The Choctaw Ya-Yahs

There was a peculiar custom among the ancient Choctaws, prior to 1818, which, according to tradition, was as follows: For many years after the marriage of her daughter, the mother-in-law was forbidden to look upon her son-in-law. Though they might converse together, they must be hidden the one from the other by some kind of a screen, and when nothing else offered, by covering her eyes. Thus the mother-in-law was put to infinite trouble and vexation least she should make an infraction upon the strange custom; since, when traveling or in camp often without tents, they were necessarily afraid to raise their heads, or open their eyes through fear of seeing the interdicted object.

Another peculiarity, which, however they possessed in common with other tribes, was, the Choctaw wife never called her husband by name. But addressed him as “my son or daughter’s father;” or more commonly using the child s name, when if Shah-bi-chih, (meaning, to make empty, the real name of a Choctaw whom I know) for instance, she calls her husband “Shah-bi-chih’s father.” Another oddity in regard to names was, the ancient Choctaw warriors seemed to have a strange aversion to telling their own names, and it was impossible to get it unless he had an acquaintance present, whom he requested to tell it for him.

The Choctaw Ya-Yahs; Cries Over The Dead

Their manifested sorrow and wailing over the graves of their dead were affecting in the extreme truly bordering on the sub lime in their severe simplicity; and had the Indian characteristics been rightly understood, and the nature of their lamentations justly comprehended by the whites, their ancient “Yayahs” might well have been compared to the complaints of the mother of Euriauls, in the Aenead: the same passionate expressions of deep sorrow, and the same extravagance of grief, whose affecting tones sank deep into the inexperienced heart. For twelve months, at various intervals, the women repaired to the grave of the last deceased relative or friend there to weep and express their un-assumed, heart-felt grief’s to the memory of the dead, loved in life and lamented in death, thus manifesting the tender sensibility of the Indian female. And though those tender and affecting exhibitions of affection may be regarded by the arrogant whites as having their origin in ignorance, superstition and error, yet how hard that heart must be that par dons not the illusion that soothes the sufferings of a bereaved soul. But that age in which superstition held her empire undisputed in the Choctaw mind has long since past; and that noble people, however seemingly low, or however opposed in their progress by conflicting and opposing circum stances, have years ago turned 1 towards truth, and have long since attained that goal which reason has erected in their breasts equal to that of the White Race.

The deep and unaffected grief of a Choctaw mother at the death of a daughter, and that also of a father at the loss of an only son in whom rested his fondest hopes, words are inadequate to describe. With tearless eyes and solemn countenance the bereaved father strolled about his little premises, seemingly unconscious of all the surroundings, while the frequent out bursting of grief in the loud lamentations of the mother was truly a Rachel weeping for her children. There never lived a race of people more affectionate one to another than the Choctaws in their ancient homes. They actually seemed as one great brotherhood one loving, trusting family; nor has there been any material change from that day to this. Tis true, they were subject to like passions with all imperfect humanity, and in momentary fits of passion, excited by the white man s “Personal Liberty,” one sometimes killed another; but as soon as his drunken fit had worn off and momentary anger cooled, he manifested the deepest sorrow for the unfortunate affair; nor did he ever try to escape from the punishment attending the crime never; but calmly offered himself as a voluntary sacrifice to the offended law.

They held specified cries for the dead, which to us of the present day would appear strange and even bordering upon, the romantic, yet could not be witnessed without emotions of sadness. After the death and burial, the time was set by the near relations of the deceased for the cry, and notice was given to the neighboring villages for their attendance, to which all gave a ready response. When assembled, as many as could conveniently, would kneel in a close circle around the grave, both men and women; then drawing their blankets over their heads would commence a wailing cry in different tones of voice, which, though evident to a sensitive ear that the rules of harmony had been greatly overlooked, produced a solemnity of feeling that was indescribable, to which also the surroundings but added to the novelty of the scene; for here and there, in detached little groups, were seated upon the ground many others, who in solemn demeanor chatted in a low tone of voice and smoked the indispensable pipe; while innumerable children of all ages and sexes, engaged in their juvenile sports and in thoughtless glee mingled their happy voices with the sad dirge of their seniors; which added to the barking of a hundred dogs intermingling with the tinkling chimes of the little bells that were suspended upon the necks of as many ponies, made a scene baffling all description. At different intervals, one, sometimes three or four together, would arise from the circle of mourners, quietly walk away and join some one of the many little groups seated around, while the vacancy in the mourning circle was immediately filled by others, who promptly came forward, knelt, drew their blankets over their heads, and took up the mournful strain; and thus for several days and nights, the wailing voices of the mourners, the gleeful shouts of thought less yet innocent and happy childhood; the howling and barking of innumerable dogs, and the tinkling of the pony-bells of every tone imaginable, in all of which dissonance was a prominent feature, was heard for miles away through the surrounding forests, echoing a wild, discordant note, more incomprehensible than the united voices of a thousand of the different denizens of the wilderness, of which no one, who has not been an eye witness, can form even the most remote conception. If alone in the silent gloom of the wilderness, the boldest heart would quail, and the strongest nerve relax, unless the course and meaning were known and understood; for he could but believe that all the lost spirits of the lower world had left their dark and dismal abodes, ascended to earth, and, in one mystic concert, brayed the fearful discord. More than once have I witnessed the scene and heard the Availing thereof. Oft, in the calm still hours of a starry night, have I heard the dubious tones of a distant Choctaw Indian cry, and as the disconnected sounds, borne upon the night breeze, floated by in undulating tones, now plainly audible, then dying away in the distance, I must confess there was a strange sadness awakened in my breast, unfelt and unknown before or since. It must be heard to be comprehended. When the time for the cry had expired, the mourning was exchanged for a previously prepared feast; after the enjoyments afforded in the participation of which, all joined in a jolly dance; thus happily restoring the equilibrium so long physically and mentally disturbed. Then each to his home returned, while the name of the departed was recorded among the archives of the past, to be mentioned no more.

The relatives of the deceased, who lived at too great a distance to conveniently to cry over the grave of the dead set up a post a short distance from the house, around which they gathered and cried alternately during a period of twelve months. Such were some of the ancient characteristics of this peculiar but interesting people of the long ago, most of which, however, have long since been abandoned and numbered with the things of yore.

Choctaw, Religion,

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

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