Ethnohistoric Background

The following are ethnohistoric descriptions of Siouan mortuary behavior as well as accounts of such behavior in other, neighboring cultures, particularly groups that lived to the northeast where there is a rich reservoir of ethnohistoric data. There were strong cultural affiliations between some of the interior northern tribes and the Siouans, particularly the Occaneechi. This relationship is best supported by the fact that many of the Tutelo, Occaneechi, and Saponi ultimately settled with the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy in New York (Mooney 1894:55).

In searching the ethnohistoric record for descriptions of burial practices among Siouan groups and their neighbors, one quickly discovers a paucity of such observations by European visitors. The extant written records are by individuals who visited the tribes for relatively brief intervals. Given communities with populations of about 200, and a high mortality rate of 30 per 1000, there would be an average of about six deaths per year (Gruber 1971:64-65). It is obvious, therefore, that the chance of a traveler such as John Lawson or John Lederer observing a burial ceremony first-hand would be very slight. Certainly the frequency of observations would not have been sufficient to allow detailed descriptions of patterns of mortuary behavior. Also, it should be recognized that, even if an outsider did arrive at a village at the time of a death, it is unlikely that he would be told about the death or allowed to observe the mortuary ritual. This point is made clear by Adair (1930:189), who observed among the Cherokee that

they will not associate with us, when we are burying any of our people, who die in their land: and they are unwilling we should join with them while they are performing this Kindred duty to theirs.

Thus, because of the relatively low frequency of death and burial, and the fact that most groups probably did not allow outsiders to observe or participate in burial ceremonies, most of those descriptions that are available probably are second-hand.

John Lawson, the most detailed chronicler of the Indians of the Carolina Piedmont, wrote concerning the South Carolina Indians that their tombs were located near the cabins, with the implication that these tombs were grouped. "Near to these Cabins are several Tombs made after the manner of these Indians; the largest and chiefest of them was the Sepulche of the late Indian King of the Santees" (Lefler 1967:27). Lawson goes on to describe in detail the burial customs of the Santee.

The manner of their interment is thus: A Mole or Pyramid of Earth is raised, the Mould thereof being worked very smooth and even, sometimes higher or lower, according to the Dignity of the Person whose Monument it is. On the Top thereof is an Umbrella made Ridgeways, like the Roof of an House, this is supported by nine stakes, or small posts, the Grave being about six or eight Foot in Length and four foot in Breadth; about it is hung Gourds, Feathers and other such Trophies, placed there by the dead Man's Relations, in respect to him in the Grave. (Lefler 1967:28)

Lawson continues by describing pre-burial mortuary behavior and states that when someone died, they were laid out in the sun and "seasoned" with a concoction made of bear fat and a red root. This ointment was also used by the living as a hair dressing. After two or three days, the body was covered with pine or cypress bark. The worldly possessions of the deceased were brought to the body, and a close male relative sang "a mournful Ditty" for three or four more days. Finally, when it decayed to the extent that it could be stripped from the bone, the flesh was removed and burned. The bones were then thoroughly cleaned, oiled, and put into a wooden box to be kept by the deceased's closest relative (Lefler 1967:28).

Lawson also mentions a burial ceremony that took place while he was visiting a Tuscarora town and stated that it was "much the same as that of the Santees, who make a great feast at the interment of their Corpse" (Lefler 1967:66).

Lawson (Lefler 1967:185-189) also discusses mortuary rituals in his general description of the Indians of Carolina. He lists a sequence of the events that is very similar to his description of the Santee ritual. There was a great deal of mourning by the nearest relatives, and the corpse, after lying in an outbuilding constructed for that purpose for a day and a night, was wrapped in a blanket or match coat and two or three cane or rush mats. This bundle was then enclosed by a web of woven reeds or cane. Next, the body was taken outside the village ("into an orchard of Peach-Trees") where the individual's kinsmen and other members of his tribe as well as representatives from allied tribes listened to a shaman ("Doctor or Conjurer") give a detailed account of the highlights of the dead person's life. After this lengthy discourse, the corpse was carried to the burial pit which was six feet deep and eight feet long. A forked branch of pitch pine or light wood was driven down either side of the grave, and several layers of bark were placed on the bottom. The corpse was then laid down gently, and a pole was placed across the two forked sticks.

