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The Feast of the Dead

 Native American Nations | The Jesuits in North America                    


Mention has been made of those great depositories of human bones found at the present day in the ancient country of the Hurons. [See Introduction.] They have been a theme of abundant speculation;1 yet their origin is a subject, not of conjecture, but of historic certainty. The peculiar rites to which they owe their existence were first described at length by Brébeuf, who, in the summer of the year 1636, saw them at the town of Ossossané.

The Jesuits had long been familiar with the ordinary rites of sepulture among the Hurons; the corpse placed in a crouching posture in the midst of the circle of friends and relatives; the long, measured wail of the mourners; the speeches in praise of the dead, and consolation to the living; the funeral feast; the gifts at the place of burial; the funeral games, where the young men of the village contended for prizes; and the long period of mourning to those next of kin. The body was usually laid on a scaffold, or, more rarely, in the earth. This, however, was not its final resting-place. At intervals of ten or twelve years, each of the four nations which composed the Huron Confederacy gathered together its dead, and conveyed them all to a common place of sepulture. Here was celebrated the great "Feast of the Dead,"--in the eyes of the Hurons, their most solemn and important ceremonial.

In the spring of 1636, the chiefs and elders of the Nation of the Bear--the principal nation of the Confederacy, and that to which Ihonatiria belonged--assembled in a general council, to prepare for the great solemnity. There was an unwonted spirit of dissension. Some causes of jealousy had arisen, and three or four of the Bear villages announced their intention of holding their Feast of the Dead apart from the rest. As such a procedure was thought abhorrent to every sense of propriety and duty, the announcement excited an intense feeling; yet Brébeuf, who was present, describes the debate which ensued as perfectly calm, and wholly free from personal abuse or recrimination. The secession, however, took place, and each party withdrew to its villages to gather and prepare its dead.

The corpses were lowered from their scaffolds, and lifted from their graves. Their coverings were removed by certain functionaries appointed for the office, and the hideous relics arranged in a row, surrounded by the weeping, shrieking, howling concourse. The spectacle was frightful. Here were all the village dead of the last twelve years. The priests, connoisseurs in such matters, regarded it as a display of mortality so edifying, that they hastened to summon their French attendants to contemplate and profit by it. Each family reclaimed its own, and immediately addressed itself to removing what remained of flesh from the bones. These, after being tenderly caressed, with tears and lamentations, were wrapped in skins and adorned with pendent robes of fur. In the belief of the mourners, they were sentient and conscious. A soul was thought still to reside in them;2 and to this notion, very general among Indians, is in no small degree due that extravagant attachment to the remains of their dead, which may be said to mark the race.

These relics of mortality, together with the recent corpses,--which were allowed to remain entire, but which were also wrapped carefully in furs,--were now carried to one of the largest houses, and hung to the numerous cross-poles, which, like rafters, supported the roof. Here the concourse of mourners seated themselves at a funeral feast; and, as the squaws of the household distributed the food, a chief harangued the assembly, lamenting the loss of the deceased, and extolling their virtues. This solemnity over, the mourners began their march for Ossossané, the scene of the final rite. The bodies remaining entire were borne on a kind of litter, while the bundles of bones were slung at the shoulders of the relatives, like fagots. Thus the procession slowly defiled along the forest pathways, with which the country of the Hurons was everywhere intersected; and as they passed beneath the dull shadow of the pines, they uttered at intervals, in unison, a dreary, wailing cry, designed to imitate the voices of disembodied souls winging their way to the land of spirits, and believed to have an effect peculiarly soothing to the conscious relics which each man bore. When, at night, they stopped to rest at some village on the way, the inhabitants came forth to welcome them with a grave and mournful hospitality.

