Bishinik July 1979 Page 10 & 11
Choctaw Funeral Customs Were Changing Through the years
By Len Green
No doubt you’ve heard or read stories about the Choctaw Bonepickers … the Funeral Cry … and other burial customs practiced by ancient Choctaws. Of course, the Bonepickers did exist, but it is doubtful if any white man ever saw one because the practice had almost died out and Choctaw burial customs were changing when Christopher Columbus saw the Bahamas and called them India.
And, the beautiful custom of the Choctaw “Funeral Cry” still exists. But, you’ll probably never see one. Believers in the old ways who still practice this custom keep it totally secret to keep away curious whites who do not understand the beauty of this old custom.
The oldest known and traceable custom concerning the dead was the deep respect that the ancient Choctaw had for the bones of his ancestors. The reasons for this are lost in antiquity, as much of the early legends about the origins of the Choctaws concerns the efforts by the people to preserve the bones of those who had died, Legends tells us that the Choctaws, who called themselves Okla ( the people), came from out of the west on a long march to find their homeland in what is now the states of Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama and Nanih Waiya, the sacred mound. With them on this march, they brought the bones of their ancestors, scorched, picked clean of flesh and carried with them in bags made from the skins of animals.
When a Choctaw died on the march, his or her family stopped, prepared the body, sacked the bones and carried them with them along the trail catching up with the main body of marchers as soon as possible. This was done by allowing the body to “ripen”, the flesh to slough away. Then the remaining bits of flesh and tendon on the bones were scorched and the bones picked clean and smoothed with the fingernails. The bones were then sewn and laced into a sack made of animal skin and were carried by the other members of the family on toward the land promised the Choctaws by Hashtahli.
On their exodus eastward, the Choctaws were led by Hatakni (the name is thought to be from the words “hattak” meaning man and “akni” meaning first born … thus “first born man”). The custom of curing and bringing along bones of Choctaw ancestors were laid down for the people by Hatakni according to instructions received by him from Hashtahli at the beginning of the eastward march.
Naturally, if a family was “sickly” or had a run of evil luck, it accumulated more ancestral bones and had larger loads to carry as the Choctaw marchers moved slowly eastward seeking the new land promised them. Legends say that some families had so many ancestral bones that they would carry half of them forward several miles, and then return for the other half, thus making very slow progress across the plains toward the Mississippi. The eastward movement consumed either 29 or 43 years, depending upon which recaller of legends you choose to credit, before the Choctaws crossed the Mississippi River and arrived at Nanih Waiya.
When it was determined that the sacred mound would become the center of the new homeland of the Choctaws, and the Choctaws were settled around Nanih Waiya, funeral customs began changing. Hatakni, the spiritual leader, and Chahta, the leader of the people, caused to be built another sacred mound in that style and shape of Nanih Waiya, to the north of and at right angles to the original mound. Inside this mound were placed all of the bones carried by the people through the long march. Here the bones were covered over with earth and the golden symbol of Hashtahli was placed atop the mound where it could catch the first light of the morning sun.
Chahta and Hatakni set aside two weeks in the autumn of the year between harvest and first frost and proclaimed the period as the time of the “Festival of Mourning for the Dead. ” “The Festival of Mourning for the Dead” was one of the two festivals observed by every member of the ancient Choctaw nation, with the other being, “The Green Corn Festival,” which was staged in the summer months to thank Hashtahli for good crops and plenty of game for the hunters.
It was during this period that the use of the “Bonepicker” came and went and the rudimentary “Funeral Cry,” one of the most beautiful funeral customs known to mankind, was born. Each Choctaw Iksa(or clan) included a family of Bonepickers. They shared in the food grown and gathered and the game killed, but their primary tasks were to keep themselves “pure” and to pick the bones of the dead.
Perhaps the best way to understand these ancient Choctaw funeral customs is to follow a body from death to the grave. Upon death, the body of the Choctaw was placed on a platform raised above the ground, either on posts or fastened high in trees but out in the clear enough that the breezes could pass on all sides of the body to help with the “ripening.” Generally, one moon month (28 days) was allowed for the body to become decomposed enough so that the Bonepicker could perform his part of the ceremony. While the body was “ripening,” the family of the dead person prepared for the final ceremony and notified relatives and friends when the ceremony would be held.
Relatives and friends would bring extra food for the funeral feast, and while the food was being prepared, the Bonepicker performed his services. He built a large fire, removing the flesh from the bones of the dead and destroying it in the flames. With his long, tough fingernails he removed all bits of decayed flesh, gristle and tendon from each bone and scraped it smooth. When all of the bones had been cleaned, they were placed into either a bag made from animal skins or into a basket woven tightly from bamboo cane with a lid that fastened tightly. When the Bonepicker’s job was completed, the family then invited relatives and friends present to partake of a funeral feast in memory of the departed.
Following the feast, the bones were taken to the “bone house.” Each Iksa or town had such a “bone house”, and here the bones remained until the time of the “Festival of Mourning for the Dead.” When the “Festival” time arrived, each family collected its bones from the bone house and transported them to the sacred mound. The mound was opened, the bones were placed inside and the mound again closed. After all the bones had been placed, the Festival of Mourning for the Dead was staged with feasting and religious dancing. Probably the best remembered dance from this era is the “Ribbon Lady Dance. ”
This ritual was observed by all Choctaws, with one large exception. This was in cases where the Choctaw had been killed in battle with the Chickasaw or Creek or when a hunter was attacked and killed by a bear or other game animal. In this case, the body had to remain where it was found. It could not be touched. If it were propped up against a tree or rock, the body was buried that way. All of the weapons carried by the hunter or warrior remained with the body.