Having a great many Pieces of Pitch-Pine logs about two foot and a half long, they stick them in the sides of the Grave down each End and near the top thereof, where the other ends lie on the Ridge-Pole, so that they are declining like the Roof of a House. These being very thick placed, they cover them (Many times double) with Bark; then they throw the Earth thereon that came out of the Grave, and beat it down very firm; by this means the dead Body lies in a Vault, nothing touches him; so that when I saw this way of Burial, I was mightily pleased with it, esteeming it very decent and pretty, as having seen a great many Christians buried without the tenth part of that Ceremony and Decency. (Lefler 1967:18)

After the flesh had rotted, the bones were taken out, dressed in deer skins, and placed in a charnel house to accompany the remains of other "Kings" and "War-Captains." Lawson continues his description by saying that, although the burial ceremonies differed slightly among the various Indians, all had in common

the Mourning, which is, to appear every night at the Sepulchre, and howl and weep in a very dismal manner. . . . If the dead Person was a Grandee, to carry on the Funeral Ceremonies, they hire People to cry and lament over the dead Man. (Lefler 1967:189)

The first part of Lawson's descriptions seems appropriate and generally conforms to the archaeological record. However, there is no archaeological evidence that the Occaneechis or other Siouan burials were unearthed, defleshed, and placed in communal burial houses. It appears that Lawson combined some attributes of Siouan mortuary customs with the Algonquian practice of defleshing bodies and storing them in charnel houses until they were interred in a communal pit or ossuary. There is abundant archaeological evidence from Siouan sites, including Occaneechi Town, that bodies were wrapped prior to interment and that the graves contained chambers or vaults (Navey 1982).

The only other description of Siouan burial ritual comes from John Lederer, written in 1670. Lederer's account is interesting because he clearly states that individuals were buried in cemeteries.

Their places of Burial they divide into four quarters, assigning to every Tribe one: for, to mingle their bodies, even when dead, they hold wicked and ominous. They commonly wrap up the corpse in beasts skins, and bury with it Provision and Household stuff for its use in the other world. When their great men die, they likewise slay prisoners of war to attend them. (Cumming 1958:14)

As with Lawson, Lederer mentions that the bodies were wrapped before burial. He also states that grave goods, in particular utilitarian items, were placed with the dead. Unfortunately, it is not possible to ascertain what social divisions Lederer's "tribe" refers to. The implication is that these were clans of one village, since they shared a common cemetery that was divided into spatial units. There are no historical accounts or archaeological evidence to support his contention that prisoners of war were killed at the time of the death of their "great men." This statement, rather, seems to reflect Lederer's familiarity with de Acosta's account of the Mexican Indians rather than a first-hand observation of Siouan mortuary behavior (see Cumming 1958:13, footnote).

There are several ethnohistoric accounts of mortuary behavior of the Indians located just north of the Siouan area. These accounts are important because they seem to have some close counterparts in the archaeological record of the Occaneechis. A recurring theme in virtually all of these accounts is the emphasis placed on feasting in the mortuary ritual. Lawson, however, only refers to feasting indirectly when comparing the Santee burial customs with those of the Tuscarora. Another important aspect of mortuary behavior shared by most of the northern groups is the fact that gift-giving and redistribution also were part of the mortuary pattern. Among Algonquian groups in Maine, the Jesuit Pere Pierre Biard observed that the village prepared a feast which continued, day and night, from the time of death until all of the food was gone (Bushnell 1920:12). In describing the burial ritual Biard states that

They arch the graves over with sticks, so that the earth will not fall back into it, and thus they cover up the tomb. . . . If it is some illustrious personage they build a Pyramid or monument of interlacing poles. . . . If it is a man, they place there as a sign and emblem, his bow, arrows, and shield; if a woman, spoons, Matachias, or jewels, ornaments, etc. . . . they bury with the dead man all that he owns, such as his bag, his arrows, his skins and all his other articles and baggage. (Baird, quoted in Bushnell 1920:13)

The description of the grave with sticks arching over it to prevent dirt from touching the body is very similar to Lawson's account. Also of interest is the mention of grave offerings being differentiated by sex and of the graves being marked on the surface by some of the belongings of the deceased. Apparently among these Algonquians, all of the personal property of the deceased was buried with him and not redistributed among the living.

A description of the burial of a Delaware chief's wife in 1762 clearly indicates the importance of feasting and the redistribution of goods, particularly European trade goods, in the burial ritual (Bushnell 1920:22). As with the Algonquians, burial was in a cemetery located outside the village, and graves were marked with painted or decorated posts. The deceased was wrapped and covered to avoid contact with the dirt. At the end of the funeral procession from the village to the cemetery area, "two stout men [carried] loads of European manufactured goods upon their backs." After the grave was covered and surrounded by a palisade, food was prepared and passed out.