From every town of the Nation of the Bear,--except the rebellious few that had seceded,--processions like this were converging towards Ossossané. This chief town of the Hurons stood on the eastern margin of Nottawassaga Bay, encompassed with a gloomy wilderness of fir and pine. Thither, on the urgent invitation of the chiefs, the Jesuits repaired. The capacious bark houses were filled to overflowing, and the surrounding woods gleamed with camp-fires: for the processions of mourners were fast arriving, and the throng was swelled by invited guests of other tribes. Funeral games were in progress, the young men and women practising archery and other exercises, for prizes offered by the mourners in the name of their dead relatives. [Funeral games were not confined to the Hurons and Iroquois: Perrot mentions having seen them among the Ottawas. An illustrated description of them will be found in Lafitau.] Some of the chiefs conducted Brébeuf and his companions to the place prepared for the ceremony. It was a cleared area in the forest, many acres in extent. In the midst was a pit, about ten feet deep and thirty feet wide. Around it was reared a high and strong scaffolding; and on this were planted numerous upright poles, with cross-poles extended between, for hanging the funeral gifts and the remains of the dead.

Meanwhile there was a long delay. The Jesuits were lodged in a house where more than a hundred of these bundles of mortality were hanging from the rafters. Some were mere shapeless rolls; others were made up into clumsy effigies, adorned with feathers, beads, and belts of dyed porcupine-quills. Amidst this throng of the living and the dead, the priests spent a night which the imagination and the senses conspired to render almost insupportable.

At length the officiating chiefs gave the word to prepare for the ceremony. The relics were taken down, opened for the last time, and the bones caressed and fondled by the women amid paroxysms of lamentation.3 Then all the processions were formed anew, and, each bearing its dead, moved towards the area prepared for the last solemn rites. As they reached the ground, they defiled in order, each to a spot assigned to it, on the outer limits of the clearing. Here the bearers of the dead laid their bundles on the ground, while those who carried the funeral gifts outspread and displayed them for the admiration of the beholders. Their number was immense, and their value relatively very great. Among them were many robes of beaver and other rich furs, collected and preserved for years, with a view to this festival. Fires were now lighted, kettles slung, and, around the entire circle of the clearing, the scene was like a fair or caravansary. This continued till three o'clock in the afternoon, when the gifts were repacked, and the bones shouldered afresh. Suddenly, at a signal from the chiefs, the crowd ran forward from every side towards the scaffold, like soldiers to the assault of a town, scaled it by rude ladders with which it was furnished, and hung their relics and their gifts to the forest of poles which surmounted it. Then the ladders were removed; and a number of chiefs, standing on the scaffold, harangued the crowd below, praising the dead, and extolling the gifts, which the relatives of the departed now bestowed, in their names, upon their surviving friends.

During these harangues, other functionaries were lining the grave throughout with rich robes of beaver-skin. Three large copper kettles were next placed in the middle,4 and then ensued a scene of hideous confusion. The bodies which had been left entire were brought to the edge of the grave, flung in, and arranged in order at the bottom by ten or twelve Indians stationed there for the purpose, amid the wildest excitement and the uproar of many hundred mingled voices.5 When this part of the work was done, night was fast closing in. The concourse bivouacked around the clearing, and lighted their camp-fires under the brows of the forest which hedged in the scene of the dismal solemnity. Brébeuf and his companions withdrew to the village, where, an hour before dawn, they were roused by a clamor which might have wakened the dead. One of the bundles of bones, tied to a pole on the scaffold, had chanced to fall into the grave. This accident had precipitated the closing act, and perhaps increased its frenzy. Guided by the unearthly din, and the broad glare of flames fed with heaps of fat pine logs, the priests soon reached the spot, and saw what seemed, in their eyes, an image of Hell. All around blazed countless fires, and the air resounded with discordant outcries.6 The naked multitude, on, under, and around the scaffold, were flinging the remains of their dead, discharged from their envelopments of skins, pell-mell into the pit, where Brébeuf discerned men who, as the ghastly shower fell around them, arranged the bones in their places with long poles. All was soon over; earth, logs, and stones were cast upon the grave, and the clamor subsided into a funereal chant,--so dreary and lugubrious, that it seemed to the Jesuits the wail of despairing souls from the abyss of perdition.7

