Volume II, chapter 25 (pp 363-384)

Manners and Customs continued: Feast of Corn: Other Feasts

[363] The seventh moon is that of the Maize, or Large Grain. This feast is incontestably the most solemn of all. It consists of eating in common and in a religious manner, the new corn that has been sown with this intention and with suitable ceremonies.

When they wish to sow this corn they choose a new plot of earth that, within the memory of man, has never been cultivated. They cut the canes, the creepers, the vine stalks, and all that makes a thick forest. They peel the trees to the wood from the base to the height of two feet. All that which is cut and laid on the earth may cover it to a depth of two feet. It is left thus for two weeks. Then they set fire to it, and it burns so hotly and rises so high that it burns the tops of the trees, brings down the sap which may have risen [364],and burns the roots of the canes and the rest of the underbrush, at least in great part, so that it leaves only some green canes, the roots of which extend so deeply into the earth that the fire is unable to damage them. But these die during the year.

All that concerns the working of this field and the culture of this grain is done strictly by the warriors. From the time they have begun to cultivate it until the moment of the feast, and the Great War Chief is always at their head. They not only cultivate the field and put it in a condition to receive seed; they also sow the maize and weed it as many times as necessary. The smallest operations are not in the least unworthy of their hands. It would be a profanation if any other should touch it, and if this happened, it is believed that he would never be able to go away from the field but would perish there miserably, because the field is so sacred.

Once the corn approaches maturity, the warriors go to the place where the corn is going to be eaten, as it is every year. At the edge of this open space [365] they make a kind of granary they call Momo-ataop, which means valuable granary or venerable granary. This open space is fairly large. It is, however, almost entirely shaded by the excessive height of the trees that surround it. It is covered with a beautiful lawn, the grass of which is cut from time to time, so that it may not get too high before the time of the feast. The trees that enclose this place make a large grove without any underbrush. Beneath is grass only as high as the knee around the open space, but farther off it has a height as elsewhere of four or five feet.

The granary they make for storing this corn is of round shape, raised two feet above the earth. It is furnished inside with cane mats. The bottom is made of large whole canes; the outside is, too, because the teeth of rats, as fine as they are, are unable to make an opening, on account of the natural varnish that covers them. This varnish also prevents them from climbing up the sides of the granary in order to enter through the top. The cover, owing to the manner in which it is made, protects the corn [366] from the greatest storms. The French call this granary "la tonne" on account of its round shape.

All things being thus disposed and prepared for the harvest, and the grain being ripe, the warriors go to gather it. They put it in cane baskets and carry it to the granary, where other warriors take it, climb the ladder, and throw it into the granary, which has rather the shape of a silo than of a tun with regard to its diameter and height. When this grain is entirely enclosed it is well covered and left without fear of thieves. The sovereign is informed that all is ready for the feast. He sets the day that he wishes to eat it, in common and in his presence.

The feast day being fixed, the necessary arrangements for this ceremony are made some days before. The cabin of the Grand Chief is built opposite the granary and that of the Great War Chief to the side of the granary. That of the sovereign is on an elevation of earth, about two feet high, which has been brought there. The warriors build it from grass and leaves. At the same time the warriors of each [367] family come to make a cabin for all their relations.

The feast day having at last arrived, the entire nation begins to prepare itself at daybreak. The old men, the young people, the women, and the children leave at sunrise. Each one brings the utensils necessary for preparing the grain, and as soon as they arrive they collect wood for making the fire at the proper time. The old warriors prepare the litter on which the Great Sun is going to be carried. This litter is composed of four red bars that cross each other at the four corners of the seat. The seat is recessed about one and a half feet. It is lined inside with common deerskins, because those are not seen. The ones that hang on the outside are painted with designs according to their taste and of different colors. They conceal the seat so well that the material of which it is made cannot be seen. The back part of the seat is upholstered like the seat in the carriages we call "souglets." It is covered outside and with the leaves of the tulips and laurels. The outside borders are garnished with three cordons of flowers. That which extends the farthest outside is red, and [368] it is accompanied on each side by a string of white flowers.

Those who prepare this conveyance are the first and the oldest warriors of the nation. They place it on the shoulders of eight others who are the only ones to take it out of the village. Hence there remain only sixteen, all of the others having gone, a little after sunrise, with the Great War Chief and those who command the warriors under his orders. He sets them a hundred paces apart, eight at each relay point. For this task, he chooses those of his warriors who are the strongest and the most vigorous. The others wait at the open space with him to receive the Great Sun.

