Choctaws Views on the Dead

In the disposition of their dead, the ancient Choctaws practiced a strange method different from any other Nation of people, perhaps, that ever existed. After the death of a Choctaw, the corpse wrapped in a bear skin or rough kind of covering of their own manufacture, was laid out at full length upon a high scaffold erected near the house of the deceased, that it might be protected from the wild beasts of the woods and the scavengers of the air. After the body had remained upon the scaffold a sufficient time for the flesh to have nearly or entirely decayed, the Hattak fullih nipi foni. (Bone Picker) the principal official in their funeral ceremonies and especially appointed for that duty appeared and informed the relatives of the deceased that he had now come to perform the last sacred duties of his office to their departed friend. Then, with the relatives and friends, he marched with great solemnity of countenance to the scaffold and. ascending which, began his awful duty of picking off the flesh that still adhered to the bones, with loud groans and fearful grimaces, to which the friends below responded in cries and wailings.

The Bone-Picker never trimmed the nails of his thumbs, index and middle fingers which accordingly grew to an astonishing length sharp and almost as hard as flint and well adapted to the horrid business of their owner s calling. After he had picked all the flesh from the bones, he then tied it up in a bundle and carefully laid it upon a corner of the scaffold; then gathering up the bones in his arms he descended and placed them in a previously prepared box, and then applied fire to the scaffold, upon which the assembly gazed uttering the most frantic cries and moans until it was entirely consumed. Then forming a procession headed by the Bone-Picker the box containing the bones was carried, amid weeping and wailing, and deposited in a house erected and consecrated to that purpose and called A-bo-ha fo-ni, (Bone-house) with one of which all villages and towns were supplied. Then all repaired to a previously prepared feast, over which the Bone-Picker, in virtue of his office, presided with much gravity and silent dignity.

As soon as the bone-houses of the neighboring villages were filled, a general burial of the bones took place, to which funeral ceremony the people came from far and near, and, in a long and imposing procession, with weeping and wailing and loud lamentations of the women, bore off the boxes of bones to their last place of rest, and there depositing them in the form of a pyramid they were covered with earth three or four feet in depth forming a conical mound. All then returned to a previously designated village and concluded the day in feasting.

Thus many of the mounds found in Mississippi and Alabama are but the cemeteries of the ancient Choctaws; since, as often as the bone-houses became filled, the boxes of bones were carried out to the same cemetery and deposited on the previously made heap commencing at the base and ascending to the top, each deposit being covered up with earth to the depth of three or four feet, and thus, by continued accession through a long series of ages, became the broad and high mounds, concerning which there has been so much wild speculation with so little foundation for truth or common sense. Even at the time the missionaries were established among them (1818), many of the mounds were of so recent date that not even bushes were growing upon them, though the custom of thus laying away their dead had become obsolete: still a few Bone-Pickers had survived the fall of their calling, and were seen, here and there, wandering about from village to village as ghosts of a departed age, with the nails of the thumb, index and middle fingers still untrimmed, and whose appearance indicated their earthly pilgrimage had reached nearly to a century, some of whom I personally knew.

Shortly before the advent of the missionaries, the custom of placing the dead upon the scaffolds was abolished, though not without much opposition; and that of burial in a sitting posture was adopted, with also new funeral ceremonies, which were as follows: Seven men were appointed whose duty it was to set up each a smooth pole (painted red) around the newly made grave, six of which were about eight feet high, and the seventh about fifteen, to which thirteen hoops (made of grape vines) were suspended and so united as to form a kind of ladder, while on its top a small white flag was fastened. This ladder of hoops was for the easier ascent of the spirit of the deceased to the top of the pole, whence, the friend of the deceased believed; it took its final departure to the spirit land.

They also believed that the spirits of the dead, after their flight from the top of the pole to the unknown world, had to cross a fearful river which stretched its whirling waters athwart their way; that this foaming stream has but one crossing, at which a cleanly peeled sweet-gum log, perfectly round, smooth and slippery, reached from bank to bank; that the moment the spirit arrives at the log, it is attacked by two other spirits whose business is to keep any and all spirits from crossing thereon. But if a spirit is that of a good person, the guardians of the log have no power over it, and it safely walks over the log to the opposite shore, where it is welcomed by other spirits of friends gone before, and where contentment and happiness will forever be the lot of all.

But alas, when the spirit of a bad person arrives at the log-crossing of the fearful river, it also is assailed by the ever wakeful guards, and as it attempts to walk the slippery log they, push it off into the surging waters below, to be helplessly borne down by the current to a cold and barren desert, where but little game abounds and over which he is doomed to wander, a forlorn hope, naked, cold and hungry.

When a death was announced, which was made by the firing of guns in quick succession, the whole village and surrounding neighborhood almost to a man assembled at once at the home of the deceased, to console and mourn with the bereaved. On the next day a procession was formed headed by seven men called Fabussa Sholih (Pole-bearer), each carrying on his shoulder a long, slender pole painted red, and all slowly and in profound silence marched to the grave, where the poles were at once firmly set up in the ground three on each side of the grave, and one at the head, on which thirteen hoops were suspended while on its top a small white flag fluttered in the breeze. The corpse was then carefully placed in its last earthly place of rest, the grave filled up, and all returned to the former home of the departed. They had specified cries at the grave of the deceased, which continued for thirteen moons. At the termination of each cry, a hoop was taken off of the pole, and so on until the last one was removed; then a grand funeral ceremony was celebrated called Fabussa halut akuchchih, (pole to pull down). And the manager of the pole pulling was called Hattak iti i miko, (their chief man); and the hunters sent out to provide venison for the company on that occasion, were called Hattak (man) illi (dead) chohpa (meat). That is, meat for the dead man; or, more properly, meat for the obse quies of the dead man.

To this celebration, or last commemoration the dead, when all had assembled, the Fabussa halulli, (the same Fabussa Sholih who had set up the poles) under the command of the Hattak iti i miko (the same who bore and set up the long pole upon which was attached the hoops and flag) slowly and silently marched in solemn procession to the grave and pulled up the poles, and carried them off together with the hoops and concealed them in a secret place in the forest where they were left to return to dust forever undisturbed.

As soon as the Fabussa Hallulli had disposed of the poles and hoops, preparations were begun for the finale a feast and the grand Aboha hihlah, home dancing, or dancing home of the deceased good man to the land of plenty and happiness, and the bad man to the land of scarcity and suffering.

The festivities continued during the day and the night following” the pole-pulling”. On the next morning all returned to their respective homes; and from that day he or she of the grave became a thing of the past, whose names were to be mentioned no more. And they were not.

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

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