Dry Bones

Bishinik December 1979 Page 8 & 9

Origins of the Choctaw People Retold from Old Legends

By Len Green

This is part three in a series of Bishinik historical features tracing the “origin” legends of the ancient Choctaws. In the first and second episodes, we traced the origin of Hatakni, and how he came by the Sacred Stick, the origins of the two great chiefs, Chahta and Chicksa, and how Okla, the people, left the beach traveling eastward under the guidance of Hashtahli, the Sun Father, speaking to his people through the Sacred Stick.

Part Three

Them Dry Bones

After leaving the place where they had emerged from the caves beneath the waters, Okla (the people) pressed southward and easterly, under the guidance of their new chiefs, Chahta and Chicksa, and Hashtahli’s Sacred Stick, carried by his envoy, Hatakni. Each night, the Sacred Stick would be stuck into the ground in front of the sleeping place of Hatakni. And on the following morning, it would be bent pointing the route of march that the Sun Father wished his people to march that day. Should food supplies be running low or bad weather threatening, the Sacred Stick might stand up straight for the number of days necessary to secure and dry meat or gather fruit and nuts or until the spell of bad weather had been spent. But then, there would come a morning when the Sacred Stick was again twisted, bidding the People to gather up their meager belongings and once again string out along the trail.

Okla would later find that sometimes the Sacred Stick would hold them in a particular area for a season to allow them to pass a winter season with minimum hardships or pause for a season in a good hunting, fishing or food gathering area. But when a winter storm had passed or the carrying bags were filled with preserved food, again the Sacred Stick would signal to Hatakni and Okla that they must again take to the trail.

Almost always the route led eastward, except when it digressed slightly to the north or to the south to guide the people to a mountain pass, a spring of fresh water or a safer river crossing spot. Each night a runner from the advance party, led by Chicksa, returned to the sleeping place of Hatakni. And each morning, before first light, as soon as the attitude of the Sacred Stick could be determined, this runner sped back to Chicksa’s camp carrying news of the route of that day’s march. From both parties, hunters ranged out to the left and right of the route of march, capturing what game they could find, while the older girls acted as foragers gathering whatever fruits, nuts and tender green shoots that were available for the cookpots.

The journey settled down into a monotony of walk, eat, sleep, eat, walk, eat, sleep, broken only by the slowly changing face of the landscape as Okla traversed the coastal plain and the tall mountains before them grew slowly nearer and nearer. After many days of walking, the marching People stood at the foot of these tall mountains, but in his wisdom, Hashtahli, through the Sacred Stick, had marched them to a point near a pass which would see them safely through the mountains. And, as the Sun Father opened his eye upon a new day, the Sacred Stick bowed toward the cut in the face of the mountains that would lead his People safely through. To reach the pass, however, it was necessary for Okla to form in single file, walking carefully along a narrow ledge which skirted along the wall of a canyon guarding the approach to the passage through the mountains. Calling information to those behind them, members of the People made their way carefully along the narrow ledge, with a sheer wall of rock at their left and and a dizzying drop off into space at their right hand. But, despite all of their care, there was a sudden cry and one of the People plummeted downward to crash and lie still upon another ledge many lengths below that being used as a trail by Okla.

When called to the scene, Hatakni said to Chahta, “We must recover him. And, while you are bringing him up from the depth, I will commune with the Sun Father to see what must be done about this new trial which has come amongst us.” Several of the younger men sent their women forth to gather young vines, and from these vines to plait a rope long enough to reach down the side of the wall to where the body lay so still and quiet. After the rope had been plaited, a number of the younger, stronger men held the rope while one daring youth slid down, tied the rope around the body of his fallen comrade and allowed the two of them to be pulled back up to the trail. Then with care, the body was carried on up the trail to a plateau which offered fresh water and a flat place large enough so that Okla might spend a night in comfort before challenging the mountains further.

In the meantime, Hatakni had gone off by himself walking until he had found a small mountaintop away from the eyes of anyone save the Sun Father himself. Standing with legs spread, arms thrown wide, head upturned and the Sacred Stick pointing aloft, Hatakni called upon Hashtahli, seeking instructions.

When Hatakni returned, Okla was on the plateau, with some trying to revive the fallen youth while others stood around in wonder or in fear.

