Biloxi and Pascagoula Burial Customs

The “Siouan Tribes of the East,” whose burial customs so far as known are detailed on the preceding pages, were carefully studied some years ago, at which time all available notes were gathered and presented in a single volume. A few years before the preparation of this most interesting bulletin a discovery of the greatest importance was made by another member of the bureau staff, Mr. Gatschet, who, while engaged in Louisiana in 1886, discovered a small band of Biloxi, some of whom spoke their old language, which Gatschet soon found was Siouan. The Biloxi therefore belonged to the great Siouan family, and the neighboring Pascagoula were probably of the same stock. These were among the first of the native tribes encountered by the French in 1699, and, fortunately, a sketch of their burial customs has been preserved. The account was written by a French officer about the year 1730, and, as quoted by Swanton, reads: ” The Paskagoulas and the Billoxis never inter their chief when he is dead, but they have his body dried in the fire and smoke so that they make of it a veritable skeleton. After having reduced it to this condition they carry it to the temple (for they have one as well as the Natchez) and put it in the place occupied by its predecessor, which they take from the place which it occupied to place it with the bodies of their other chiefs in the interior of the temple, where they are all ranged in succession on their feet like statues. With regard to the one last dead, it is exposed at the entrance of the temple on a kind of altar or table made of canes and covered with a very fine mat worked very neatly in red and yellow squares (Quarreaux) with the skin of these same canes. The body of the chief is exposed in the middle of this table upright on its feet, supported behind by a long pole painted red, the end of which passes above his head and to, which he is fastened at the middle of the body by a creeper. In one hand he holds a war club or a little ax, in the other a pipe, and above his head is fastened, at the end of the pole which supports him, the most famous of all the calumets which have been presented to him during his life. It may be added that this table is scarcely elevated from ‘the earth half a foot, but, it is at least six feet wide and ten long. It is to this table that they come every day to serve food to the dead chief, placing before him dishes of hominy, parched or smoke-dried grain, etc. It is there also that at the beginning of all the harvests his subjects offer him the first of all the fruits which they can gather. All of this kind that is presented to him remains on this table, and as the door of the temple is always open, as there is no one appointed to watch it, as consequently whoever wants to enters, and as besides it is a full quarter of a league distant from the village, it happens that there are commonly strangers-hunters or savages-who profit by these dishes and these fruits, or that they are consumed by animals. But that is all the same to these savages. It is also before this table that during some months the widow of ‘the chief, his children, his nearest relations, come from time to time to pay him a visit and to make him a speech as if he were in a condition to hear . . . they always end their speech by telling him not to be angry with them, to eat well, and that they will always take good care of him.”

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920.

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