Chickasaw Burial Customs

The Chickasaw lived in the hilly country north of the Choctaw, and although of the same stock they were ever enemies. Many of their customs differed and instead of the elaborate burial ceremonies of the Choctaw, “They bury their dead almost the moment the breath is out of the body, in the very spot under the couch on which the deceased died, and the nearest relations woeful lamentations; the women are very vociferous in it, but the men do it in silence, taking great care not to be seen any more than heard at this business; the mourning continues about a year, which they know by counting the moons, they are every morning and evening, and at first throughout the day at different times, employed in the exercise of this last duty.” More details of the ceremony were recorded by Adair, who was well acquainted with the manners and customs of the Chickasaw, having traded among them for many years. According to his narrative: “When any of their. people die at home, they wash and anoint the corpse, and soon bring it out of doors,after a short eulogium, and space of mourning, they carry him three times around the house in which he is to be interred, stopping half a minute each time.” The excavation was described as being clean inside, and after the body had been deposited within it was covered with logs, then several layers of cypress bark, and made level with the floor of the house. Beds were often made above the graves. It is of great interest to be able to trace this unusual custom of interring the dead beneath the floor of the house back to prehistoric times, and that within the region occupied by the same tribe. In Wilson County, Tennessee, was discovered the site of an ancient village. Surrounded by an inclosure were several mounds and about 100 earth circles with diameters varying from 10 to 50 feet. Each such ring represented the ruined site of a separate house of a form known to have been erected by certain tribes in the lower Mississippi Valley. Nineteen of the so-called but rings were examined and bits of pottery, stone implements, some broken and others entire, and other traces of Indian occupancy were discovered. ” On removing the hardened and burnt earth forming the floors of the houses, and at a, depth of from 1 ½ to 3 feet, small stone graves were found in 11 of the 19 circles that were carefully examined. These graves were in every case those of children, and were from 1 ft. to 4 ft. in length. These children’s graves were found at one side of the centre of the house, and generally, it was noticed, that a fire had been built over the spot.” Whether all the burials encountered on this site were really those of children may be questioned, but nevertheless the custom of burying beneath the floors of the houses conforms with the known habit of the Chickasaw, as already told. Undoubtedly many other similar discoveries may be made at some future time.

Adair also described the customs of the Chickasaw when any of their number died away from home. “When any of them die at a distance, if the company be not driven and pursued by an enemy, they place the corpse on a scaffold, covered with notched logs to secure it from being torn by wild beasts, or fowls of. prey; when they imagine the flesh is consumed, and the bones are thoroughly dried, they return to the place, bring them home, and inter them in a very solemn manner. The Indians use the same ceremonies to the bones of their (lead, as if they were covered with their former skin, flesh, and ligaments. It is but a few days since I saw some return with the bones of nine of their people, who had been two months before killed by the enemy. They were tied in white deerskins, separately; and when carried by the door of one of the houses of their family, they were laid down opposite to it, till the female relations convened, with flowing hair, and wept over there about half an hour. Then they carried them home to their friendly magazines of mortality, wept over them again, and then buried them with the usual solemnities; putting their valuable effects, and as I am informed, other convenient things in along with there.” When the Spanish expedition led by De Soto crossed the southern country during the years 1539-1541, the Chickasaw were evidently living in the vicinity of the present Union and Pontotoc Counties, in the northern part of the State of Mississippi, a region they continued to occupy for many generations. Traces of an inclosure surrounding a group of mounds is standing in the southern part of Union County, and may not be very ancient, as objects of European origin have been recovered from several of the mounds. Small pits were discovered beneath certain mounds of the group, as in ” Mound 8 . . . Six feet north of the center, in the original soil, was a hole 18 inches across and 14 inches deep, the sides burnt hard as brick, filled with charcoal and dirt. Seven feet northeast of the center was a similar but smaller hole. The gray layer at the bottom was undisturbed over both these spots, showing that the mound was built after this part of the field had been occupied.” This makes it quite evident the mounds were erected on an old village site. A trench was cut through a section of another mound of the group, that designated as No. 1, and was carried ” down to underlying red clay which was so hard as to be difficult to loosen with a pick. In this clay two holes had been dug 6 feet apart, one north of the other. Each was a foot across and 3 feet deep, rounded at the bottom, and filled with a shiny gray ooze. In the one to the south was found a piece of skull bone, in the northern one nothing but the soft mud or slime. Fourteen feet from the center were two similar holes, one 14 inches across and 3 feet deep, the other 3 feet south of it of the same depth and 18 inches across. No traces of bones were found in these.” As these mounds were erected on the site of a more ancient settlement, it is possible the pits were graves made by the early Chickasaw beneath the floors of their dwellings, and during the many years that have intervened since the habitations were occupied the bones have disappeared, with only a fragment of a skull remaining. The Chakchiuma, related linguistically to the Chickasaw and Choctaw, lived on the upper Yazoo River, and lower down the stream, near its junction with the Mississippi, were the villages of the Tunican group, including the Koroa, Yazoo, and the Tunica proper. The burial customs of the people then living in the valley of the Yazoo were undoubtedly quite similar, although the inhabitants of the scattered towns belonged to different stocks. And when referring to “the Yazoux and the Chacchoumas” (i. e., the Yazoo and Chakchiuma), Dumont wrote: “When their chief is dead they go into the woods to bury him, just as in the case of an ordinary man, some on one side, some on the other, the relatives of the deceased accompanying the convoy and bearing in their hands a pine stick lighted like a torch. When the body is in the trench all those taking part throw their lighted torches into it in the same way, after which it is covered with earth.

