Mortuary Practices and Dual Afterworld of the Choctaw
The Choctaws thrived in the fertile sandy, red-clay soil, rolling hills, and dense forests, located in the Central Hills of the east-central region of Mississippi. The estimated population after early European contact was between 15,000 and 20,000 and was the second largest group of Native Americans in the Southeast (Blitz 1988:127).
The Choctaws in the Southeast were a matrilineal society. Traditionally, women preformed tasks related to domestic life. Among these responsibilities were creating pottery and utensils, food preparation, and planting and harvesting crops. The majority of their diet consisted of agricultural products such as corn, pumpkins, squash, and beans. Women would also accompany men on hunting excursions in order to provide food preparation. After the hunt, women were responsible for transporting the slain animal back to the village for processing of skins, bone, and meat (Carson 1995:495-6). The greatest responsibilities of the Choctaw men were hunting and warfare. During the fall and winter months, their primary food source was deer. Their accomplishments on hunting adventures directly reflected upon their social status and importance within the tribe (Carson 1995:197).
Although the Choctaw shared much of their culture with many of the other tribes in the Southeast, “in the disposition of their dead, the ancient Choctaws practiced a strange method different from any other Nation of people, perhaps, that ever existed” (Swanton1931:176).
When a Choctaw tribal member became terminally ill, it was common practice for the medicine man to inform the family of impending death (Swanton 1931:170). The women cleanse the body, apply paint, daub the face, and dress him in his finest clothes. He is then placed in an open space in front of the door to his house. His wife, as well as close relatives, lay across the body , weeping. Upon death, the Choctaws believed that the spirit of the dead continued on a voyage to either the good hunting ground or the bad hunting ground. This journey would take many days, which would require the proper provisions. A dog would sometimes be slain in order to accompany his master on the long journey. After the introduction of horses, they, too, were slaughtered so that the spirit had means of transportation. It has also been recorded that the meat of the slain horse was roasted and served. Food, drink, clothing and shoes were also offered (Carson 1995:498, Cushman 1999:302, Swanton 1931:170).
After announcement of the death, the entire village, as well as neighboring villages, would flock to the home of the deceased and bereaved as a means of solace. “As soon as he is dead, his relatives erect a kind of cabin in the shape of a coffin, directly opposite his door six feet from the ground on six stakes, surrounded by a mud wall, and roofed with bark, in which they enclose his body all dressed , covering it with a blanket”...