July 3, 2007

Shawnee spirits and burial sites


Today’s Mailbag Question:

Would you tell me, how Shawnee spirits would react to houses being built on a burial site?

~Submitted by Rose M


I don’t know if the Shawnee spirits would object, but consider whether or not you would be willing to build your house on top of your own relative’s grave.

Native Americans tend to see the world as having infinite space and time that cycles through seasons, and the four cardinal directions. To the Native American, all of life is spiritual.

Spiritual concerns have always rested at the heart of Native American life. Their faith and spiritual beliefs are consummated in a holistic, cosmic view of the universe. Most Native Americans regard the earth as their mother and believe that land cannot be owned.

The earth is a spiritual part of the Native American, and people are a part of the earth. People must live in harmony with plants, animals, the earth and other people. Living in harmony includes respecting the feelings and cultural beliefs of other people, even if they are different from your own.

Shawnee funeral services were usually lenghty vigils that included songs, ceremonial dances, and speeches recollecting and honoring the deceased’s life. Bodies of tribal members were always buried uncremated, most commonly in an east-west orientation, and great efforts were made to retrieve the corpses of warriors after battles, as it was considered highly disrespectful to leave a body unburied.

Shawnee burial practices changed very little throughout their history. Certain practices changed over time and varied among their divisions, but in many details Shawnee mortuary practices remained the same. The body of the deceased was kept covered inside the dwelling for half a day after death; then it was prepared for burial by the blood kin and dressed in their finest. Items of honor such as feathers and favorite weapons were included.

The kin chose a funeral leader and two or three corpse handlers who also served as gravediggers. None of the gravediggers could be related to the deceased nor be of the same name group. The funeral rites last four days and included purification rites, burial addresses, feasts, vigils, and condolence ceremonies.

First a communal meal is ‘shared’ with the dead. Then the mourners gather outside and share recollections of the life of the dead person. Each night for four nights, a fire is lit on the grave. After everyone who wants to has spoken, elders relate myths and legends until dawn. This is repeated for four nights, when the spirit of the dead is finally thought to depart the earth at dawn of the fourth day. After the spirit has departed the home can be purified – but some will move house or rebuild the house if they feel it is too polluted.

Graves were dug about four feet deep and had an east-west orientation. The interior of the grave was sometimes lined with stone slabs,but usually wood and bark were used. The body was wrapped in a skin or covered with bark.

Poles were laid across the top of the grave, bark was laid over the poles, and the earth taken from the grave was piled over the bark covering. A grave house made of logs or bark was erected over the grave. No formal cemeteries existed prior to 1830; most graves were dug near the dwellings of relatives in the village.

The name of a dead person is never mentioned, because to do so is to disturb him or to summon him in ghostly form and keep him earthbound.

One must investigate the spiritual beliefs of a group of people in order to better understand their culture.

Most native american tribal groups ascribe a masculine gender to the Great Spirit. Although many tribes have included feminine deity figures in their worship, not many have called them their Supreme Creator. The Shawnee hold a unique theological conception of their Creator, a female deity known to them as Kuhkoomtheyna, or Our Grandmother. In various other textual references, she is labeled by terms that can be translated as the “Creator,” “the Supreme Being,” “Universe Ruler,” “Beautiful Cloud,” “Author of Life,” and/or “the First Woman.”

According to Shawnee mythology, Our Grandmother descended from the world above (Sky World) and created the basis or the foundation of the earth, the turtle. Our Grandmother shaped the world, all bodies of water and tracts of land, and rested her newly created world on the back of the turtle. Our Grandmother performed most of the cosmic creations. At this same time She, with her grandson Cloud Boy and their little dog, rested on the earth.

Shawnee theology proposes four distinct phases, or periods of creation. In each of these phases, Our Grandmother appears actively engaged in the creative process.

The Four Phases of Creation

Phase I: Chaos

Creation occurs from chaos. Our Grandmother creates the universe and elements of matter. Other ‘Sky World’ figures appear, apparently through the creative hand of Our Grandmother. These include ‘Corn Person,’ ‘Star People,’ ‘Sun Person,’ Her two grandsons, Her little dog and Moon Woman (who lives close enough to Our Grandmother to be her shadow or, in some instances, could be considered an actual reflection of Our Grandmother).

Phase II: Cloud Boy’s Contribution

Our Grandmother allows her grandson, ‘Cloud Boy’ (sometimes also known as Rounded-Side) variant license in creative actions. In this stage, the roots of human weakness and destructive influences appear. ‘Cloud Boy’ also appears responsible for some comical actions and even foolishness. For example, the Shawnee believe that ‘Cloud Boy’ shapes clouds into likenesses of animals, people, mountains and other comical shapes to entertain and delight mortals here on earth. He has also been accused of moving objects (articles of clothing, personal belongings, etc) in order to “joke” with the Shawnee people.