Then presents were distributed the many things which had been carried by the two men in the rear of the procession. Those who had rendered assistance were given the most valuable and highly prized pieces, but no one was omitted. . . . At dusk after the burial, a kettle of food was placed upon the grave, and this was renewed every evening for three weeks. (Heckewelder, quoted in Bushnell 1920:22)

A couple of important inferences can be drawn from the above description. First, the re-distribution of European goods as part of the mortuary ritual may provide a clue as to how these goods were generally distributed within various social groups. Second, not only was there a feast for the living, but food was also placed on the grave so that the deceased might share in the feast. The fact that food is placed on the grave itself has archaeological implications that will be discussed later in this section.

The Delaware also put

tobacco pouch, knife, tinder box, tobacco and pipe, bow and arrow, gun powder and shot, skins and cloth for clothes, paint, a small bag of Indian corn or dried bilberries, sometimes the kettle, hatchet, and other furniture of the deceased, into the grave, supposing that the departed spirits would have the same wants and occupations in the land of souls. (Loskiel, quoted in Heye and Pepper 1915:77)

There are also detailed descriptions of the mortuary behavior of the Shawnee, who are thought to be related to the Seneca and Delaware. These accounts state that the graves were lined with wood or bark which also covered the body. Before burial, gifts were brought to the dead person's kinsmen and redistributed. After burial, a small house was constructed over the grave, and a large feast was served to the funeral guests. After the third day, an all-night vigil was held. A meal was prepared for the deceased and served to the dead and his blood kin prior to and during the vigil (Voegelin 1944:240-245).

Food and fire were placed on the grave for three nights during the journey to the other world. On the fourth morning, food for a feast was again set near the grave. At this time, the funeral leader spoke to the dead while burning tobacco in a small fire made near the grave. The Shawnee believed that the smoke created by the tobacco being thrown in the fire would take the leader's words upward to the dwelling place of the spirit of the dead (Voegelin 1944:261-268).

Another interesting feature of Shawnee burial ritual is that all the dirt excavated from the burial pit had to be placed back on top of the grave. If this was not done, the Shawnee believed that another death would occur shortly in the same family (Voegelin 1944:390). Feasts were held and gifts were redistributed one year after an individual died. Accounts prior to 1687 indicate that these feasts were given annually for a period of four years (Voegelin 1944:297).

The most detailed description of Susquehannock culture comes from the 1666 writings of George Alsop, who published the following account of their mortuary practices:

When any among them depart this life, they give him no other intombment, then to set him upright upon his breech in a hole dug five feet long and three feet deep, covered with the Bark of Trees Arch-wise, with his face Du-West, only leaving a hole half a foot square open. They dress him in the same Equipage and Gallantry that he to be trim'd in when he was alive, and so bury him (if a Soldier) with his Bows, Arrows, and Target, together with all the rest of his implements and weapons of War, with a Kettle of Broth, and Corn standing before him, lest he should met with bad quarters in his way. . . . They bury all within the wall of Palisade'd impalement of their City or Cannadogo as they call it. (Alsop, quoted in Kent 1984:41)

Kent (1984:41) finds that Alsop's description of the Susquehannock form of burial fits fairly well with the archaeological evidence. According to Kent, individuals originally placed in burial pits in a sitting position later would have fallen over from pressure of collapsing dirt, thus creating the flexed posture normally found in Susquehannock burials. Alsop's description of grave goods also matches the archaeological record.

Every detail of the ethnohistoric descriptions should not be accepted uncritically, but there are regularities and trends that suggest that the more general aspects of the descriptions are accurate. For example, the burials were always wrapped to avoid contact with the earth. In addition, they were usually covered and placed in a dirt-free chamber. Some had other coverings, in the form of small house-like structures, placed on the top of the grave. In some cases, the burials were protected by palisades. All the ethnohistoric accounts indicate that burials were grouped in cemeteries spatially distinct from the habitation areas. Feasts were prepared as part of the mortuary ritual, and in some instances, these feasts were renewed for several years on the anniversary of the death. Usually, although these feasts were prepared by the deceased's relatives, they were participated in by the village as a whole. Food was also prepared for the dead and placed on or near the grave. A redistribution of material goods, usually items of European manufacture, almost always accompanied the redistribution of food. In most cases, special attention was given leaders, with "grandees" and "kings" receiving greatest accord.

It is also important to note that food and personal property were placed with the burials. Among the Susquehannocks, these items included implements and weapons that the individual had owned during life. Algonquians buried with the dead all that he owned, and the Delaware placed food, weapons, and tools with the dead. A common theme seems to be that an individual was given what his kinsmen determined that he would need in the afterlife, and these needs were perceived as being similar to those the individual had while alive.