As I read slowly through Ronald L. Grimes’ book, “Ritual Criticism,” (slowly because I have to stop to think and walk around now and then to handle the excitement) I keep wondering how it is that I didn’t know about Grimes et al earlier? After all, this is a 1990 book published at the U of South Carolina, and it is terrifically relevant to so much that has happened among religionists and Native Americans, which I thought I was watching closely. Why hasn’t the media fallen on this with relief at its explanatory power?
I come to the conclusion that the material was, and probably still is, just too hot to handle. Too emotional, too challenging to power centres, simply too confrontive (though tactful) to power. Also, too many people love theory but have no real life experience on which to base it. What follows is an on-the-ground [pun intended] consideration of the issues in the chapter of this book called “Field Excavations and Museum Displays.” Exhuming Native Americans has been VERY controversial but also the parallel movement demanding the decent burial of thousands and thousands of skeletons collected for study -- which few got around to actually doing.
In the Dog Days (before the horse and metal implements) people didn’t have a lot of belongings and what they owned was mostly biodegradable. The ground here in the northern prairie is hard to dig because of the glaciers carrying in so much stone. In winter the ground is like steel and can only be dug by heating the ground (we used to know there was a death when we saw out by the cemetery the black column of used tires burning to warm the ground) or using excavation machinery. Therefore, the disposal of dead bodies was done by leaving them as high up as possible, something like Tibetan “sky burials” except that some Tibetans cut up the dead, a sacred duty of the person’s brother.
On the plains that meant either putting bodies up in a tree or on a scaffold, or leaving them on ridges. Their belongings were left with them. If dogs were then as dogs are now, I suspect that some of them -- like Shep, the famous Fort Benton dog -- stayed with the bodies voluntarily which may have led to the later custom of sacrificing the person’s horse at the grave site. Insects, small mammals, coyotes, the drying wind and the sterilizing effects of high altitude sun -- as well as the nomadic habits of the group -- would have slowly returned these burials to the earth and also made them non-contagious. But smallpox pandemics must have overwhelmed the practice.
These high burials still existed when Bob Scriver was a boy, but by that time the dead had acquired many more possessions so there were chairs made of buffalo horns, metal and glass objects, and guns. Disturbing those things was taboo and Bob said he never did touch anything, though many things had already been removed. Guns were too tempting to leave. And skulls. People took skulls as soon as they were reduced to bone. Even when I came in 1961 and walked on the prairie using ridges as pathways, I would come to smashed coffin boards and a scattering of glass beads.
There were still in existence burial houses, which were invented when white people objected to bodies being laid out in the open. They were little “stick-built” cabins like homestead cabins, with the coffins stacked inside. There were also tree-burials of babies, probably still-born, put up high in stream-side evergreen groves, which gave them an aura of being offerings. The ones I saw were below a bluff where there was a cairn in an aspen grove decorated with many small bits of ribbon and bright fabric as offerings. White people interpret such cairns as “altars.” Whether local indigenous people do is open to question. The short answer is that they do now.
Burial cabins desecrated and vandalized over the years and were finally taken down by public health officials. I don’t know where the bodies went. None of the ones I saw had heads anymore, though they would not have been skulls yet with the protection of a roof overhead.
Stories of the early days tell about fields scattered with bones left from battle, as in the Old Testament. The story of the Baker Massacre doesn’t include any information about the disposal of the bodies of the many people -- old men, women and children -- who were killed there. Did the Cavalry return to bury them? Did the bands camped nearby come for them? Both came for the surviving children, some of which escaped by themselves, and both groups raised them. (Google. There are various versions.)
A famous serial burial was created by the Starvation Winter 1883-84 when the buffalo were gone but the reservation officials failed to supply any commodities. So many people died that their bodies were stacked like cordwood on the highest ridge. (http://www.saokioheritage.com/AcrobatFiles/West%20--%20Starvation%20Winter.pdf Helen West was the wife of our family doctor.) The taboo against bothering bodies held and over the years their fluids fertilized the ground so that plants grew up around them and then blowing dust banked up against them. Finally one of the agents had the ridge burned off, but it is unknown whether the bodies were consumed or actually buried somewhere. There is an historical marker on the nearby highway turn-off.
When the cry went up to bring the many collected skeletons of Native people home to their reservations (though not many had the privilege of remaining on their original home ground), ceremonies were organized for their burial. The younger people went whole-heartedly and grieving into the ritual, providing white man’s valuable Pendleton blankets and small coffin-boxes for each set of bones. But the old people stayed away, worried about the people who whose flesh was once wrapped around those bones, what they might think, and what they might to do descendants who had failed to prevail against the white men who had kept them in drawers for so long without studying them.
Not long ago a burial ground in Europe was found where the exhumed bodies had had iron rods driven through their hearts to pin them to the ground so they could not return full of vengeance. Perhaps they were vengeful in life. Perhaps they were vampires or zombies. This was a point of view that old time Blackfeet who had gone through massacres and starvation could easily understand.