These dispositions made, and the warriors having painted their red post and planted it, with ceremony, in the middle of the plaza (for the Great War Chief has to hold it while the warriors tamp it firm), the Great Sun, when the sun is a quarter of the way up, goes forth from his cabin adorned with his diadem and the other ornaments which indicate his dignity. At that instant, the warriors who have stayed to carry him utter many cries redoubled in succession and with so much strength [369] that those who hear them may be assured that these men are not consumptive. As the warriors of the relays stand not more than a hundred paces apart, they hear the first cries and repeat them on the spot; within a minute those in the plaza are alerted, though it is half a league away.

The Great Sun seats himself in the litter, adorned with the ornaments suitable to his supreme rank. Good sense alone has enabled these people to know that these ornaments are the marks of sovereignty, and in the ceremonies their princes always wear them; if not all, at least in part. Then the eight oldest warriors place the sedan chair on the shoulders of those who are going to carry him (plate 1). The cries are continued from the moment he leaves his cabin until he is beyond the village. This affair lasts a matter of two minutes. The relay warriors who carry him and those who receive him do it with so much alacrity and skill that a good horse would be able to follow them only at a canter. Those who await him at each relay lift him from the shoulders of those who arrive with so much [370] agility that he does not stop at all and does not cease to go with the same rapidity. The journey, I believe, lasts only six or seven minutes at most.

Scarcely have those in the open spaces perceived him when the whole nation that awaits fills the air and neighboring woods with cries of joy. The Great Sun arrives in the open space at the side of the cabin that has been prepared for him. Before descending he makes a stately circuit of the square. When he is in front of the corn he salutes it with three hou hou hou, long and drawn out, and made with respect. All the nation replies to this salute with nine other hou hou’s, each distinct, so that at the ninth he sets foot to earth and seats himself upon his throne.

All the warriors whom he had left behind follow him at their leisure, but without stopping. Out of all the cabins in the nation, there remain only old men and old women who are no longer able to walk, and the sick. There are only too many of these people to whom life has become insupportable–although the body is in very good health, the legs refuse service. The Guardians of the Eternal Fire do not leave the Temple. Their wives [371] carry them some dishes of the corn to eat.

The Great Sun lets his warriors rest and allows time for making the new fire, which comes from a violent rubbing of wood against wood. Any other fire would be profane. During this interval the Great Sun remains with the other Suns or princes, each of whom is ornamented with a little diadem, the feathers which surmount it being not more than four inches long and all even. Only the Great War Chief, who was at the time Great Sun’s brother, was distinguished from the other Suns. He had a large white feather fastened to his hair, at the end of which was a red tuft that carried a tassel of the same color. This feather extended above the others in his diadem by about two inches.

When the Great War Chief sees that all the warriors await orders at the doors of the cabins belonging to their families, he goes with four warriors previously chosen to distribute the grain to the women. He presents himself with them before the throne and [372] says to the Great Sun: "Speak, I await your word."

Then this sovereign rises, comes out of his cabin, and bows toward the four quarters of the world, beginning with the south. As soon as the chief and the warriors have gone to the granary, he raises his arms and his hands toward heaven, where he directs his looks, and says: "Give the corn," and at once seats himself. The Great War Chief thanks him by a single hou, long drawn out, and goes on. The princes and princesses whose cabins are near also thank him by three hou’s. Then, all the men do the same thing, repeating it nine times, three at a time with a pause in between. The women and all the young people of both sexes keep a profound silence and prepare their baskets to go after the grain. They go to the granary as soon as the thanks of the people have been given.

During the time of the thanksgivings, the four warriors with their Great Chief having arrived, each ascends a ladder. They quietly take the covering off of the granary, throw the debris aside, and give the grain to the female Suns [373] and afterward to all the women who present themselves, indiscriminately. As soon as they have received it they run and flee as if they had stolen it. Those who remain in the cabins step out in front of the others and seem to wish to snatch the meal from them. The women empty it onto skins and husk it quickly. Scarcely have they enough of it to make one crushing than they put it into their mortars or mills to shell it. The pot is on the fire with water boiling or near boiling. The meal is thrown in and they hasten to cook it. As soon as it is cooked, one awaits word to eat it, for they never touch any of it beforehand.