Phase III: The Great Deluge

Then, a great deluge came and rising waters destroyed most of the world. Immediately after the flood, Our Grandmother still lived on the earth, having survived the great flood. After she kindled a new fire, she began the task of recreation. Curiously enough, Our Grandmother did not create the Shawnee first, but began with the Delaware. Later, she created the first two Shawnee divisions. Her grandson, ‘Cloud Boy,’ created two more and finally Our Grandmother brought all of the Shawnee people together and they ultimately numbered five divisions. The Shawnee tribal divisions include Thawikila, Pekowi, Kishpoko, Chalakaatha, and Mekoche.

Phase IV: Final Creative Actions

In the final phase of creation, Our Grandmother gives the acquisition of fire to the people, and instructs them in the proper ways in which to kindle this sacred fire. She assigns guardian spirits, explains and assigns the sacred bundles and sets the ceremonies, rituals and rites to which all Shawnee must comply.

Then She moved to her heavenly home in the Sky World, where She now lives as a spirit-god, and began weaving her ‘doomsday net’ (skemotah) so that faithful and/or worthy Shawnee can be collected and saved. She is the author of life, the restorer of the earth and the punisher of evil.

According to oral histories and Shawnee stories

Our Grandmother has eight separate, but discernable message revelation techniques for Her Grandchildren, four for chosen Shawnee individuals and four general message revelation techniques for Her grandchildren, the Shawnee people. Her messages are revealed as four social, or public revelations and four specific, or personal revelations.

Her words have had a powerful impact on the Shawnee people. Message themes include “keep my bundles sacred, observe my prescribed celebrations, keep my laws, and listen for my special prophetic revelation.”

Social Messages:

Sacred Bundles

The first, and possibly the most important message from Our Grandmother remains: “Keep your sacred bundle carefully.” In other words, the Shawnee and, more specifically, the divinely assigned bundle keeper, has to keep the bundle safe, secure and protected from theft, the weather or neglect.

Referred to as the ‘Messawmi,’ each Sacred Bundle was a gift to one of the five Shawnee divisions from Our Grandmother, given immediately before she moved beyond the Sky World. This bundle contained various elements prescribed by Our Grandmother, or represented certain events that were particularly significant for each division. Often, the items contained in the bundles were reminders of special blessings, sacred beliefs, or powerful totems critical to the survival of the Shawnee.

Our Grandmother can still control them and will inform a chosen prophet if she desires a change in either the contents of the bundle, or a specific ritual surrounding a bundle. Sacred bundles are kept in a special place, regarded and treated like human beings. Sacred bundles are often moved so that they don’t become uncomfortable, or cramped.

Though kept and treated with sacred care, the bundles are shrouded in mystery even to their appointed custodians. Immediately preceding the end of the world, Our Grandmother will recall the bundles.

Ceremonies, Rituals and Dances

Our Grandmother reigns as supreme deity of ceremonies, rituals and dances for the Shawnee. Her message to the Shawnee remains, “Keep the dances and ceremonies sacred, so I will be nourished and you will be prosperous.”

From the Bread Dance to the Green Corn Dance, the Shawnee gather for symbolic hunts, feasts, and dance festivals in order to honor the Master of Life. These annual ceremonial dances provide a chief vehicle for worshipping Our Grandmother. The annual ceremonial dances are performed in order to worship Our Grandmother, thereby preserving the tribe and the world.

Even if a ceremony is not primarily devoted to Our Grandmother, She will notice and punish any neglect. The dead, as well as the living, must participate in Her ceremonies, wear Shawnee paint and dress in the Shawnee manner so that Our Grandmother will not mistake them for white people on the day she brings her grandchildren home to Her country.

The many feasts suggested by Our Grandmother provide Her opportunities to visit the Shawnee. Though the relationship between feast events and Our Grandmother is indirect, the ceremonies provide opportunities for her to visit with her grandchildren. Our Grandmother constantly observes the Shawnee from her home above, using her well-known ‘Sky Window.’

In addition, Our Grandmother makes certain appearances on earth to inspect, or participate in ceremonies at closer range. She has been known to visit the Shawnee during the First Fruits ceremony in order to taste the food set out for Her. She has been heard singing above the arbor during the Bread Dances.

Performance of these various ceremonies and dances preserve the Shawnee and the world. Sometimes, mounted warriors ride around the dance ground four times just to amuse Our Grandmother, who comes to earth for the day to view the celebration and dance.

