Sunday, July 31, 2011

Pueblo Indian's Burial Ceremony

Pueblo Indian's Burial Ceremony

     The following interesting account of burial among the Pueblo Indians of San Geronimo de Taos, New Mexico, furnished by Judge Anthony Joseph, will show in a manner how civilized customs have become engrafted upon those of a more barbaric nature. It should be remembered that the Pueblo people are next to the Cherokees, Choctaws, and others in the Indian Territory, the most civilized of our tribes.
According to Judge Joseph, these people call themselves Wee-ka-nahs.

These are commonly known to the whites as Piros. The manner of burial by these Indians, both ancient and modern, as far as I can ascertain from information obtained from the most intelligent of the tribe, is that the body of the dead is and has been always buried in the ground in a horizontal position with the flat bottom of the grave. The grave is generally dug out of the ground in the usual and ordinary manner, being about 6 feet deep, 7 feet long, and about 2 feet wide. It is generally finished after receiving its occupant by being leveled with the hard ground around it, never leaving, as is customary with the whites, a mound to mark the spot. This tribe of Pueblo Indians never cremated their dead, as they do not know, even by tradition, that it was ever done or attempted. There are no utensils or implements placed in the grave, but there are a great many Indian ornaments, such as beads of all colors, sea-shells, hawk-bells, round looking-glasses, and a profusion of ribbons of all imaginable colors; then they paint the body with red vermilion and white chalk, giving it a most fantastic as well as ludicrous appearance. They also place a variety of food in the grave as a wise provision for its long journey to the happy hunting-ground beyond the clouds.

The funeral ceremonies of this tribe are very peculiar. First, after death, the body is laid out on a fancy buffalo robe spread out on the ground, then they dress the body in the best possible manner in their style of dress; if a male, they put on his beaded leggins and embroidered saco, and his fancy dancing-moccasins, and his large brass or shell ear-rings; if a female, they put on her best manta or dress, tied around the waist with a silk sash, put on her feet her fancy dancing-moccasins; her rosario around her neck, her brass or shell ear-rings in her ears, and with her tressed black hair tied up with red tape or ribbon, this completes her wardrobe for her long and happy chase. When they get through dressing the body, they place about a dozen lighted candles around it, and keep them burning continually until the body is buried. As soon as the candles are lighted, theveloris, or wake, commences; the body lies in state for about twenty-four hours, and in that time all the friends, relatives, and neighbors of the deceased or “difunti” visit the wake, chant, sing, and pray for the soul of the same, and tell one another of the good deeds and traits of valor and courage manifested by the deceased during his earthly career, and at intervals in their praying, singing, &c., some near relative of the deceased will step up to the corpse and every person in the room commences to cry bitterly and express aloud words of endearment to the deceased and of condolence to the family of the same in their untimely bereavement.

At about midnight supper is announced, and every person in attendance marches out into another room and partakes of a frugal Indian meal, generally composed of wild game; ChilĂ© Colorado or red-pepper tortillas, and guayaves, with a good supply of mush and milk, which completes the festive board of the veloris or wake. When the deceased is in good circumstances, the crowd in attendance is treated every little while during the wake to alcoholic refreshments. This feast and feasting is kept up until the Catholic priest arrives to perform the funeral rites.


When the priest arrives, the corpse is done up or rather baled up in a large and well-tanned buffalo robe, and tied around tight with a rope or lasso made for the purpose; then six or eight men act as pall-bearers, conducting the body to the place of burial, which is in front of their church or chapel. The priest conducts the funeral ceremonies in the ordinary and usual way of mortuary proceedings observed by the Catholic church all over the world. While the grave-diggers are filling up the grave, the friends, relatives, neighbors, and, in fact, all persons that attend the funeral, give vent to their sad feelings by making the whole pueblo howl; after the tremendous uproar subsides, they disband and leave the body to rest until Gabriel blows his trumpet. When the ceremonies are performed with all the pomp of the Catholic church, the priest receives a fair compensation for his services; otherwise he officiates for the yearly rents that all the Indians of the pueblo pay him, which amount in the sum total to about $2,000 per annum.

These Pueblo Indians are very strict in their mourning observance, which last for one year after the demise of the deceased. While in mourning for the dead, the mourners do not participate in the national festivities of the tribe, which are occasions of state with them, but they retire into a state of sublime quietude which makes more civilized people sad to observe; but when the term of mourning ceases, at the end of the year, they have high mass said for the benefit of the soul of the departed; after this they again appear upon the arena of their wild sports and continue to be gay and happy until the next mortal is called from this terrestrial sphere to the happy hunting-ground, which is their pictured celestial paradise. The above cited facts, which are the most interesting points connected with the burial customs of the Indians of the pueblo San Geronimo de Taos, are not in the least exaggerated, but are the absolute facts, which I have witnessed myself in many instances for a period of more than twenty years that I have resided but a short distant from said pueblo, and, being a close observer of their peculiar burial customs, am able to give you this true and undisguised information relative to your circular on “burial customs.”