For other descriptions of these rites, see Charlevoix, Bressani, Du Creux, and especially Lafitau, in whose work they are illustrated with engravings. In one form or another, they were widely prevalent. Bartram found them among the Floridian tribes. Traces of a similar practice have been observed in recent times among the Dacotahs. Remains of places of sepulture, evidently of kindred origin, have been found in Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, and Ohio. Many have been discovered in several parts of New York, especially near the River Niagara. (See Squier, Aboriginal Monuments of New York.) This was the eastern extremity of the ancient territory of the Neuters. One of these deposits is said to have contained the bones of several thousand individuals. There is a large mound on Tonawanda Island, said by the modern Senecas to be a Neuter burial-place. (See Marshall, Historical Sketches of the Niagara Frontier, 8.) In Canada West, they are found throughout the region once occupied by the Neuters, and are frequent in the Huron district.

Dr. Taché writes to me,--"I have inspected sixteen bone-pits," (in the Huron country,) "the situation of which is indicated on the little pencil map I send you. They contain from six hundred to twelve hundred skeletons each, of both sexes and all ages, all mixed together purposely. With one exception, these pits also contain pipes of stone or clay, small earthen pots, shells, and wampum wrought of these shells, copper ornaments, beads of glass, and other trinkets. Some pits contained articles of copper of aboriginal Mexican fabric."

This remarkable fact, together with the frequent occurrence in these graves of large conch-shells, of which wampum was made, and which could have been procured only from the Gulf of Mexico, or some part of the southern coast of the United States, proves the extent of the relations of traffic by which certain articles were passed from tribe to tribe over a vast region. The transmission of pipes from the famous Red Pipe-Stone Quarry of the St. Peter's to tribes more than a thousand miles distant is an analogous modern instance, though much less remarkable.

The Taché Museum, at the Laval University of Quebec, contains a large collection of remains from these graves. In one instance, the human bones are of a size that may be called gigantic.

In nearly every case, the Huron graves contain articles of use or ornament of European workmanship. From this it may be inferred, that the nation itself, or its practice of inhumation, does not date back to a period long before the arrival of the French.

The Northern Algonquins had also a solemn Feast of the Dead; but it was widely different from that of the Hurons.--See the very curious account of it by Lalemant, Relation des Hurons, 1642, 94, 95.]

Such was the origin of one of those strange sepulchres which are the wonder and perplexity of the modern settler in the abandoned forests of the Hurons.

The priests were soon to witness another and a more terrible rite, yet one in which they found a consolation, since it signalized the saving of a soul,--the snatching from perdition of one of that dreaded race, into whose very midst they hoped, with devoted daring, to bear hereafter the cross of salvation. A band of Huron warriors had surprised a small party of Iroquois, killed several, and captured the rest. One of the prisoners was led in triumph to a village where the priests then were. He had suffered greatly; his hands, especially, were frightfully lacerated. Now, however, he was received with every mark of kindness. "Take courage," said a chief, addressing him; "you are among friends." The best food was prepared for him, and his captors vied with each other in offices of good-will. [This pretended kindness in the treatment of a prisoner destined to the torture was not exceptional. The Hurons sometimes even supplied their intended victim with a temporary wife.] He had been given, according to Indian custom, to a warrior who had lost a near relative in battle, and the captive was supposed to be adopted in place of the slain. His actual doom was, however, not for a moment in doubt. The Huron received him affectionately, and, having seated him in his lodge, addressed him in a tone of extreme kindness. "My nephew, when I heard that you were coming, I was very glad, thinking that you would remain with me to take the place of him I have lost. But now that I see your condition, and your hands crushed and torn so that you will never use them, I change my mind. Therefore take courage, and prepare to die tonight like a brave man."

The prisoner coolly asked what should be the manner of his death.

"By fire," was the reply.

"It is well," returned the Iroquois.

Meanwhile, the sister of the slain Huron, in whose place the prisoner was to have been adopted, brought him a dish of food, and, her eyes flowing with tears, placed it before him with an air of the utmost tenderness; while, at the same time, the warrior brought him a pipe, wiped the sweat from his brow, and fanned him with a fan of feathers.