She has even been known to make a visit during the active ballgames of the Shawnee. She smiles in approval when in the speech before the ballgame it is said that the ball games are played because they were ordained by her rules.

All of the major ceremonies of the Shawnee were, and are, believed to have originated with Kokumthena. These moments of contact put the Shawnee in intimate contact with an ultimate power that shapes their lives, guides their values and provides a sense of control and purpose for the Shawnee people.

Specific Messages:

Sacred Pouches

Just as the sacred bundles represented the key mediums of relating to Our Grandmother for the five divisions, so the Pawaka (the individual totem bundle) emerged as the personal form of the Messawni. In other words, the Pawaka became the personal sacred bundle. Elements of the Pawaka were earned by worthy accomplishments, personal achievements, and personal preparations rather than by free gifts from Our Grandmother.

Individual Shawnee possess their own personal guardian spirits, identified in adolescence during vision quests where youths fasted and meditated. These tutelary spirits, commonly conceived to be animals, make themselves known through dreams, hallucinations, or some other revelatory event. These experiences are considered personal and supernatural.

Guarded carefully, few Shawnee will speak explicitly about these particular aspects of their religion. Yet, the hidden relationship that exists between the powers sought (or received) and the visionary experience, which affects the individual deeply, brings personal revelation from Our Grandmother.

New ceremonies might originate in an individual totemic vision and could be incorporated into the village patterns.

Witness Ceremonies

Witness Ceremonies are for Our Grandmother to communicate with her grandchildren (the Shawnee) individually. She has created a number of intermediaries known as Tipwiwe. The Tipwiwe may be translated as “Truth bearers” or “Witnesses.” The Tipwiwe carry the words of prayer to the Creator and afirm the sincerity of the person offering the prayer.

One important truth bearer is tobacco. In fact, tobacco works as a witness in two ways. In small or minor occasions, the faithful respondent uses only a pinch of true Shawnee tobacco in the private ceremony. A pinch may be placed on the ground right after a successful deer hunt, or a small amount placed on the ground after lifting some herbs from the earth. These minor, but important, observances allow the Shawnee personal communication with Our Grandmother.

During major community events, a Shawnee person can take a palm full of the special tobacco and toss it into the fire. The smoke takes prayers and messages up to Our Grandmother so that She can “notice” the faithful person, family or tribe and know the sincerity of the act.

Other “witnesses” include water, the eagle, fire, the hawk, the four winds and stars. Cedar remains an important component of the fires ignited by the sincere Shawnee worshipper. The sacred fire of the Shawnee alerts Our Grandmother of the intention of a personal approach by one of Her grandchildren.

Witnesses allow any one of the Shawnee communities to communicate with Our Grandmother and hear Her confirmation of their faith. Our Grandmother confirms Her watchful care of the Shawnee through these truth bearers. The truth bearers and witnesses stand ready to assist the faithful Shawnee in ceremony and worship.

The Vision Quest

The Vision Quest is exclusively an individual undertaking, although the expectation remains that prophetic visions will occur. The special message and blessings received on a vision quest are not necessarily for public knowledge. However, if the person receives very potent visions, they could consequently become ‘sweat-lodge doctors,’ healers, leaders, or prophets.

Both girls and boys were encouraged to engage in the vision quest. Shawnee children started this ritual at around the age of seven, earlier than most other Native American children. Waiting spirits rove about everywhere in the invisible world hoping for a child to find them. If we search long enough, we find them. The spirit sings a song for the child to learn and use when calling upon the spirit guardian.

Guardian spirits provide interpretation and revelation from Our Grandmother. Guardians are especially active during vision quests and at
other spiritual revelations or journeys.

In fact, some individuals who have received the assignment of their guardian spirit may relate, in the name of prophecy, the message of the guardian spirit rather than directly quoting Our Grandmother. In this sense, the guardian spirit would presumably act as an intermediary between the Creator and the individual receiving the revelation.

The revelations received in these vision quests are private, unless otherwise prescribed by Our Grandmother. If tribal service is deemed necessary, then the ability to perform ‘supernatural’ actions becomes communal in nature and generally includes special communication (prayers) with Our Grandmother.

Prayers are offered up to Our Grandmother at first-fruit ceremonies, funerals, naming rituals, annual events/dances, and at the end of the ballgame season.

Special Sounds and Signals

One of the most interesting and distinct manners Our Grandmother uses to communicate with individuals comes in the form of “unique sounds.”

Unique sounds are specific signals to good persons among chiefs and councilors, who are created with special insight and able to translate the very thoughts of the Creator. The special sounds that have been mentioned cannot be described. Only the “wise ones” recognize the sounds and signals.