Raising the Sacred Stick high to assure the attention of Okla, Hatakni addressed his People saying:

“This thing which has been visited upon us is called “Death.” It may come suddenly as it did this first time, it may come slowly in the form of sickness or demons, it may come to the very young, it may come to the young and it will surely come to the very old. Hashtahli, the Sun Father, says that death will be with his People constantly from this day forward. This Death will strike in many ways and will take from us many of our loved ones before our journey has ended. He says that we must always maintain full respect for our dead and that we may not leave any of them on the trail except for those who die in the act of securing food for our bodies or defending us against enemies we must soon face. Hashtahli says that we must be prepared always to take our dead onto the trail with us after they have been suitably prepared for the journey. And, when our journey has ended, we must all honor our dead and prepare an eternal resting place for them. The preservation and transportation of the bones of our dead shall be the solemn duty of each family and each family must prepare its own dead for continuing the journey.”

“When one of your family has died, you must construct a platform at least the height of two tall men above the ground away from predatory animals and would-be robbers, and there the body must be deposited and must remain until it has ripened. During this period, while the dead one is ripening, the family must maintain a constant guard and must keep a fire burning beneath the platform at all times to guard the spirits of the dead one from evil beings who would snatch these spirits away. Since the march of Okla is preordained and must follow Hashtahli’s plan, the family of the dead one must remain behind the march guarding the body until the bones are ready for transport. When the bones are ready, the family will hurry forward behind Okla until they have caught up with the march, when the will again take their accustomed places in the line of march. Upon a death, each family of Okla will give the death family one parcel of food, which will be used to sustain the family while the body is being prepared and as a funeral feast for the departed as his body is being prepared for travel. After the body has been on the platform a sufficient length of time for it to have ripened satisfactorily, then a Bonepicker will be called to help the family in the final preparation.”

“The Bonepickers shall be a separate small clan to be fed and clothed by other clans and always be charged with completing the final preparations to allow the dead one to continue on the journey ordained by our Sun Father, Hashtahli. When a body has fully ripened, a large fire shall be built, the body shall be removed from the platform and any remaining flesh upon the bones shall be burned away by the fire. Then shall come the Bonepicker, and it will be his duty to remove with hands and fingernails any flesh which still remains upon the bones and to scrape them clean and bright. While the Bonepicker and flesh burners are doing their work, a funeral feast shall be prepared by the women of the family, and when the last of the bones are clean and ready, the feast shall be served by the family of the dead one honoring their dear departed. Then the bones shall be deposited in a sack of animal skins laced by a woman of the family, and that sack must be carried by a member of the family until the end of our journey. At the end of our journey, Hashtahli will tell us what we then must do with the bones of our dead. But, for now, the Sun Father says that all of Okla must complete the journey,” Hatakni concluded.

Upon hearing the words of Hatakni, all of the people vowed to maintain deep and lasting respect for their dead and to obey the commands of the Sun Father when death should strike their families. As the journey continued through the mountains, over the plains, across the burning desert and across the broad and treacherous rivers, many more of the People died from sickness, from exposure to the elements, from accidents and from attacks of wild animals.

The Bonepickers, gowned in their somber clothing with fingernails grown long and sometimes whetted sharp to better scrape the shards of burned flesh from the bones of the dead, became common spirits seen walking among the people.

Too often, families halting to prepare their dead fell several weeks behind the marchers, thus having to forage for their own food as they hurried to catch up with Okla after the bones had been prepared. The Bonepickers were often several days “behind” in their work, sometimes causing a family to have to maintain fire and watch upon its dead for extra days thus increasing fears that the spirits of a loved one might be lost to the evil beings hovering about. The more persons in a family who became lost to death, the smaller that family became and the heavier became the family’s work load as it accrued more and more sacks of bones. As the journey grew into years and more years, some of the families became so burdened with bones that they had to carry half of them one-half day forward and then dash back to bring up the other half before the time for sleep. This basic funeral custom was to remain common practice until the early 1700s, when a growing population and changing beliefs caused changes in these customs.

Death and its aftermath were not the only customs of Okla to be born on the long trail.

Since the People were on the march for many years, marriage and the continuation of the family became a large part of the activities of the journeying People. When he spied a young maiden who impressed him, the Young Okla swain would watch her covertly for a length of time as if to ascertain if she was indeed the woman for him. He did not approach her directly or attempt to engage her in conversation. He would probably associate himself with groups which included the brothers of the object of scrutiny, but even then would address her only casually.

