Them Bones Again

Bishinik March 1980 Page 6 & 7

Origins of the Choctaw People Retold from Old Legends

By Len Green

This is the sixth in a series designed to correlate and retell the origin legends of the Choctaw People, who called themselves Okla. In the first five episodes, we met Hatakni, first born man, who found the sacred stick, designated Chahta and Chiksa as chiefs and led out the chosen people, Okla, on a long march eastward to a land promised them by Hashtahli, the Sun Father. We saw how death came to Okla, and how the Sun Father decreed that Okla must respect and honor the dead. We learned how Okla crossed deserts, wastelands, swamps and a great river that they called Mississippi (father of waters) before reaching a bright land which they named Nanih Waiya for a special hill or mound that they found there and how they were informed by Hashtahli that they had indeed reached their new homeland.

Part Six

Them Bones Again

After Chahta had passed the word, relayed to him by Hatakni, that Hashtahli, the Sun Father, had decreed that the lands around Nanih Waiya were indeed those promised to Okla so many years before, there was great rejoicing. The people gathered around the base of Nanih Waiya first to pray and then to sing, to dance and to feast. So great was the joy that the festival continued for three full days and three full nights with campfires and torches making the night like day. And, when the festival had concluded and Okla had rested for a time, there began another activity that was new to many of the Choctaws and most of them had been born along the trail and knew no life other than the nomadic existence that had been theirs for so long. Rather than packing and preparing for another season of journeying, Okla busied themselves with building more permanent houses and digging up ground for planting squash, peas, beans, melons and peanuts.

Hunting parties were organized, and soon there was fresh meat in every home in addition to the dried meats and other foodstuffs that had been laid by to See the people through the winter. Game abounded in the woods, and the coming of spring brought out the tender greens called “poke” and early spring berries such as dewberries and blackberries which could be munched from the vines or baked with acorn flour into sweet breads. In addition, the rich woodlands around the new Okla country showed the promise of many kinds of fruits for the coming summer months and nuts and fall berries for the autumn. It was indeed a land of plenty, one that promised to sustain the chosen people, Okla, for all of its generations. It was an extremely happy time for the children of Chahta.

But there still remained two problems which were to prove contentious.

The first of these were the many bones of the dead, which had been picked, dried, packed into sacks of skin and carried by family members along the long trail from the west. Many families found themselves having to build extra large houses or having to construct storage houses or additions to provide a place to store the sacks holding the bones of their ancestors. Much of the problem with the bones could be summed up in the words of one fatherly man spoken to Chahta and Hatakni.

“For many years now, I have cared for and carried the bones of my father. He was a strong man, a good man, and is well remembered and much revered by me. “However, my son and my son’s son knew my father not, except as a burden which they were required to help carry across many rivers, up many mountains and across many plains. “Thus, when I have gone on and become a sack of bones myself, I fear for the bones of my father as my children and my children’s children know them not and have no respect for them.”

A second problem also grew up around the bones,

This was an inordinate number of conjurers, spirit-talkers, soothsayers and witchmen, who used the ancestral bones as a means of intimidating the people, filling their predictions with dark and dire prophecies and threats. These conjurers, witchmen, spirit-talkers and soothsayers did no labor, did no hunting and did not contribute in any way to the good of the people, Okla. When they showed up at mealtimes, the Okla family uncomplainingly saw that they were fed and should it appear that the conjurer wished to spend the night a bed was provided for him.

Understanding the dilemma, Chahta and Hatakni held a conference and then sent out word among the people that all were to gather at Nanih Waiya on a certain day. And Chahta called all of the tool carriers to be called together and told them to stand by with their tools for a special project. When on the appointed day, all of Okla had gathered around the base of the mound now sacred to the people as bidden by Chahta, the Minko stepped up to a vantage point on the side of the mound and spoke to his people, saying:

“Okla, we have apparently reached the land promised to us so many years ago by Hashtahli, our Sun Father. It is indeed a land of sunshine, of food, of trees, of game and of plenty. We should all be happy. “Since this shall be our home from this day forward, it is time we considered the problem of securing a permanent resting place for the sacred and respected bones of our ancestors. “Beginning this day, we will construct a suitable resting place for our sacred dead, whose bones we have carried with us through the many years of travel which led us to our bright land. “When this resting place has been completed, each town and each family will be charged with collecting the bones of the new dead and once each year we shall hold a sacred nationwide festival for those of us who have died in that year and for all of the ancestors who have gone before them. “Already I have the tool carriers clearing an area to the north and west of our beloved Nanih Waiya, for it is here that we shall build a mighty mound as a resting place for our dead. “Each family will furnish at least one worker each day until this resting place has been completed, and every member of the family will help with the construction when they are not needed for hunting, gathering food or family duties,” Chief Chahta concluded.

And indeed, Chahta had already put the tool carriers to work and they had begun clearing off and digging out a large area at a right angle to and not far north from Nanih Waiya. Other workers, principally women and girls, were given tightly woven baskets and directed to carry fine, clean sand basket after basket from the river to be placed in the bottom of the huge pit being dug out by the tool carriers. Still others, generally men and boys, were directed to take their axes and knives, go into the woodlands to harvest great quantities of Cypress bark, being told that only the bark of the Cypress would serve. When the pit had been prepared and dug to the correct depth, an even coat of sand was spread over the bottom of the pit, and the pit was then floored with strips of Cypress bark. Families were then instructed to bring their ancestral bones and the bones were spread over the floor of Cypress bark. Between each layer of bone bags, more sand and more strips of Cypress bark were added. The bone bags were stacked in a neat, elongated pyramid, after which an outer covering of Cypress bark and sand was placed over the top and along the sides of the huge mound. Then the carriers were directed to bring basket after basket of earth until they had constructed a huge mound more than 40 paces high, 60 paces wide and 110 paces long. (This would be roughly 120 feet high, 180 feet wide and 330 feet long). Then under the direction of Chahta, green, growing shrubs and young trees were dug up and transplanted upon the sides and top of the mound to help keep the rains from washing away the sides of the huge common grave.