Special signals seem to operate like the sounds that occur over the heads of Shawnee participants during the various festivals and dances. Shawnee believe that the voice of Our Grandmother can be heard above the voices of singers during the festivals.

The chosen person to deliver the special revelations offered by Our Grandmother usually receives the message during a council meeting, bundle ceremony, or other significant festival. The messages may be delivered immediately, or the message medium may take time to translate the thoughts, desires or wishes of Our Grandmother.

This practice is different from prophecies, for there may be no predication, or warning involved. Many times the messages seem to be a confirmation of action, personal insight, or affirmation of leadership ability.

Public Messages:

Foreknowledge and Prophecy

Our Grandmother, being the Supreme Being, can deliver prophetic messages through bundle ceremonies, dance ceremonies, Sky World visitations, signs and individual insight. The Creator bestowed the gift of prophecy.

Although revealed to individuals, the prophetic messages are regarded as benefiting the tribe and thus remain communal in effect. These messages are for the entire tribe.

Individuals having prophetic insight do not learn about their own personal future but the future of all Shawnee, or all people, or even the future of the world as a whole. Our Grandmother rather exclusively dispenses this foreknowledge. Since She no longer lives on earth, the Shawnee person must make a journey to Her home in order to communicate and receive new revelations from Her.

On many occasions, special invitations were issued to individual Shawnee allowing a visit with Our Grandmother. She would entertain the selected representatives in her Wigiwa and deliver a special message for the whole tribe. After the visit, the fortunate human messenger returned to the Shawnee people and delivered the world of Our Grandmother. The Shawnee heard from Our Grandmother through these various revelations and prophecy.

Sacred Shawnee Law

The Shawnee Laws (saawanwa kwteletiiwena), a very important part of the knowledge and instruction received from Our Grandmother, includes twelve precepts. The laws represent a stable part of the Shawnee culture and provide an insight into life for the tribe before contact with Europeans.

Shawnee laws were handed down during the post-flood creation phase, when Our Grandmother brought all five tribal divisions together to receive Her instructions. In the lengthy admonishments, she taught the Shawnee how to take care of themselves, how to live, how to conduct ceremonial dances, how to raise corn and hunt, what kind of houses to build and gave them other laws.

She also gave laws with the assurance that ‘manitos’ or spirit guides, such as Bear, Wolf, Deer and Eagle, would accompany the Shawnee and give them insight and constant contact with Her. The laws are noteworthy for their extreme length and comprehensiveness of subject matter.

Male laws are taught to young boys and the female laws are to be taught to young girls. The laws were recorded in the first person as though Our Grandmother herself were talking directly to the Shawnee people.

The first law sets forth the origin and purpose of Our Grandmother’s precepts and describes the benefits of following Her law and the consequences of failing to observe them. Modes of sexual conduct during intercourse are outlined along with requirements of behavior during menstruation and pregnancy.

The second law is general in scope.

The ten remaining laws center on a particular animal such as the deer, bear, dog, birds, wolf, buffalo, raccoon, turtle, turkey and crow. The laws described services the animal rendered to the Shawnee and the manner in which the animal should be treated.

The number of laws (12) also equals the number of Shawnee septs or clans. Each of the clans used many of the preceding animal totems to represent their particular clan and there were twelve of these as well.

The importance of the numbers four and twelve help provide new insight into the study of Shawnee spiritual beliefs. For example, the Shawnee recognize the “four corners” (four cardinal directions), four seasons, four winds, four levels of the world, and four lives of animals. The Shawnee recognize twelve clans, twelve witnesses, and all feasts, dances and ceremonies are scheduled to last four to twelve day periods.

As with most all other Native American peoples, recognizing balance in the world remains of paramount importance to the Shawnee people.

In the contemporary world of the Shawnee people, Our Grandmother receives few visitors in Her actual home. The people received are Shawnee individuals who have prophetic inclinations. Her communication to modern visitors consists chiefly in advice not to deviate from Her established ways, or involves special revelations for the future.

Potentially, Our Grandmother reserves the right to create new messages and ceremonies by instructing any of Her new visitors, or guests as to what to do when they return to earth. Today, Our Grandmother sits quietly in Heaven watching all people, but especially the Shawnee. She smiles if the Shawnee follow Her rules.

She sends ‘manitos’ to talk with Her people, provide guidance, and give them hope. Her messages resound through the sacred bundles, sacred laws, prophecies, ceremonies and dances. Observing these messages, “the Shawnee must live, multiply and follow the manitos on the path to Heaven.

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