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Indigenous Peoples of the World. Symbolism in Grief

From a modern Western perspective the mortuary practices of many indigenous groups around the world are among the most diverse. Indigenous peoples, as defined by the World Bank, are closely attached to ancestral territories and their natural resources, and are generally subsistence oriented. Indigenous peoples often are also the non-dominant groups in a society. Despite cultural evolution of surrounding groups, indigenous groups might eschew modern mortuary practices for their own traditional, mourning customs. The practices of indigenous peoples provide a window into the historic continuity of certain behaviors that precede colonialism or settlement by more dominant groups.1

Native North Americans

Religious beliefs play an essential role in mortuary behavior and mourning rituals for the great majority of the cultures discussed in this book. For peoples who have been the target of missionary expeditions, these behaviors and rituals can be confounded by traditional, indigenous beliefs and those of the adopted religions. In one example, Quincy Newell discusses how baptized Indians in California, between 1776 and 1821, approached major rituals accorded with birth, marriage, and death at Mission San Francisco. While over 600 Indians were baptized at the Mission, only some completely embraced the Catholic religion.

Few children lived past the age of two at the Mission. Disease in the crowded and unsanitary conditions, lack of dietary variety, and stress of acclimating to an unfamiliar culture were all cited as causes of the high mortality of both children and adults. Preferences for cremation or burial and other practices varied among Indians, but like the Apache (described below) mourning rituals of Indians at the Mission were elaborately violent affairs; belongings of the deceased were destroyed, mourners blackened their faces and cut their hair, although these practices were likely forbidden by the priests.2

Because they were considered too young to understand the sacraments, children did not receive penitence and extreme unction before death. Therefore, parents took their ill or dying children from the Mission to their native land. This practice indicated that in times of distress and death some Indians sought comfort with the familiar; their traditional cures for illness, customary mourning ceremonies, and burial in the land where they or their parents were born.3

Kiowa-Apaches have been noted to have extreme fear of ghosts. Accordingly, for them death was a traumatic experience. They believed that deceased ancestors came to escort them to the afterlife. Reaction to a death of a close relative was tempestuous; clothes were torn, naked bodies exposed, and perhaps even a finger was cut off. (Similarly, women in some aboriginal tribes will cut off fingers to represent those who died as a form of grieving). The ghosts of children, however, caused little concern “because of their innocence and lack of rancor”. Consequently, children’s deaths did not activate the same violent reaction as for those of adults. Despite the lack of fear of child ghosts, it was believed that children should be protected as they were vulnerable to a ghostly attack. Children were taught to look away from whirlwinds (thought to carry spirits), kept from funerals, and forbidden to touch a corpse. A newly mobile child’s footprints were rubbed out, and if a child were left alone, a stick would be laid across his or her cradle.4

The burial practices of many tribes indicated concern for their young at death. For example, the Anasazi left many burial sites of infants. Infants were found wrapped in Yucca fibers and fur, and were buried carefully in their cradles where mourners left baskets, sandals and beads. Similarly, in the southwestern and southern United States, the Basketmakers (a group of hunters and gathers who lived in caves between 100—700 AD), often buried their infants (including fetuses) and young children in masses of soft fibers made from the leaves of Yucca plants or shrouded in fur, skin or feather-cloth blankets. These wrappings were used for both the living and the dead. Like the Anasazi, babies were left with grave goods. Generally the bodies were left in pits commonly used for storage, but some were left on the floor of a cave or placed in a crevice.5 Other tribes, such as the Muskogean of the southeastern United States, buried their children in Pithoi (burial jars).

A desiccated three year old Pueblo child was found on an elaborate cradle- board with a cotton wood-bark sunshade placed on his head and adorned with a bracelet around the wrist. This burial was considered unusual, as other burials of the time were less extravagant and did not have grave coverings. Archaeologists infer that the child may have been disabled, perhaps unable to walk, because of the placement of the toddler on a cradleboard.6 Usually only infants were buried on a cradleboard or in a grass nest, while others were placed in twined bags or, more often, in an animal fur shroud.

Babies of many native peoples were often believed to be reincarnations of ancestors. Therefore, these children were never hit, or else it was thought that the soul of an offended ancestor would depart the body and leave behind a dead child. In another example, Huron and Meskwaki mothers buried dead infants beside footpaths in the belief that the spirit would be reincarnated by entering the body of a woman passing.7 These beliefs also were evident in naming practices (discussed further in Chapter 8).

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