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Gary R Varner

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The Treatment of Death Among the Paiute
by Gary R Varner   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Monday, September 21, 2009
Posted: Monday, September 21, 2009

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An excerpt from the book, The Owens Valley Paiute - A Cultural History by Gary R. Varner

Like many indigenous societies, the Mono observed annual mourning ceremonies to remember those of their ranks who had died during the prior year. The mourning ceremony may have originated in the south among the Luiseño and Gabrielino tribes because, Kroeber wrote, “the anniversary received its principal development among the same people that chiefly shaped the Jimson-weed cult.” In addition, Kroeber stated, “it is even possible that the two sets of rites flowed northward in conjunction, and that the anniversary outreached its mate because the absence of the Jimson-weed plant north of the Yokuts checked the invasion of the rites based upon it.”

While the Jimson-weed cult was an important aspect of shamanism in California, it is doubtful that the mourning ceremony was a direct result of it. Death observances are universal among Native American groups and while cultural sharing did take place it cannot be shown that the two rites have a direct correlation to a specific point of origin.

The mourning ceremony took place in the fall to mark the end of the year of mourning, much like Samhain was a pivotal time for the Celts to mark the turning of the year and to remember the dead. Relatives of the deceased were required to abstain from meat and grease,could not wash and were to avoid any festivities. The mourning ceremony itself was an act to symbolically wash away the grief of relatives and, most importantly, to “contribute somewhat to the cohesion of the band members.”

Following the ceremony, the deceased person’s house and bedding was burned, a man’s favorite horse was killed and left by the grave site, the manes and tails of his other horses were cut. The personal property of the deceased was buried with the body and, according to some informants, food and presents were put in the grave with up to $50 worth of articles purchased specifically for the occasion.

Close relatives cut their hair short, the closer the relationship the shorter their hair. Women would slash their arms and legs with a knife and dump red paint over their heads as signs of grief. Sarah Winnemucca recounted how her people mourned their dead:

“They cut off their hair, and also cut long gashes in their arms and legs, and they were all bleeding as if they would die with the loss of blood. This continued for several days, for this is the way we mourn our dead. When the woman’s husband dies, she is first to cut off her hair, and then she braids it and puts it across his breast; then his mother and sisters, his father and brothers and all his kinsfolk cut their hair. The widow is to remain unmarried until her hair is the same length as before…”

The dead were usually buried in the knee-chest position but some evidently were buried flat on their backs. The community, except children, participated in covering the body with stones. Children were prohibited from being near the deceased or participating in the mourning ceremony. Those killed in battle, unless they died near the village, were abandoned where they fell. Mothers who died in childbirth were buried with the infant in their arms and infants who died were buried in their cradles.

“It is considered dangerous,” Whiting noted, “to visit graves or to think of or mention the name of the dead. Such thoughts might bring the ghost of the deceased, who would snatch the breath of his loved ones whom he had left behind.”

Mourning ceremonies were led by the chief and other surrounding tribes were invited, normally twelve days in advance of the event. Mourning ceremonies were irregular among the Owens Valley Mono and not always during the fall months. According to Spier this was due to “the frequency…linked to deaths and the affluence of the mourning families, who paid most of the costs.”

Mourning ceremonies had an intricate pattern to them and included many things that many Native American festivities had. Paid singers, shamanic contests, parades of participants and ritualized bathing frequently occurred. In the 1870s, the Cry Ceremony was introduced to the Paiutes and within twenty years it had become the most pervasive ceremony among the Owens Valley and Southern Paiutes. The Crying Ceremony took place over two nights immediately after a death and before the funeral and was repeated as a memorial one or two years later. During the ceremony song cycles known as Bird Songs and Salt Songs were sung by two groups of singers. Between the cycles, emotional speeches were given and the deceased belongings were given away. This ceremony remained as an important ritual into the twentieth century.

Mourning ceremonies among the Eastern Mono and all other Northern Paiute groups lasted seven days. Images of the deceased were made by relatives and were burned with personal property of the dead. Usually the burning was done at or near the grave sites where huts or holes were made for offerings. There is some disagreement among ethnologists as to how the dead were desposed of. Some, including Spier, Wilkie and Lawton, wrote that burial was the principal means of disposal while others, including Gould, stated that the body was buried under rocks. Aginsky wrote that cremation was the general method of disposal. Relatives, corpse handlers and singers were mentioned most frequently as the people who dug the graves. Corpse handlers and singers were paid for their services. The differences in corpse disposal have not been discussed but it may have been due to differing geographic locations and the difficulty of digging in the soil or the amount of time that was available. “Death baskets,” used to collect the cremated bones, were possibly used to rebury the remains after a period of time. The most unusual form of disposal of the dead was observed by the Paiute residing in the northeastern part of California in what is now Modoc County. Here the dead were placed in hot springs.

It is believed by archaeologists that cremation may have been commonly used in pre-contact days, only changing to burials after contact with Christian explorers and military personnel. Persons who died away from their homes were cremated where they died and the bones returned to their native village for reburial. Gould wrote that this same treatment “was accorded by these Mono to strangers or enemies who dies on local territory.” This practice reportedly continued post contact.

The change in mortuary practices from cremation to burial occurred at an unknown time. Davidson’s early account written in 1859 stated:

“…they bury their dead in the ground, placing in the grave at the side of the deceased his bow and quiver, his little personal trinkets (usually of bone and shell), and some food for his journey into Eternity.”

Spanish contact which occurred prior to the Anglo period began may have influenced the Paiute mortuary practices although no concrete evidence remains. Bengston contradicts this theory however,stating “Cremation was practiced; however, it was generally reserved for witches. The deceased might be buried in rock crevices, caves or rockshelters, or on a hillside.”

Riddell was told by her informants that malevolent doctors were burned after death and that a “suspected poisoner being burned to death while he lay too ill to escape.” Burning has long been one way to erase evil or supernatural powers in many societies and has long been accorded to suspected witches around the world.

Gayton listed several concepts held by the Mono related to a belief of being united with a “father” figure after death. Among these concepts is one of an “unsteady bridge” which spans the waters separating the lands of the dead and the living. It was believed that only “people of character…may get across or meet the ‘father.’”

Obviously, the placement of food and tools in burials attest to the Paiute belief in an after-life.

The Southern Paiute in Death Valley observed similar rituals. An annual gathering in the fall commemorated the year’s dead. A “Soul Dance” was held on the first night of the three night event. The most solemn part of the ceremony occurred on the third morning of the mourning ceremony.

Archaeologist William Wallace wrote that “Older men spoke in praise of the deceased persons, and their relatives burned pine nuts, seeds, baskets, clothing and shell money in their honor.” On the third night the popular Circle Dance was held which was simply a fun event.

Web Site: The Owens Valley Paiute

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Reviewed by La Belle Rouge Poetess Of The Heart 9/22/2009
A fascinating article and so well written.
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