inflicted on others throughout his life. This punishment might last for hundreds of years, while the ghost wandered in this world. At the end of those experiences, the soul was dispersed, never to be reborn. To the Native mind, that was the worst fate imaginable—not only to die unmourned but also for one’s spirit to be destroyed. This apparently had a cautionary effect on most people.

Donald Panther-Yates

Ninih Waiya

This large rectangular platform mound, measuring 25 feet high, 218 feet long, and 140 feet wide, is maintained in a state park. Nanih Waiya is a Choctaw Indian name meaning "leaning hill." A small burial mound, now nearly leveled by plowing, is located outside the park boundaries several hundred yards away. A long, raised embankment once enclosed the site. Most of this earthen enclosure has been destroyed by cultivation; however, a short segment remains along the edge of a swamp to the northwest of the large mound.

The period of construction of Nanih Waiya Mound is uncertain. Although its rectangular, flat-topped form is typical of Mississippian period mounds (1000 to1600 A.D.), pottery sherds found on the surface of the adjacent habitation area suggest a possible Middle Woodland time range (100 B.C. to 400 A.D.). Until archeological investigations are undertaken, however, the mound's actual age will remain unknown.

Although built by American Indians, by the 18th century Nanih Waiya had come to be venerated by the Choctaw tribe. The site plays a central role in the tribe's origin legends. In one version, the mound gave birth to the tribe--the people emerged from the underworld here and rested on the mound's slopes to dry before populating the surrounding region.

Nanih Waiya Mound and Village is located northeast of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Drive about 15 miles on State Hwy 21, turn left at the Nanih Waiya sign on State Highway 393 and continue north three miles to the mound. Open to the public daily, free of charge, from dawn to dusk. Call 662-724-2770 or 1-800-GO-PARKS for further information.

The Supernatural

Some early writers, and in later times Cushman and Bushnell, report that the Choctaws believed in a great good spirit and a great evil spirit. It seems that there were a number of supernatural beings mentioned in Choctaw historical accounts. In addition to the native language for what would today be termed God and Devil, the Choctaws believed they had many other "powerful beings" in their midst.

The Great Spirit (or God) of the Choctaw went by various names. Rev. Alfred Wright also said God was referred to as "Nanapesa," "Ishtahullo-chito" or "Nanishta-hullo-chito," "Hustahli," and "Uba Pike" or "Aba."[1][2] "Shilup chitoh osh" is a term anglicized to mean The Great Spirit. "Chitokaka" means The Great One. The terms lshtahullo or nanishtahullo is applied to anything thought to possess some occult or superior power - such as a witch.

“ Anthropologist theorize that the Mississippian ancestors of the Choctaw placed the sun at the center of their cosmological system. Mid-eighteenth-century Choctaws did view the sun as a being endowed with life. Choctaw diplomats, for example, spoke only on sunny days. If the day of a conference were cloudy or rainy, Choctaws delayed the meeting, usually on the pretext that they needed more time to discuss particulars, until the sun returned. The sun made sure that all talks were honest. The sun as a symbol of great power and reverence is a major component of southeastern Indian cultures. ”

 Greg O'Brien, Choctaws in a Revolutionary Age, 1750-1830[3]

"Hushtahli" is from "Hashi" (Sun) and "Tahli" (to complete an action). "Hushatahli" is believed to have originated as a Choctaw term without European influence; the Choctaw were believed to be sun worshipers. Fire was the "most striking representation of the sun", having intelligence, and was considered to be in constant communication with the sun.

Little People, sprites, & other man-like creatures

They believed in a little man, about two feet high, who dwelled alone in the thick, dark woods. The little man was called Bohpoli or Kowi anukasha, both names being used alone or together. The translation of Bohpoli is the "Thrower". The translation of Kowi anuskasha is "The one who stays in the woods", or to give a more concise translation, "Forest Dweller". Little man can be compared to the European counterparts- Dwarfs, Elves, Gnomes, and Leprechauns. Little people sighting occur all over the world. One such example includes sightings in South America.

The little wood sprite was known to be rather mischievous, but not malicious. The Choctaws believed that he often playfully threw sticks and stones at them. All unexplained sounds heard in the woods were attributed to Bohpoli, believing he took a special pleasure in hitting the pine trees to create noise.

Bohpoli was never seen by the common Choctaws, only the prophets and doctors. The Indian doctors would report that Bohpoli assisted them in the manufacture of their medicines. Some stories even give the account that bohpoli would "steal" little children and take them into the woods, to teach them about herbs and medicines. After returning the children to their homes, Bohpoli would leave them alone, letting them grow up to become doctors of the tribe.

An interesting being mentioned in some of the history writings is Kashehotapalo, a combination of man and deer who delighted in frightening hunters. He was much admired for his speed and agility. If the Choctaws angered Kashehotapalo, he would race ahead of them and warn the enemy or animals being hunted.

Okwa Naholo or Oka Nahullo (white people of the water) dwelled in deep pools and had light skins like the skins of trout. They were believed to sometimes capture human beings whom they converted into beings like themselves.