When he had decided that this was surely the woman he wanted, he would deliver “the token.” Perhaps it might be a bit of cloth woven by his mother or sister, a fine animal pelt, a bit of jewelry or some item which he felt would be of interest to the opposite sex. He would watch quietly until such time as the object of his affection was away from other members of her family, and approaching her either running or walking without apparently seeing her, he would drop his “token” near her feet. If the young lady was interested in another or had no eyes for the swain, she would simply ignore the “token” I and then go on about her business as if she had not seen the object tossed at her feet. However, if she stopped and retrieved the “token” taking it with her, it meant that she was interested and it was time for the young man to take the next step to achieve her hand in marriage.

The young man then went calling. But, not on the girl. instead, he called upon her father and mother taking with him a gift of meat for the cooking pot, a piece of cloth, an animal pelt or other item of value. He did not talk directly to the girl, nor did he openly announce that he wished her hand in marriage. And, the decision on whether or not he would be allowed to marry the girl was made by her mother. If she did not approve of the would-be husband, she would rise, turn away and busy herself away from the conversation. After a bit, the young man would take his leave and start seeking another lady love.

If the mother approved the marriage, she would remain with her husband, sons and the visitor, and before he completed her visit would signify her acceptance for the daughter by laying her hand on the youth’s shoulder. Only then would the young man be allowed to approach his bride-to-be, talk with her and walk with her. And in the meantime, the mother-in-law would set and announce a date for the nuptials.

On the wedding date, the bride would be seated on a blanket or animal skin, and members of the young man’s family would shower her with small gifts tossed at her. Strangely, these gifts were not for the bride, but instead became the property of the bride’s mother and aunts. After the “shower” and before the marriage feast, the groom then had to sneak or race up and “steal” his bride by grabbing her up from her seat and racing away. She, in turn, made a show of fighting him and trying to break away as if to return to her family, and the family gave chase as if reluctant (or even opposed) to the daughter’s being taken away. (Later, this custom would evolve into a race with the young man having to chase down the girl.)

When the marriage had been consummated, the bride did, indeed, return to her parents, bringing her new husband with her and he thereafter paid first allegiance to her family. He remained nominally a member of his own clan, but all of his work and efforts went as contributions to the clan of his wife. Should the husband be killed or died, the wife, and children returned to the bosom of her family. Should the wife die, the husband generally married a sister or cousin of his deceased wife. Should the marriage prove to be a mistake, the wife could end the union simply by placing her husband’s food dish and clothing apart from their sleeping place. To divorce a wife, the man simply left and did not return.

Because most families had ancestral bones to transport and because a cult of spirit talkers, soothsayers, conjurers and witches had begun to grow, much fear of evil beings and spirits was evident among Okla. For example, to confound the evil ones, a wife never referred to her husband by name. She would call him or refer to him as “my husband,” “my man” or “my son’s father.” It has been thought that this practice was an effort to protect her man from the evil ones because if she spoke his name aloud, the spirits would find who he was and swoop down to carry him away.

When it came time for a blessed event, the woman separated herself from her husband for a period of from three days to one week before the birth. He was not allowed to see her, and she was not allowed to prepare food for him. When the actual time for birth approached, the wife and her mother or one of her sisters or aunts absented themselves from all contact with any other member of the family. Seeking a hidden spot away from the tribe, the child was birthed, dressed and its needs cared for before the woman was allowed to return to the side of her husband. A few weeks prior to the birth, the wife, her mother or her sisters would have woven from reeds a basket equipped with a strap or carrying hooks in order that she might wrap the child, place it in the basket and carry it with her at all times. Thus she could continue the march with her husband and family, carrying her new baby safely and happily in its basket atop other bundles she might have to carry. A birth did not hold up a family on the march as did death. Generally, the wife was able to keep pace with her husband, although she was out of his sight several days before the birth and absent from the tribe during the actual birthing.

Each new child was given a “family” name by the parents. Later, upon reaching maturity the child would give himself a “secret” name which was never told even to a wife. And, upon becoming an adult, the child might receive an “earned” name for some skill, some activity of some event. The “secret” name was always protected and was never said aloud. If someone learned your secret name, you would surely die and the evil ones would take your spirit away.

Thus, with Hatakni and Chahta walking before, the People slowly made their way eastward under the guidance of the Sacred Stick toward the land promised them by Hashtahli.

Next: Swamp and Fire.