About noon he gave his farewell feast, after the custom of those who knew themselves to be at the point of death. All were welcome to this strange banquet; and when the company were gathered, the host addressed them in a loud, firm voice: "My brothers, I am about to die. Do your worst to me. I do not fear torture or death." Some of those present seemed to have visitings of real compassion; and a woman asked the priests if it would be wrong to kill him, and thus save him from the fire.

The Jesuits had from the first lost no opportunity of accosting him; while he, grateful for a genuine kindness amid the cruel hypocrisy that surrounded him, gave them an attentive ear, till at length, satisfied with his answers, they baptized him. His eternal bliss secure, all else was as nothing; and they awaited the issue with some degree of composure.

A crowd had gathered from all the surrounding towns, and after nightfall the presiding chief harangued them, exhorting them to act their parts well in the approaching sacrifice, since they would be looked upon by the Sun and the God of War. [Areskoui (see Introduction). He was often regarded as identical with the Sun. The semi-sacrificial character of the torture in this case is also shown by the injunction, "que pour ceste nuict on n'allast point folastrer dans les bois."--Le Mercier, Relation des Huron, 1637, 114.] It is needless to dwell on the scene that ensued. It took place in the lodge of the great war chief, Atsan. Eleven fires blazed on the ground, along the middle of this capacious dwelling. The platforms on each side were closely packed with spectators; and, betwixt these and the fires, the younger warriors stood in lines, each bearing lighted pine-knots or rolls of birch-bark. The heat, the smoke, the glare of flames, the wild yells, contorted visages, and furious gestures of these human devils, as their victim, goaded by their torches, bounded through the fires again and again, from end to end of the house, transfixed the priests with horror. But when, as day dawned, the last spark of life had fled, they consoled themselves with the faith that the tortured wretch had found his rest at last in Paradise.

[Le Mercier's long and minute account of the torture of this prisoner is too revolting to be dwelt upon. One of the most atrocious features of the scene was the alternation of raillery and ironical compliment which attended it throughout, as well as the pains taken to preserve life and consciousness in the victim as long as possible. Portions of his flesh were afterwards devoured.]

1 Among those who have wondered and speculated over these remains is Mr. Schoolcraft. A slight acquaintance with the early writers would have solved his doubts.

2 In the general belief, the soul took flight after the great ceremony was ended. Many thought that there were two souls, one remaining with the bones, while the other went to the land of spirits.

3 "I'admiray la tendresse d'vne femme enuers son pere et ses enfans; elle est fille d'vn Capitaine, qui est mort fort âgé, et a esté autrefois fort considerable dans le Païs: elle luy peignoit sa cheuelure, elle manioit ses os les vns apres les autres, auec la mesme affection que si elle luy eust voulu rendre la vie; elle luy mit aupres de luy son Atsatone8ai, c'est à dire son pacquet de buchettes de Conseil, qui sont tous les liures et papiers du Païs. Pour ses petits enfans, elle leur mit des brasselets de Pourcelaine et de rassade aux bras, et baigna leurs os de ses larmes; on ne l'en pouuoit quasi separer, mais on pressoit, et il fallut incontinent partir."--Brébeuf, Relation des Hurons, 1636, 134.]

4 In some of these graves, recently discovered, five or six large copper kettles have been found, in a position corresponding with the account of Brébeuf. In one, there were no less than twenty-six kettles.]

5 "Iamais rien ce m'a mieux figuré la confusion qui est parmy les damnez. Vous eussiez veu décharger de tous costez des corps à demy pourris, et de tous costez on entendoit vn horrible tintamarre de voix confuses de personnes qui parloient et ne s'entendoient pas."--Brébeuf, Relation des Hurons, 1636, 135.]

6 "Approchans, nous vismes tout à fait une image de l'Enfer: cette grande place estoit toute remplie de feux & de flammes, & l'air retentissoit de toutes parts des voix confuses de ces Barbares," etc.--Brébeuf, Relation des Hurons, 1636, 209 (Cramoisy).]

7 "Se mirent à chanter, mais d'un ton si lamentable & si lugubre, qu'il nous representoit l'horrible tristesse & l'abysme du desespoir dans lequel sont plongées pour iamais ces âmes malheureuses."--Ibid., 210.

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The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867

Jesuits in North America


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