The burial had to be performed either by the wife or the mother of the victim … the wife if he was married or the mother if he was not. If both wife and mother was dead the eldest living daughter or the eldest living sister inherited the task. When such a death occurred, a warrior or fellow hunter was dispatched to notify the widow of the death. She was told where the corpse lay, and then the other warriors or hunters went about their business. The woman was not allowed to touch the body, she had to carry stones and dirt from the area around the body and cover the body where it lay without disturbing the corpse. Thus it would still be possible to discover single burials in Mississippi woodlands.
By the mid 1700s, when the first white men made contact with the people of the Choctaw Nation, the “old way” and the Bonepicker had all but disappeared and a new set of funeral customs had evolved. The upraised platform had disappeared, replaced by burial. However, the custom of a “funeral feast” which will eventually become the “funeral cry” was still the common practice.
Despite a common belief to the contrary, no Choctaw’s “wealth” was ever buried with him. Buried with the body were his medicine bag or totem, a small sack of corn and a small jug of water to sustain him on his way to the “Happy Land,” and his personal arms (bow, arrows and knife) should he meet any opposition along the way.
Each family had its own cemetery, and generally the body was buried by other members of the family within 12 to 36 hours after the death. Seven stakes were cut, with the first stake being the shortest, the second a bit longer, the third longer than the second and so on until seven stakes of varying length had been cut. These stakes were firmly planted in the ground around the grave, fanning out in a semi-circle with the last or seventh stake in the circle being the farthest to the west (Remember that the Happy Land lay in the west). To the top of each of the seven stakes was fastened a loop made from liana vine, and sometimes wrapped with strips of cloth or skin died in the deceased’s clan colors. These loops were designed to help the spirit of the deceased pull himself from the grave and to point the spirit in the direction it must travel to reach the Happy Land. Again, as in the past, the time was marked and invitations issued to family relatives and friends noting the time and place for a funeral feast and the symbolic “pulling of the stakes.”
After the funeral feast, the feasters gathered around the grave singing songs, while the oldest male member of the family pulled the stakes to signify that the deceased had passed on westward into the Happy Land. In pulling the stakes, the order was reversed from the setting in that the longest stake was pulled first and then in diminishing sizes until the shortest stake (the one nearest the grave) was pulled.
Once a person had died, it was a practice never to mention his or her name aloud. This kept the evil spirits confused and did not give them an opening to attack other members of the family. This funeral custom persisted until the coming of Christianity to the Choctaw people. Thereafter, the Choctaws converted to their own version of Christian funeral customs.
To replace the seven stakes and loops, the Choctaws developed a custom of building a small log house over the grave. This custom continued among the Choctaws until the days just prior to World War II. As the houses were made from biodegradable materials, all of them have rejoined the earth and it is doubtful if even vestiges of them are still to be found around old Indian family cemeteries.
However, during the same period, the custom of the Funeral Cry was developed and refined into the beautiful ceremony that it was to become. On the day of a death, the oldest male member of the bereaved family would cut 28 small sticks, representing the days of the moon month and stick them into the eaves of the family house or cabin. Each morning thereafter, one stick would be removed and burned in a fire, until ten sticks remained. At that time, word was sent out to an relatives and friends as to the time and place for the Funeral Cry.
Those attending would bring food to the designated spot on the day that the final stick was removed from the eaves of the house, and the Funeral Cry would start. The family and guests would sit in circles, with the immediate family in the inmost circle, relatives in the next two or three circles and friends in the outer circles. All would eat, and after they had their fill the funeral crying (or talking) would begin. This would begin with the oldest male family member present. He would stand and tell everything good about the deceased that he could recall. Then in turn, each family member around the circle would do the same. After the inner circle had each had opportunity to speak, those in the second circle would speak and so forth until everyone had his or her say or the group became hungry again. Everyone present was allowed time to speak his thoughts about the deceased, with the only time-out being while the group stopped to eat some more of the food should that become necessary. The beauty of the Funeral Cry is in the facts that the family has been allowed the time to “get over” the harshest part of its grief and that only good may be spoken of the deceased person at his Funeral Cry.
After statehood, the curiosity of the whites led them to invade the Funeral Cries, disrupt the ceremony and cause problems, in the feeding of those invited guests who had helped supply the food. . As a result, the Funeral Cry went “underground.” They were held in secret in locations not easily accessible to curious whites. As time went by, fewer and fewer Choctaws continued the custom of holding Funeral Cries because of the problems created by “nosy” non-Indians who wanted to observe or even take photographs. A few Choctaws, who still adhere to the old ways, hold a Funeral Cry for a departed family member, but it is kept very, very secret to avoid the aforementioned problems.
Your writer knows of several Funeral Cries that have been held inside the old Choctaw Nation in the West in the past five or six years, and believes the custom of the Funeral Cry much superior to current funeral customs or any that the whites have come up with through the years.
“Sing no sad songs for me. Instead, tell others how I made you smile, how you enjoyed my company and little things I may have done along the way to be of help to you and yours,” is the essence of the Funeral Cry.
Beats sad singing, sonorous preaching and body viewing by a country mile, doesn’t it?