Burial Customs unique to Choctaws before 1800’s
The fundamental character of the belief in immortality is shown by its appearance in the burial customs, the most curious and the most distinctive of all Choctaw ceremonials. When a member of the tribe died, the body was covered with skins and bark and placed upon an elevated platform which was erected near the house for that purpose. Even if the death had occurred far from home, the body was carefully brought back and placed near the house.
Beside the corpse were placed food and drink, a change of clothing, and favorite utensils and ornaments which would be needed by the spirit in its long journey to the other world. A dog was killed to provide the deceased with a companion, and after the introduction of horses, ponies were also sacrificed so that the spirit might ride.
For the first few days a fire was kept constantly burning to furnish light and warmth for the journey.
The body remained upon the scaffold for a fixed period, which, however, seems to have varied from one to four or even six months according to local custom. During this time the relatives frequently resorted to the foot of the platform to wail and mourn, although in warm weather the stench from the decomposing body became so intolerable that the women sometimes fainted while performing this respect to the deceased.
Among the honored officials of the Choctaws were men – and possibly women – who were known as bonepickers. These undertakers were tattooed in a distinctive manner, and allowed their fingernails to grow long for their revolting occupation. When the body had remained upon the scaffold the specified time, a bone-picker was summoned, and all the relatives and friends were invited for the last rites.
These mourners surrounded the scaffold, wailing and weeping, while the grisly undertaker ascended the platform, and with his long finger nails thoroughly cleaned the bones of the putrefied flesh.
The bones were then passed down to the waiting relatives, the skull was painted with vermilion, and they were carefully placed in a coffin curiously constructed of such materials as bark and cane. The flesh was left on the platform, which was set on fire; or was carried away and buried.
The hamper of bones was borne with much ceremonial wailing to the village bone house, a rude structure built on poles and surrounded by a palisade. There it was placed in a row with other coffins, and the mourners returned to the house, where all participated in a feast over which the bone-picker presided (without having washed his hands, as shocked white observers were wont to state).
Apparently it was the custom at stated intervals once or twice a year, to hold a mourning ceremony at which the entire settlement participated. The hampers of bones were all removed at this time, but they were returned at the close of the ceremony. When the charnel house became full, the bones were buried; sometimes the earth was placed over it to form a mound, and sometimes the bones of several villages were carried out and placed in one heap and covered with soil. This custom accounts for the burial mound at Nanih Waiya and for the many smaller mounds that form such a distinctive feature of the old Choctaw country.
From The Rise and Fall Of The Choctaw Republic by Angie Debo, pages 4 and 5, Copyright © 1934, 1961 by the University of Oklahoma Press.
Customs and superstitions of Choctaws living in Indian Territory
One custom peculiar to Choctaw Christians was carried over from earlier times into the post Civil War era. This was the famous funeral cry, concerning which accounts differ. In some instance, apparently, the funeral sermon for the deceased one was not preached until six to twelve months after burial had occurred. In the meantime, friends and relatives would accompany the wife or mother to the grave occasionally for a crying session. Since the Indians buried their dead near their homes, the cry furnished an occasion for a visit with the family of the deceased. The Choctaws felt that it would be “like you were throwing them away to take them away from home and bury them.” Until quite recently it was customary in remote full-blood settlements to bury some of the belongings of the deceased with him. Clothing, perhaps some tan-fula, a saddle, and even the dog and pony of the departed one might be buried with him.
When the funeral sermon was preached under a brush arbor near the grave, there would be singing, praying and a final cry at the grave itself. Afterwards all present shared in a bountiful meal of barbecued beef and other foods. Other reports indicate that funeral cries took place at every summer camp meeting, or after any church service, for those who had died since the last meeting. The fact that this old tribal religious practice was not prohibited by the missionaries probably resulted from their belief that some compromise with native customs was necessary to ensure the adherence to the full-blood element to Christianity. In the 1880s a visiting white missionary pointedly asked Willis F. Folsom, a mixed blood minister: “Don’t you encourage . . . superstitions by officiating at these funerals?” to which Folsom merely replied evasively: “You don’t know the Indian.” The funeral cry naturally disappeared over the years and is rarely or never practiced today,
Another superstition which the Christian missionaries found extremely difficult to eradicate was the belief in witchcraft. The missionary influence can be seen in a law passed by the General Council as early as 1834 which declared, “That any person or persons who shall kill another for a witch or wizard, shall suffer death.” There was reason for the missionaries to worry about the power of the Choctaw superstitions. As late as 1899 a full-blood Presbyterian minister, who had been educated at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, and had held important posts in the Choctaw government, was found guilty of murdering witches. Nothing shows the power of Choctaw superstitions more that the deeds of this man, who was considered a progressive Choctaw and a firm believer in the need of the education of his people. Yet, faced with the sudden death of three of his children from diphtheria and the insistence that the deaths were attributed to witchcraft by the full-blood neighborhood, this man disregarded his excellent education, reverted to tribal belief in witches, and remembered only the Biblical injunction, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live, ” As a result, he shot and killed two women and one man, and wounded another man – all of whom the community believed were the witches causing the plague. After his arrest by federal officers, the minister wrote a friend, “I have done the act because I love the Lord’s work and because I love the people.” he was sentenced to death by a federal court, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by President Theodore Roosevelt. The witch-killer died in the Atlanta penitentiary in 1907, where he had been known as an exceptional man and a distinguished prisoner.
From The Social History of the Choctaw Nation: 1865-1907, by James D. Morrison, edited by James C. Milligan and L. David Norris, pages 25-26, copyright © 1987, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.