When one is taken ill the family sends for a medicine man, promising- him a horse. If the family is of some importance they may call in a number of such men, to> each of whom a horse is promised. They sit around the tipi and work their magic powers in turn while their women assist with the songs. Food and other comforts must be provided for them and their enthusiasm stimulated by gifts of additional horses. A long acute illness will deprive the family of its accumulated property. Often a man will tell you that he is very poor now since he or some of his relatives have been ill for a time. Medicine men usually permit the family to keep the gift horses until needed and often transfer, or sell, their claims to a third party. Should the patient die, they leave at once, often taking with them all the loose property of the family.
If a person dies in a house it is abandoned, or afterwards torn down and erected elsewhere, as the Blackfoot believe the ghost of the deceased haunts the spot. Should a young child die, the house will be abandoned for a time only. In former times, the tipi was abandoned or used as a burial-tipi.
When all hope for the patient is abandoned, he is painted and dressed in his best costume and, at present, often taken out of the house to a tipi so that it may not be necessary to tear down the building. After death the body is wrapped in a blanket, formerly in a robe, and buried within a few hours. 1
In recent years, the Indians have been forced to use coffins and to practice interment. These are placed upon high hills and barely covered with earth and stones. No effort is made to mark the spot and fear keeps all the mourners far from the place. Indeed, it is difficult to persuade, any one to go near a known burial site. Some distinguished chiefs rest in houses built on lonely hills. In former times, tree burial was common but now rare, only one example having come under our observation. A person of some importance was placed in a tipi on some high place. The edges of the tipi cover were often weighted down with stones, circle’s of which are often met with on elevated positions. Persons usually make requests of their families that certain personal belongings are to be buried with them. Sometimes the request is for a horse; in this event, one will be killed at the burial place. It was quite usual for the tail and mane of a man’s favorite horse to be cut at his death.
At death, or its announcement, there is great wailing among the women, who gash their legs and often their arms. Their hair is cut short, a practice often followed by the men. Such hair should be thrown away and not handled or used for any practical purpose. Women may wear a single bead over one ankle for a time. In former times, a man would take to the warpath and go along indifferently, neither seeking enemies nor avoiding them if encountered. At present, they go on a long visit to some distant relative. If a man owning an important medicine bundle loses a dear relative he may be moved to cast it into the fire or otherwise desecrate it because of its failure to prevent death; hence, a person once owning such a bundle takes it away at once. After a time, medicine men approach the mourner with suggestions that it is well to take up the care of his bundle now. When he consents, a sweat house is made and after the ceremony, the mourner is painted and newly dressed. The medicine bundle is then brought into his tipi and he resumes his former functions. While the preceding is the normal order of events, men have been known to destroy medicine bundles in the face of great opposition.
During the mourning period – an indefinite time – the man may dress in the meanest possible clothes, neglect his hair and person, and live in a small dilapidated tipi. However, there seems to be less formality in this than among the Dakota, and the spectacular abandonment of the mourning state often observed among the Teton is wanting.
In this connection, may be mentioned a practice not unlike ” running a-mok,” though apparently without mania. A man realizing that he is the victim of an incurable disease may with more or less deliberation arm himself and attempt the life of all persons he may meet. He will announce that as he must die, he expects to take as many with him as possible. The records of the reservations will show a number of killings brought about in this way. Thus, a man took his wife out to a small hill, shot her and took his stand against his pursuers, whom he held at bay to his last cartridge with which he, though badly wounded, took his own life. An attempt of this kind came under the observation of the writer while camping with a Blood band. A young man suffering from consumption, slightly intoxicated and threatened with arrest for disorderly conduct, announced to his family one night that he expected to kill all of them and as many of the camp as possible. Fortunately, while he attacked his wife with a knife, his rifle was spirited away and the camp aroused; yet, as he kept out of reach, it was necessary to hold him off with guns until dawn, when he fled in terror of capture alive. Many officials attribute such outbreaks entirely to intoxication, but the evidence we have gathered indicates that there is a conventional side to the practice and a strong probability that it is a variant, and in some respects a survival, of taking to the warpath. Officials and many Indians, respect the convention to such an extent that every effort is made to prevent persons fatally afflicted becoming aware of the fact until near the hour of death. The writer found a similar practice among the Teton, though it seemed that one life is regarded as sufficient, the doomed man usually taking his own life after a short interval.
- See Maximilian, Prince of Wied. Early Western Travels, 1748-1846. Edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites. Cleveland, 1906, Vol. 23, p. 121.