This whole operation proceeds with such eagerness that one would say they had not eaten for four days. The servants of the Great Sun, although very numerous, have not prepared their food so quickly as the others, in order to give the other women time to prepare theirs. In the midst of all these movements the warriors, who are then at leisure, amuse themselves by singing war songs to the sound of a pot that serves them as a drum.

[374] When all is ready, which they confirm by observing a woman at the door of each cabin, the speaker or chancellor says to the Grand Master of Ceremonies, "Eillpaill" (see if the provisions are cooked). Two platters are brought to the Great Sun, one of each kind. He rises. They give him one of these dishes. He goes out and presents it to the four quarters of the world, then sends it to the Great War Chief, saying in a loud voice, "Pachcou" (eat) and it is then that everyone eats.

The meal lasts a rather long time, because the warriors eat first, then the boys of all ages, except those who are nursing. Finally, the women and children eat and it is necessary to allow intervals, so that the women may have time to crush more maize and have it cooked, because one eats only this corn, until all in the granary is eaten.

As the warriors finish their repast, they go outside and stand in front of their cabins. As soon as there are enough of them they form two corresponding choirs along the two sides of the open space [375] and sing their songs of war. This concert lasts only half an hour and is ended the instant that the Great War Chief goes to strike a blow on the post. This signal, which stops the singers, opens the scene for speeches. The Great Chief begins immediately. He relates his exploits and the number of enemies he has killed. He finishes his speech in a raised tone of voice, and those who are acquainted with the deeds he has mentioned answer with a great hou in order to certify to its truth. All the warriors in turn, according to the degree of estimation in which they are held, do the same thing as their chief, and finally the young men have permission to go and strike the post and say, not what they have done, for they have never been to war, but what they propose to do. It is a kind of training by which their parents and their friends try to prepare them. Just as it is an honor for them to speak well in public, it is a disgrace for them to acquit themselves poorly. The warriors applaud them by a hou, which, as has been seen, is of common usage, or display their small satisfaction by lowering the head and [376] keeping silent. The desire of meriting public approbation in the present and of acquiring in the future the same glory as the warriors enjoy, excites in the youths a lively emulation.

Finally, night falls. The open space is then encircled with more than two hundred torches made of dried canes, which they take care to renew. These are of the size of a small child and bound in five places. In the great light the torches shed, they dance until day. The dances are always the same, and he who has seen one has seen all. Here is how they are arranged (plate 2). In the middle of a vacant space, proportioned to the number of those who are going to dance, a man seats himself on the earth with a pot in which there is a little water, covered with a deer skin stretched extremely tight. He holds this pot in one hand and beats time with the other. Around him the women arrange themselves in a circle at some distance from each other and holding in their hands thin round fans of feathers, which they turn while dancing from left to right. The men enclose the women with another circle, [377] which they form at some distance from them. They never hold each other by the hand, but leave between a space sometimes as wide as six feet. Each one has his chichicois (rattle) with which he beats time. The chichicois is a gourd pierced at each end with a stick, of which the longer end serves as a handle, and in which some little stones or dry beans have been placed. As the women turn from left to right the men turn from right to left and all keep time with an accuracy that must be considered surprising. The spaces between one another make it convenient to leave the dance when one is tired and reenter it without causing any trouble. The circles contract and enlarge according to necessity, always keeping time, and the dancers being able to rest and be replaced by others (for in great families all do not dance at the same time) their dances ordinarily last all night. It is evident that in this manner they might be able to dance forever. The actors can retire without interrupting it and reenter [378] in the same way when they have recovered their strength. I ought to say besides that in this feast there is never any disorder or quarrel, not only on account of the presence of the Great Sun and the good custom they have of living in peace, but also because they eat only the sacred grain and drink nothing but water.

When daylight comes, no one appears in the open space until the Great Sun comes out of his house around nine o’clock in the morning. He walks some moments alone with the Great War Chief, and has the drum, or the pot that serves in place of it, beaten against the post. Immediately the warriors hasten to come out of their cabins, and form two troops, distinguished by the color of the plumes with which their heads are adorned. The one has white feathers and takes the side of the Great Sun; the other has red feathers and is for the Great War Chief. Then begins the game of ball [pelotte], a little ball of deerskin of the size of the fist filled with Spanish moss.