Hoklonote was a bad spirit who could assume any shape it desired; it was considered to read people's thoughts.

 Shadow like beings

The Choctaws have stories about Shadow beings. "Nalusa chito", also known as an "Impa shilup," was the soul eater, great black being, or devil. If you allowed evil thoughts or depression to enter your mind, it would creep inside you and eat your soul.

"Nalusa Falaya" (long black being) resembled a man, but with very small eyes and long, pointed ears. He sometimes frightened hunters or transferred his power of doing harm. Some believed that "Nalusa Falaya" preferred to approach men by sliding on his stomach like a snake.

"Hashok Okwa Hui'ga" (Grass Water Drop) was believed to have a connection to what is termed will-o'-the-wisp. Only its heart is visible, and that only at night. If anyone looks at it he is led astray.

It was also believed that every man had a "shilombish" (the outside shadow) which always followed him, and "shilup" (the inside shadow, or ghost) which after death goes to the land of ghosts. The "shilombish" was supposed to remain upon the earth, and wander restlessly about its former home, often moaning, to frighten its surviving friends, as to make them forsake the spot, and seek another place to live. It was also supposed to assume the form of a fox, or owl; and by barking like the one, and screeching like the other at night, cause great consternation, for the cry was considered ominous of bad things. The Choctaws could tell between the "shilombish" and animals it imitates. When a fox barks, or an owl screeches, another fox or owl replies. But when the "shilombish" imitates the sound of either animal, no response is given.

 Birds of the dark

 The horned owl, was believed to prowl about at night killing men and animals. Many believed that when ishkitini screeched, it meant sudden death, such as a murder. If the ofunlo (screech owl) was heard, it was a sign that a child under seven in that family was going to die, because in size, it is a small owl. If opa (a common owl) perched in a barn or on trees near the house and hooted, it foreboded death among the near relatives.

Biskinik, the sapsucker, was known as the newsbird. If he landed on a tree in their yard early in the morning, some "hasty" news would come before noon. If he perched there late at night, the news would come before morning.

Animal explained occurrences

Animals figure significantly in Choctaw mythology, as they do in most Native American myth cycles. For example, in Choctaw history, solar eclipses were attributed to black squirrels, and maize was a gift from the birds.

Heloha (thunder) and Melatha (lightning) were responsible for the dramatic thunderstorms. In Choctaw mythology, they were two huge birds. Heloha would lay her giant eggs in the clouds and they would rumble as they rolled around atop the clouds. Despite his size, her mate, Melatha, was extremely fast and left a trail of sparks as he streaked across the sky.

References and Further Reading

Barnes, Jim (Choctaw). 1982. The American Book of the Dead. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Blitz, John Howard. 1985. An Archaeological Study of the Mississippi Choctaw Indians. Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Bushnell, David I. 1920. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Cushman, Horatio B. 1899. History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians. Greenville, TX: Headlight Printing House.

Halbert, H. S. 1900/1985. “Funeral Customs of the Mississippi Choctaws.” Vol. 3, pp. 353–366 in Mississippi Historical Society Publications. Reprinted in Peterson, John H., Jr. 1985. A Choctaw Source Book. New York: Garland.

Hall, Robert L. 1997. An Archaeology of the Soul: North American Indian Belief and Ritual. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Hughes, Laura Hill. 1982. Cherokee Death Customs. Master’s thesis, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Hultkrantz, Ake. 1979. The Religions of the American Indians. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Innes, Pamela. 2001. “The Life Cycle from Birth to Death.” Pp. 245–249 in Choctaw Language and Culture: Chahta Anumpa. Edited by Marcia Haag and Henry Willlis. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Kidwell, Clara Sue. 1995. Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi, 1818–1918. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

LePage du Pratz, Antoine Simon. 1758. Histoire de la Louisiane. . . . 3 vols. Paris: De Burre. English edition by Joseph G. Tregle, Jr. 1975. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.

Momaday, N. Scott (Kiowa-Cherokee). 1969. The Way to Rainy Mountain. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Swanton, John R. 1931. Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin no. 103. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Tedlock, D. 1975. “An American Indian View of Death.” Pp. 248–271 in Teachings from the American Earth. Edited by D. Tedlock and B. Tedlock. New York: Liveright.

Wheeler-Voegelin, Erminie. 1944. Mortuary Customs of the Shawnee and Other Eastern Tribes. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society.

Yarrow, Harry Crécy. 1880. Introduction to the Study of Mortuary Customs among the North American Indians. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

1881. A Further Contribution to the Study of the Mortuary Customs of the North American Indians. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.


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  2. It is true! your blog has enough information to fill a whole book. The story that I liked the most was the one about Ninih Waiya. Anyway, all of them are spooky!

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  4. The "Bone Picker" stories are almost chilling!.
    Story has it that one of My ancestors by the name of Presley Hatten kept a "Bone house" in Winn Parish, La in the 1800's........
    Jerry Lew Patterson

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