Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Northwest Coast Burials/Mortuary Practices


Prince, Paul.
2002. Cultural Coherency and Resistance in Historic-Period Northwest-Coast Mortuary Practices at Kimsquit. Historical Archaeology. 36:50-65  
            This article is entirely about analyzing the mortuary practices of the Kimsquit peoples located in British Columbia through a cemetery dating from A.D. 1850-1927. Burial features at this cemetery are densest at the southwestern end of the terrace, which is called the core. Total, 261 graves have been documented here. Eighty percent are circular depressions. Circular graves such as these suggest the body is placed in a squatting position into a box. The bodies were placed facing east. The decay of the box would leave the ircular depression. Other types included the occasional placement of bodies into caves or rock clefts.
                Forty-one of the graves are elongated depressions. This means they were places in rectangular coffins in an extended position and then placed in a grave of appropriate size. This version could have been adopted for convenience, saving time and also saving the time of binding or breaking bones to fit the body into the smaller graves. Sometimes, grave houses were erected over the burials. There were ten such houses in the core. These were small cabin like structure that had roofs, windows, and a door.
                Headstones sometimes memorialize more than one family member, so houses may have covered more than one burial. The origin of grave houses is thought to lie in the north, where the Haidia had built mortuary house crypts prior to contact. Though contact had little impact on the beliefs. The burial ritual and values behind interment remained essentially unchanged.
                Disposal of personal possessions at the grave site was an important part of the ritual. Their personal things, especially things used exclusively by them, were burned at the grave side in two stages: on the day of the funeral and four days later. Anything that could not burn (European-manufactured items) were left on the fire or placed in a grave house, if there was one. The thought process behind this burning was that the reuse of these things could cause sickness. Another idea was that they would fall through the cemetery to the underworld where the ghosts were expecting to use them. Things burned on the day of the funeral were distributed among the ghosts of the dead. Goods burned on the fourth day were exclusively for the ghost of the deceased. If they did not receive the goods, they could cause harm to the community. Assemblages of grave goods show a trend towards increased access to non-burnable Euro-Canadian goods.
                Two types of grave memorials were erected: The traditional mortuary carvings and poles, and the one we know today (tombstones, crosses, fences). The picket fences were the same as the indigenous practice of erecting stakes and ropes around a grave to keep the ghost in. The Euro-Canadian goods, grave monuments, and building materials represented at Kimsquit were all adapted to uniquely native contexts in accordance with deeply entrenched values. They did not disrupt the preexisting mortuary system. If anything, their use indicates a reaffirmation of aboriginal traditions, despite an outward resemblance to Euro-Canadian culture.

MacLeod, William C.
1925 Certain Mortuary Aspects of Northwest Coast Culture. American Anthropologist. 27:122-148

                It begins with talking about the immolation of widows being bound up with the practice of cremation. When a Carrier died, the body was removed and put under a roof-like shelter. The widow (and children) raised a small hut next to this one and lived in it. However, cremation did not take place right away. The heir of the family needed to have enough wealth to potlach. The widow had to lie next to her dead husband, for nine days, from dusk till dawn. After nine days of this, the body would then be cremated.
                It was placed on a pyre. According to the article, "If the doctor who attended him has escaped uninjured, he is obliged to be present at the ceremony, and for the a last time tries his skill in restoring the defunct to life." Failing this, the shaman throws "a present" on the burning body, "which in some measure appeases the resentment of the relatives, and preserves the unfortunate quack from being maltreated."" The widow is also subject to maltreatment, as she cannot leave her dead husband's side on the pyre until the doctor order her to be removed. This is never done until she is completely covered with blisters. After getting up, she is obligated to put her hands into the fire and collect some of the fat that is coming from the corpse. With this, he is allowed to 'wet' her face and body.
                When the sinews of the legs and arms contract from the heat, friends of the dead man make the widow straighten the limbs. If she committed any crime against her husband, an affair, mistreating him or his clothing, etc., she might be repeatedly flung onto the pyre by his relations. Her friends are the ones who drag her out. She is propelled in this continual cycle until she collapses into a state of insensibility. Etiquette demands she try to basically burn herself along with her husband. After the cremation is done, the widow takes the larger charred bones that remains and is to carry them with her in a pack on her back for several years. She is now a "slave" and is treated as such by women and children; relatives can be especially cruel. After three to four years, the mourning period is done. Then she is liberated and allowed to remarry if she wishes. Many widows commit suicide to escape all of this.
                Men who go through this same ritual, have it slightly easier. They have a modified bondage during the mourning period and do not have to carry the bones. From what I understand, they do not have to suffer as much fire either. Still, the relatives of the dead will throw the remaining spouse into the fire regardless of sex, while the friends struggle to save them.
                In Natchez culture, the widower or the widow, whoever is left, is strangled to death. The article continues on to talk about various 'hells' and what happens to someone's spirit depending on how they died. One tribe that is talked about is the Chinook. When a death occurs, two men are employed as undertakers. They dress the corpse before sunrise, carry it away, and inter it. Supposedly, through songs, they communicate and control the spirits of the deceased. At night, three or four shamans who have the power to recall the souls of people who are not really dead, watch the corpse. When satisfied that they are really dead, the body is carried away. the article talks about several other tribes who have something quite similar.
                Mummification is the last topic discussed in the article. the Aleuts laid the dead on a platform. It was eviscerated either through the pelvis or the anus. Fat was washed out in running water and the body was then dried and wrapped up into a sitting position in matting that was waterproofed. Sometimes, it was left in a 'lifelike' way, dressed and armed. Effigies placed with them could have been animals they were 'hunting' in their lifelike posture, or it would have been something to do with what they were portrayed as doing. Mummification was for wealthy families, with both males and females being mummified. Although in another tribe, only the males who whaled were mummified.

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