The two chiefs throw this ball back and forth for some time. The [379] two bands are extremely attentive to all their movements, for at the moment when one least thinks of it the Great Suns throws it into the thick of the warriors who are then mingled and tangled up together. The ball must never fall or be carried; it would be snatched forcibly from the one who should seize it and no one would help him. The rules are strict on this point. The ball game has two goals--at the cabin of the Great Sun and that of the Great War Chief. The ball must be propelled by blows with the palm of the hand toward one of these two cabins. It is a real pleasure to see this ball spring sometimes to one side of the open space, sometimes to the other, sometimes remaining in the middle, then apparently destined to touch one of the goals, only at the last moment be repelled by a hostile hand back into its previous uncertainty. The movement of the warriors and the innocent passion with which they contest for the honor of the game is not without by noise. Fear, disquietude, and vexation have their different cries. That of joy [380] rises above all others. Ordinarily the game lasts two hours, and the warriors sweat great drops. Finally, the ball touching one of the cabins, the amusement is at an end. The band which belonged to this cabin having thus won, receives from the chief of the opposite side a considerable present and the right as a mark of victory to wear distinguishing plumes until the following year or until the next time they play ball. Following this game the warriors dance the war dance to the sound of the pot. After this dance they go to bathe, an exercise of which they are very fond, especially when they are a little heated or fatigued.

The rest of the day is passed like the preceding, and the feast lasts as long as there is corn to eat, for they do not bring any back to the village, and even when there is no more to distribute, all the cabins are visited to know how much remains to each family. Where a too large quantity is found a maize tassel is suspended at the door, and those who do not have enough are informed by it of the place where they may find some. Thus [381] all is shared equally and consumed at the same time.

Report being made to the Great Sun he has the pot beaten and gives orders to return to the village. The warriors are disposed in the relays to bring back their sovereign in the same way that they brought him out, and when he arrives he sends them out to hunt, as much for himself as for them. Thus is terminated the great Feast of Corn.

The eighth moon is that of the Turkeys, and corresponds to our month of October. It’s then that this bird comes out of the dense woods to enter the thinner woods and eat the nettles that they like so much. The nettles did not appear to me to be at all the same species as that in Europe. They have large leaves and the grain is much bigger than those that we see here.

The ninth moon is that of the Bison. In this month they go to hunt this animal. As it always stays some leagues from the villages inhabited by men, one takes care to send scouts ahead order to find out on what side it has retreated. When this is known everyone sets out, [382] young and old, girls and women, unless they have little children, for this hunt being rough there is work for everyone. Many nations wait until later before going, in order to find the bison in greater numbers and the cows fatter. I have said before [see vol. I, chap. 17] that the natives, not knowing enough to cut off the "back parts" of the males as soon as they have killed them, only kill them when they are fat, in order to get the tallow, without taking away the flesh, which is good to eat only when this precaution has been taken.

The tenth moon is that of the Bear. In this hunting season the feasts are not large, because the warriors, being all away from home, take away many of the people with them.

The eleventh moon, which corresponds to our month of January, is that of the Cold Meal. At this time, many bustards, geese, ducks, and other similar kinds of game are to be had.

The twelfth is that of the Chestnuts. This fruit has already been collected a long time ago, but nevertheless, this month bears the name.

[383] Finally, the thirteenth moon is that of the Nuts. It is added to complete the year. It is then that the nuts are broken in order to make bread, mingling it with corn meal.

The feasts that I saw celebrated in the great village, where the Great Sun lives. They are also celebrated in all of the nation’s villages, which are each also governed by a Sun, toward whom people hold the same respect and make the same offerings. These Suns are all subordinate to the Great Sun who shares authority with no one.

This is what I was able to learn about the religion of the Natchez. I saw neither assemblies nor sacrifices nor any other ceremonies that mark a prescribed sect. The Charlatans (or "jongleurs" as the French have named them) who among some of the nations in Canada become priests and doctors, and among the neighbors of the Natchez practice the profession of divination, are limited here to the function of sucking upon the sick parts of the patient after having made a few very small incisions with a stone. These incisions don’t take up any more space than is necessary in order to let everything come out.