Old Lopina was called upon once more for his special duty as the bearer of the golden sun symbol, which he and his crew of followers had carried all the way from the great waters to the new land around Nanih Waiya. The golden sun symbol, washed clean and brushed ever so lightly with a coating of bear grease was carried to the topmost point of the new sacred burial mound and there anchored onto some rocks so that it would face the opening eye of Hashtahli, the Sun Father, each morning when he opened it upon Okla. And, when the people saw the eye of the Sun Father glinting on the golden sun symbol atop the huge mound, they rejoiced, saying, “It is good!”

Thereafter, each town or community began to maintain a communal “bone house” where the bones of the newly dead could be stored until the time of the annual Festival of Mourning for the Dead. This did not change to any great extent the funeral customs of the people as decreed by Hashtahli, the Sun Father, so many years ago far away in the high mountains when death first came to Okla. When one died, an elevated platform was still constructed within sight of the house, and the body was placed onto the platform to “ripen” and become ready for preparation. As in the past, when the body had ripened, the “bonepicker” was called and a family feast organized to mark the final passage of the dead. After the feast and after the bonepicker had completed his duties, the bones were then placed into a sack made of skins or a woven basket with tight fitting lid. The bones were then taken to the community “bone house” where they were stored and would remain until the time of the annual Festival of Mourning for the Dead.

After Hatakni had consulted Hashtahli, the Sun Father, Chahta decreed that the annual Festival of Mourning for the Dead would be held in late autumn after all the crops had been harvested and ample meat cured to see Okla through the winter.

One day prior to the opening of the Festival of Mourning for the Dead, the tool carriers would be called and would open the section of the sacred mound where the bones would be deposited that year. And other workers would bring many baskets of clean, white sand and strips of Cypress bark so that the new bones placed into the mound would be given proper burial and respect. On the date of the festival, each family collected the bones of any members who had died during the year and transported them to the opening ceremonies of the Festival of Mourning for the Dead. When all of the people had gathered at the burial mound, the festival opened with a feast, as did practically all other Choctaw festivals. This was followed by a “roll call of the dead.”

The head of each family with dead would move to the mouth of the hole opened to receive the dead, call out a name for the dead one and then carry the bones into the mound. Incidentally, in this calling out of names, the true name of the dead person was never spoken. Instead he was given a public name such as “He who died too young,” or a specific title like “the second son of my wife.” In fact, the name of a dead person was never spoken aloud after death for fear that it would be heard by a evil spirit who might cause problems for the deceased in the Happy Land. Each member of Okla had three names … his family name, given to him at birth by his parents, his manly name, given to him by his companions or for his feats at hunting or battle, and his “special” name, given to him by himself and told to no one. Should anyone guess your sacred “special” name, you had only two choices … kill him or kill yourself.

Along with the new custom of a national mound burial, another type of mound burial began to grow among the people and became a common practice for many years. This generally concerned men who were killed while on the hunt, in battle or in areas where bonepickers were not available. This type of burial was always performed by the wife of the deceased. Or, if he had no wife, it was performed by his mother or by one of his sisters. When a hunter or warrior was killed, his body was not touched by his fellow huntsmen or soldiers nor was his name ever spoken aloud again. A runner from the hunting or war party was dispatched to notify the wife (mother or sister) of the fallen. Immediately upon being notified of the death, the wife dirtied her hair and face, tore rents in her clothing and wailing dashed as rapidly as possible to the spot where the dead one lay. The body was not touched, even by the wife, mother or sister, but was “buried” as it had fallen whether that be in a sitting position, prone, propped against a tree or draped over a rock. Whatever weapons, hunting equipment or other items the fallen hunter or warrior had with him at the time of death remained untouched, considered as sacred as the body itself. In fact, it was considered fatal (as well as a sin) should anyone else have in possession any item or object that had been in the immediate possession of another person at the time of his death.

Upon arriving at the death scene, the wife (or mother), using only her hands or whatever primitive tools she could create from materials at hand would begin to construct a mound over the fallen man. It was slow and tedious work, as many times dirt had to be carried a bit at a time in hands or skirt tail, and Cypress bark had to be torn from trees with a small knife or by finger power. And, once the mound had been completed, small trees and shrubs had to be dug up by hand or with primitive tools for transplanting on the mound. Some women were known to have carried water for transplanting a mouthful at a time. The task often took days, and only when it was fully completed did the woman return to her home, drifting like a half-starved, skeletal and filthy ghost sometimes more dead than alive. She had not eaten any food since the moment she learned of her man’s death and had allowed herself only a few mouthfuls of water per day until her tragic task had been completed.

Unfortunately, few if any of these ancient grave mounds still exist.

Somewhere in time the giant mound prepared for the dead near Nanih Waiya, along with the golden sun symbol, have disappeared to a point that no signs can be found today that such a mound ever existed. Gone, too, are the individual grave mounds. Some were “robbed” by whites who discovered that “artifacts” such as knives, spears, and jewelry had been buried with the fallen hunters and warriors. The remainder of the individual burial mounds have long since been plowed under, and the bones of Okla have fertilized rich cotton fields and lush pastures of Mississippi farmers.

Apparently the ancient Okla burial customs continued to exist in pretty much the same form as previously described until the very late 1600s or the early 1700s, as French writers who visited the Choctaws in the earlier 1700s report the existence of such customs.

NEXT: The Second Mound