Eagle Dance, Choctaw, George Catlin, 1835-7

Choctaw Religion

Choctaw religion never worshiped idols, or any works of their own hands, as other Indian nations. They believed in the existence of a Great Spirit, and that He possessed super-natural power, and was omnipresent, but they did not deem that He expected or required any form of worship of them. The Choctaw tribe had no idea of God as taught by revealed religion no conception of His manifold mercies, or the atonement made for sin. All they felt was a dread of His attributes and character, made manifest to them by the phenomena of the heavens. But in common with the believers of the Scriptures, they held the doctrine of future rewards and punishments. They differed from them, however, as to the location of heaven and their views of happiness and misery. Heaven, or the happy hunting grounds, in their imagination, was similar to the Elysian fields of the heathen mythology. There the spirit of those who had been virtuous, honest and truthful, while on earth, enjoyed, in common with youthful angels, all manner of games and voluptuous pleasures, with no care, no sorrow, nothing but one eternal round of enjoyment. They believed that angels or spirits seldom visited the earth, and cared but very little about doing so, as being supplied in heaven with everything suitable to their wants, nothing was required from the earth. According to their notion, heaven was located in the southwestern horizon, and spirits, instead of ascending, according to the Christian idea, sped their last journey in a line directly above the surface of the earth in the direction of the southwest horizon. Previous to a spirit’s admission into the happy hunting ground, it was examined by the attendant angel at the gate, who consigned it to heaven or hell according to its deeds on earth. Their hell, or place of punishment, as they termed it, was the reverse of the happy hunting ground a land full of briers, thorns, and every description of prickly plants, which could inflict deep cuts, causing intense pain from which there was no escape; onward they must go no healing oil for their wounds nothing but an eternity of pain no games no voluptuous pleasures nothing save an illimitable land of blasted foliage.

The Eagle Dance was an example of Choctaw religion and their regard for birds of all prey.
Eagle Dance, Choctaw, George Catlin, 1835-7: “The Eagle Dance, a very pretty scene . . . [was] got up by their young men, in honour of that bird, for which they seem to have a religious regard. This picturesque dance was given by twelve or sixteen men, whose bodies were chiefly naked and painted white, with white clay, and each one holding in his hand the tail of the eagle, while his head was also decorated with an eagle’s quill. Spears were stuck in the ground, around which the dance was performed by four men at a time, who had simultaneously, at the beat of the drum, jumped up from the ground where they had all sat in rows of four, one row immediately behind the other, and ready to take the place of the first four when they left the ground fatigued . . . In this dance, the steps or rather jumps, were different from anything I had ever witnessed before, as the dancers were squat down, with their bodies almost to the ground, in a severe and most difficult posture, as will have been seen in the drawing.” This painting was inspired by sketches that George Catlin made near Fort Gibson (present-day Oklahoma) in 1834. (Catlin, Letters and Notes, vol. 2, no. 49, 1841; reprint 1973)

They also believed in the existence of a devil, whom they designated Na-lusa-chi-to, a great black being, or soul eater, who found full occupation in terrifying and doing all manner of harm to people. He accords well with the one described in the Scriptures; “who goeth about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.” Previous to a spirit winging its flight to the happy hunting ground, or the land of briers and blasted foliage, it was supposed to hover around the place where its tabernacle lay for several days four at least. They believed that the happy hunting ground was at a distance of many days journey. When a person died, provision was prepared for the journey under the supposition that the departed spirit still possessed hunger. Upon the death of a man, his dog was killed, that its spirit might accompany that of its master. Ponies, after they were introduced, were also killed, that the spirit might ride. They believed that all animals had spirits. During four days a fire was kept kindled a few steps in front of the wigwam of the deceased, whether the weather was cold or hot. They imagined, that if the spirit found no fire kindled in that manner for his benefit, it would become exceedingly distressed and angry, especially when the night was cold, dark and stormy. A bereaved mother, on the loss of her child, would kindle up a fire and sit by it all night. The wife on the loss of a husband performed the same vigil. In either case a rest in sleep was denied. For six months or more, in case of the death of a Chief, the sorrowing and mourning relations indicated their grief in many ways. The men, in the early part of their-time of mourning, remained silent and subdued, ate very sparingly, and abstained from all kinds of amusements, and from decking themselves out in their usual manner; the women did the same, with this difference, that they remained at home prostrated with grief their hair streaming over their shoulders, uncoiled and undressed, being seated on skins close to the place of burial or sacred fire. They not infrequently broke the silence of sadness by heart piercing exclamations expressive of their grief. For a long time they would continue to visit the grave regularly morning and evening to mourn and weep.

The mode of burial practiced by the Choctaws consisted in placing the corpse five or six feet from the ground upon a platform of rough timber made for that purpose, covered with a rough kind of cloth of their own making, or skins of wild animals and bark of trees. After remaining in that condition until the flesh had very nearly or altogether decayed, the bones were then taken down by the bone-pickers (persons appointed for that duty) and carefully put in wooden boxes made for that purpose, which were placed in a house built and set apart for them. These were called bone-houses; whenever they became full, the bones were all taken out and carefully arranged to a considerable height somewhat in the form of a pyramid or cone, and a layer of earth put over them. This custom, which prevailed among many different tribes, is, no doubt, the origin of the Indian mounds, as they are generally called, which are found in various parts of the country, particularly in the States of Mississippi and Alabama, formerly the home of the Choctaws. When the custom of placing the dead upon platforms was abandoned, which met with strong op position, they buried their dead in a sitting posture in the grave; around the grave they set half a dozen red poles about eight feet high, and one about fifteen feet high, at the top of which a white flag was fastened. The occupation of the bone-pickers having been abolished, it then became their business to make and set up red poles around the graves, and afterwards to remove them at the expiration of the time of mourning, and hence they were called pole-pullers. They were respected by the people, and for less labor being imposed upon them, they were pleased with the change in the burial of the dead. At the pole pulling, which as stated, was at the expiration of the time of mourning, a vast collection of people would assemble to join in a general mourning.

After much food had been consumed they would disperse to their respective homes, and the mourning relations would oil their hair and dress up as usual.

Choctaw Doctors

I believe it is an acknowledged fact, there is no nation in existence, or has ever existed, but has had doctors. This shows the importance of the profession. The Choctaws also were not without them. But perhaps with the advantage over all others, of having as many of the female as of the male sex, who were quite as successful in their practice as the latter. The doctors made use of herbs and roots in various forms, applied and given in different modes for emetics, cathartics, sweats, wounds and sores; they also made use of cold baths, scarification, cupping and blistered by means of burning punk, and practiced suction to draw out pain; some used enchantment, while others practiced by magic, pretending to have learned the art of healing, Mormon like, by special revelation, communicated to them in some retired and unfrequented forest. It was in this way, also, it was said, that the war prophets were raised up to lead the people to battle. At a high price and much expense the doctors of both sexes learned the mode and manner of the use of herbs and roots. It is a fact worthy of remark that even now many of them are in possession of some useful and important means of cure. They have, among other things, an effectual remedy for the bite of the rattlesnake, or of any other venomous reptile, the bite of which they consider very easy of cure.

Further Information on Choctaw Religion:

Cushman, Horatio Bardwell. History Of The Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians. Greenville, Texas: Headlight Printing House. 1899

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