Friday, May 24, 2013

Otoe and Missouri Tribes Funeral Ceremony

Otoe and Missouri Tribes Funeral Ceremony

Small Oto Sioux burial mound at the New Castle, Indiana earthwork complex.  Many of the burial mounds in east -central Indiana were constructed by the early Oto tribes whom archaeologists call Hopewell.  

The Otoe and Missouri tribes of Indians are now located in southern Gage County, Nebraska, on a reservation of 43,000 acres, unsurpassed in beauty of location, natural resources, and adaptability for prosperous agriculture. This pastoral people, though in the midst of civilization, have departed but little from the rude practice and customs of a nomadic life, and here may be seen and studied those interesting dramas as vividly and satisfactorily as upon the remote frontier.

During my residence among this people on different occasions, I have had the opportunity of witnessing the Indian burials and many quaint ceremonies pertaining thereto.

When it is found that the vital spark is wavering in an Otoe subject, the preparation of the burial costume is immediately began. The near relatives of the dying Indian surround the humble bedside, and by loud lamentations and much weeping manifest a grief which is truly commensurate with the intensity of Indian devotion and attachment.

While thus expressing before the near departed their grief at the sad separation impending, the Indian women, or friendly braves, lose no time in equipping him or her with the most ornate clothes and ornaments that are available or in immediate possession. It is thus that the departed Otoe is enrobed in death, in articles of his own selection and by arrangements of his own taste and dictated by his own tongue. It is customary for the dying Indian to dictate, ere his departure, the propriety or impropriety of the accustomed sacrifices. In some cases there is a double and in others no sacrifice at all. The Indian women then prepare to cut away their hair; it is accomplished with scissors, cutting close to the scalp at the side and behind.

The preparation of the dead for burial is conducted with great solemnity and care. Bead-work, the most ornate, expensive blankets and ribbons comprise the funeral shroud. The dead, being thus enrobed, is placed in a recumbent posture at the most conspicuous part of the lodge and viewed in rotation by the mourning relatives previously summoned by a courier, all preserving uniformity in the piercing screams which would seem to have been learned by rote.

An apparent service is then conducted. The aged men of the tribe, arranged in a circle, chant a peculiar funeral dirge around one of their number, keeping time upon a drum or some rude cooking-utensil.

At irregular intervals an aged relative will arise and dance excitedly around the central person, vociferating, and with wild gesture, tomahawk in hand, imprecate the evil spirit, which he drives to the land where the sun goes down. The evil spirit being thus effectually banished, the mourning gradually subsides, blending into succeeding scenes of feasting and refreshment. The burial feast is in every respect equal in richness to its accompanying ceremonies. All who assemble are supplied with cooked venison, hog, buffalo, or beef, regular waiters distributing alike hot cakes soaked in grease and coffee or water, as the case may be.

Frequently during this stage of the ceremony the most aged Indian present will sit in the central circle, and in a continuous and doleful tone narrate the acts of valor in the life of the departed, enjoining fortitude and bravery upon all sitting around as an essential qualification for admittance to the land where the Great Spirit reigns. When the burial feast is well-nigh completed, it is customary for the surviving friends to 97present the bereaved family with useful articles of domestic needs, such as calico in bolt, flannel cloth, robes, and not unfrequently ponies or horses. After the conclusion of the ceremonies at the lodge, the body is carefully placed in a wagon and, with an escort of all friends, relatives, and acquaintances, conveyed to the grave previously prepared by some near relation or friend. When a wagon is used, the immediate relatives occupy it with the corpse, which is propped in a semi-sitting posture; before the use of wagons among the Otoes, it was necessary to bind the body of the deceased upon a horse and then convey him to his last resting place among his friends. In past days when buffalo were more available, and a tribal hunt was more frequently indulged in, it is said that those dying on the way were bound upon horses and thus frequently carried several hundred miles for interment at the burial places of their friends.

At the graveyard of the Indians the ceremony partakes of a double nature; upon the one hand it is sanguinary and cruel, and upon the other blended with the deepest grief and most heartfelt sorrow. Before the interment of the dead the chattels of the deceased are unloaded from the wagons or unpacked from the backs of ponies and carefully arranged in the vault-like tomb. The bottom, which is wider than the top (graves here being dug like an inverted funnel), is spread with straw or grass matting, woven generally by the Indian women of the tribe or some near neighbor. The sides are then carefully hung with handsome shawls or blankets, and trunks, with domestic articles, pottery, &c., of less importance, are piled around in abundance. The sacrifices are next inaugurated. A pony, first designated by the dying Indian, is led aside and strangled by men hanging to either end of a rope. Sometimes, but not always, a dog is likewise strangled, the heads of both animals being subsequently laid upon the Indian’s grave. The body, which is now often placed in a plain coffin, is lowered into the grave, and if a coffin is used the friends take their parting look at the deceased before closing it at the grave. After lowering, a saddle and bridle, blankets, dishes, &c., are placed upon it, the mourning ceases, and the Indians prepare to close the grave. It should be remembered, among the Otoe and Missouri Indians dirt is not filled in upon the body, but simply rounded up from the surface upon stout logs that are accurately fitted over the opening of the grave. After the burying is completed, a distribution of the property of the deceased takes place, the near relatives receiving everything, from the merest trifle to the tent and homes, leaving the immediate family, wife and children or father out-door pensioners.

Although the same generosity is not observed towards the whites assisting in funeral rites, it is universally practiced as regards Indians, and poverty’s lot is borne by the survivors with a fortitude and resignation which in them amounts to duty, and marks a higher grade of intrinsic worth than pervades whites of like advantages and conditions. We are told in the Old Testament Scriptures, “four days and four nights should the fires burn,” &c. In fulfillment of this sacred injunction, we find the midnight vigil carefully kept by these Indians four days and four nights at the graves of their departed. A small fire is kindled for the purpose near the grave at sunset, where the nearest relatives convene and maintain a continuous lamentation till the morning dawn. There was an ancient tradition that at the expiration of this time the Indian arose, and mounting his spirit pony, galloped off to the happy hunting-ground beyond.

Happily, with the advancement of Christianity these superstitions have faded, and the living sacrifices are partially continued only from a belief that by parting with their most cherished and valuable goods they propitiate the Great Spirit for the sins committed during the life of the deceased. This, though at first revolting, we find was the practice of our own forefathers, offering up as burnt offerings the lamb or the ox; hence we cannot censure this people, but, from a comparison of conditions, credit them with a more strict observance of our Holy Book than pride and seductive fashions permit of us.

From a careful review of the whole of their attendant ceremonies a remarkable similarity can be marked. The arrangement of the corpse preparatory to interment, the funeral feast, the local service by the aged fathers, are all observances that have been noted among whites, extending into times that are in the memory of those still living.