Native American Cremation

More than a century before McKenney made his tour of the Lakes and stopped at Detroit, during the month of June, 1826, Charlevoix traversed much of the same on his way to the country of the Illinois, and thence down the Mississippi. At that time the Missisauga, a tribe closely related to the Chippewa, and of which they may be considered a subtribe or division, lived on the shores of Lake St. Clair and the vicinity, and here Charlevoix saw their scaffold burials. Referring to the several tribes with whom he had come in contact, he wrote: “When an Indian dies in the time of hunting, his body is exposed on a very high scaffold, where it remains till the departure of the company, who carry it with them to the village. There are some nations who have the same custom, with respect to all their dead; and I have seen it practised among the Missisaguez at the Narrows. The bodies of those who are killed in war are burnt, and the ashes carried back, in order to be deposited in the sepulchres of their ancestors. These sepulchres, among those nations who are best fixed in their settlements, are a sort of burial grounds near the village.” This was written in 1721. Another reference to the burning of bodies was prepared about the same year, and proves that others besides those of persons killed in war were so consumed. “An Officer of the regular Troops has informed me also, that while he had the Command of the Garrison at Oswego, a Boy of one of the far Westward Nations died there; the Parents made a regular Pile of split Wood, laid the Corps upon it, and burnt it; while the Pile was burning, they stood gravely looking on, without any Lamentations, but when it was burnt down, they gather up the Bones with many Tears, put them into a Box, and carried them away with them.” It would be interesting to know more of the details of this native ceremony, and to know the name of the tribe to which the family belonged. Oswego, near the southeastern corner of Lake Ontario, in the land of the Onondaga, was the site of all English fort erected in 1721. It soon became a gathering place for the Indians and traders coming from the west, and much of the Indian trade which had formerly been transacted by the French at Montreal was diverted to this new post. It is easy to imagine that during one of these journeys from their distant home on a western lake or river the child of an Indian family died, and his parents, desiring to bury him near their native village, burned the body, then collected the ashes and charred bones, and carried them away, as related by an English officer nearly two centuries ago. Probably cremation was resorted to in many instances as a means of reducing the difficulty of removing the remains from the place of death to the locality where it was desired they might be deposited; but if some statements of the early French are to be accepted, certain tribes must have attached some superstitions belief to the act of burning the bodies of their dead. A very interesting description was recorded by the Jesuit, Pere Sébastien Rasles, of what he witnessed and learned of the custom among the Ottawa during his stay among that tribe in the winter of 1691-92. He told how certain divisions of the tribe burned their dead while others interred the remains. However, his account may not be true to fact, although written according to his belief. Another reference to the burning of bodies is to be found in Radisson’s account of his Fourth Voyage into the great northern wilderness. He and his companions left Quebec sometime in the early part of the year 1661, and were soon joined by a party of Indians who belonged to some western Algonquian tribe living in the vicinity of Lake Superior. Shortly after coming together, while passing in their canoes along a certain stream where the banks were close together, they met a number of Iroquois. In the fierce encounter which ensued Radisson’s friendly Indians lost two killed and seven wounded. And alluding to the former he wrote: ” We bourned our comrades, being their custome to reduce such into ashes being slained in bataill. It is an honnour to give them such a buriall.” But unfortunately he failed to tell of the final disposition of the ashes, whether they were carried by their companions to their villages on the shores of the distant lakes, and there buried, or left in the country where they had been slain. To have been carried away to their homes would have been more consistent with the native customs, and would more readily explain the cremation of the remains, to reduce the bulk, and thereby really make it possible to transport, them so great a distance under such adverse conditions. Charlevoix spent several weeks during the summer of 1721 among the Indians just south of Lake Michigan. These were probably Miami, although he undoubtedly saw members of other tribes as well. Writing at this time, and probably having the Miami in mind, he said: “As soon as the sick person has fetched his last breath, the whole cabbin resounds with lamentations, which continue as long as the family is in a condition to furnish the expence; for open table must be kept during all that time. The carcass adorned with its finest robe, the face painted, the arms of the deceased, with every thing he possessed laid by his side, is exposed at the gate of the cabbin, in the same posture in which he is to lie in the tomb, and that is in many places, the same with that of a child in the womb. * * It appears to me that they carry the corpse to the place of burial without any ceremony * * * but when they are once in the grave, they take care to cover them in such manner that the earth does not touch them: so that they lie as in a cell entirely covered with skins, much richer and better adorned than any of their cabbins. A post is afterwards erected, on which they fix every thing capable of expressing the esteem in which they held the deceased. * * * Fresh provisions are carried to the place every morning, and as the dogs and other beasts do not fail to take advantage of this, they would fain persuade themselves that it is the soul of the deceased, who comes to take some refreshment.”

This may have been intended as a general statement of the customs of the tribes whom he had met during his journey, although written while among the Miami, but its greatest value is the manner in which the origin and cause of the flexed burial is explained, and this would probably apply to the eastern as well as to the western Algonquians.

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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