Body Positioning Practices Among the Omaha and Assiniboine

Many of the Native American tribes who lived on the Great Plains placed their dead in trees or on scaffolding.  In this form of funerary rites the body would be placed out of the reach of man and animals.  The bodies were tied in place to guard against wind, and covered to guard against scavengers.  The bodies of the deceased were important to many Great Plains tribes and were often kept out in the open so that loved ones could visit them (Denig, 1930).

Omaha tribe member

Omaha tribal member

The Omaha tribe, however, did not practice this; instead, they buried their dead.  They put the deceased in shallow graves upon a hilltop and then arranged the body in a sitting position that faced towards the east (Awakuni-Swetland, 2011).  Another way in which the Omaha tribe’s body positioning was different was how they placed those who were killed in a specific manner.  If a man was struck by lightning, the body was simply buried where it fell and was not moved from the position in which it fell (La Flesche, 1889).  Those who were murdered were buried faced downward with the soles of their feet split lengthwise to keep them from returning to their home village to give punishment to those who lived there (Fletcher and La Flesche, 1911).

505px-Tombs_of_Assiniboin_indians_on_trees_0063v

Artist depiction of Assiniboine mortuary practice

The Assiniboine tribe also differed from other Plains tribes, though they did practice the scaffolding and tree method.  This was due in part both to a lack of proper tools needed to dig into the earth during winter months as well as the need for the Assiniboine to visit and feast with deceased loved ones.  When the bodies were placed on scaffolding or in the trees, the feet faced towards the south so the wind could carry the soul in that direction. This was where the tribe believed the Indian Paradise was located (Awakuni-Swetland; Denig, 1930).  Like the Omaha, the Assiniboine also buried bodies in the ground at the request of either the deceased or a relative of the deceased.  When this occurred, the bodies would be buried at the top of a hill in a five-foot deep hole.  Another method of burial among the Assiniboine was done at the request of warriors who were known to be brave.  Instead of the scaffolding, the bodies of these men were placed within their lodge in a propped up sitting position (Denig, 1930).

Painting of Assiniboine tribal member

Painting of Assiniboine tribal members

Ashmore and Geller (2005) suggested that the placement of the body may be in relation to social and worldview significance.  Within the Assiniboine, only brave and well-known warriors were allowed to be buried within the lodges and in a sitting position (Denig, 1930).  It may be due to their higher status within their village and the respect that others had for them that they were able to make this request while other tribe’s members were not.  Another similarity that is seen from Ashmore and Geller (2005) is the placement of the body being aligned with specific directions.  For both the Omaha and the Assiniboine tribes, this is related more to the direction the soul needs to travel in order to get to their tribes form of “Heaven” (Denig, 1930; Awakuni-Swetland, 2011).  This similar body placement was found among the Maya, where it was inferred that the placement of one king’s head in the cardinal direction north was a metaphor for heaven (Ashmore and Geller, 2005).

As is mentioned in Ashmore and Geller (2005) as well as in class, it can be difficult to make inferences as to why bodies are positioned in these ways.  Information about the body positioning of the Assiniboine may lead some to conclude that the Omaha also placed their dead facing to the east because this is where they believed the Indian Paradise was located.  It is also important that we do not over-infer the symbolic message that may or may not be there in the burial of those of the Omaha tribe (Ashmore and Geller, 2005).

Citations Ashmore, W., & Geller, P. L. (2005). Social dimensions of mortuary space.Interacting with the dead: Perspectives on mortuary archaeology for the new millennium, 81-92. Awakuni-Swetland, M. J. (2011). Culture Summary: Omaha. Human Relations Area Files. Denig, E. T. (1930). The Indians of the Upper Missouri. J.N.B. Hewitt (Ed.). Microfilming Corporation of American. Flecher, A. C. & La Flesche, F. (1911). The Omaha Tribe. Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology. La Flesche, F. (1889). Death and Funeral Customs Among the Omahas. The Journal of American Folklore, 2(4), 3-11. Images Bodmer, K. (Photographer). Retrieved March 5, 2015 from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Assiniboin_indians_0065v.jpg Bodmer, K. (Photographer). Retrieved March 5, 2015 from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tombs_of_Assiniboin_indians_on_trees_0063v.jpg Rinehart, F.A. (Photographer). (1898). [Photograph], Retrieved March 5, 2015, from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Interpret_omaha.jpg

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