That is what the entire ceremony is confined to. It is true that it continues more than six months longer for the relations of the dead and for his friends, who during all that time go almost every night to utter howls over the grave, and on account of the difference in their cries and voices form a regular charivari. These ceremonies, as I have said, are common to the chiefs and people. The only difference which marks the first is that at their head is planted a post on which is cut with the point of a knife the figures they have worn painted on their body during life.” The Tunica, although forming a distinct linguistic family from the Muskhogean tribes with whom they were so closely associated, and practically surrounded, were few in number, but they may, at some earlier time, have been a more numerous and powerful people. To quote Swanton : “Although affected by Christian beliefs, the mortuary ceremonies observed by the Tunica until recent times were evidently directly descended from older customs. “The only specific reference by an early writer to the mortuary customs of this tribe is by La Source, who says: `They inter their dead, and the relations come to weep with those of the house, and in the evening they weep over the grave of the departed and make a fire there and pass their hands over it, crying out and weeping.’ “Accounts of the modern ceremonies were obtained from different sources by Doctor Gatschet and the writer, and the following is an attempt to weave them together: “The body of a dead person was kept for one day and then interred, many. persons making speeches on the occasion. The corpse was laid with its head toward the east, which the Tunica chief told the writer was simply ‘their way of burying,’ the reason having evidently been forgotten. For four successive nights thereafter a fire was lighted at the head, as Gatschet’s informant explained, to keep away the bad spirits who sat in that direction for the same period. During that time the people watched the grave and fasted, and on the morning of the day after the fourth, just before daybreak, all, both old and young, went to plunge four times in water. By that time the soul was satisfied and had ‘gone up.’ Then all reassembled in the house from which the burial had taken place and breakfasted together, eating white dumplings and the fresh meat of large geese. Then the principal speaker delivered an address, after which he made all put on mourning, he himself and the other near relations wearing it for six months and the father and mother of the deceased for one year. A mourning garb is thought not to have been known before the people ‘learned how to pray;’ i. e. before Christianity was introduced, which seems probable. During their days of mourning people did not eat or drink until noon. “Cemeteries were placed on hills in the open country, and because spirits were believed to dwell around them the protection of each. cemetery was intrusted to one man. Each new year the guardian said to all those who had ripe corn: ‘Ripe corn must be thrown on the cemetery ! Ripe beans must be thrown on the cemetery!’ Then all went to work to collect their corn and beans and place them there. This took three or sometimes four days, and at the same time, evidently in later years, they cut the cemetery grass. These .last statements are according to Gatschet’s informant. The Tunica chief only stated that a second fast, called the ‘corn fast’ (fête du blé), took place for the benefit of the dead at the time when little corn had just become good to eat. The ears were roasted close to the fire and then placed in a saucer at the head of the grave. Before this time a ‘sign,’ which in later times was probably a cross, had been made by a particular person who always performed this office and placed at the grave. The offering of corn was also made for four days. On the last of these the people fasted until noon and assembled at the house of the cemetery guardian. Then they plunged into water four times, also for the dead, and after a speech from the guardian, he gave them all a dinner by way of payment. In later times this ended the fast, but anciently the dinner was followed by a dance.”

Wilson County TN,

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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