Chapter Four (Vol 3, pp 43-60)

Ceremonies for the Burial of Tattooed Serpent

The fire of the great Sun being relit, the signal was given to relight all the others. We departed, and I told the interpreter to repeat to the French what I had said to the Great Sun, and his reply to me, while waiting for me to return. I went straight away to ask if they were ready to leave to begin the dance of the dead, and was told that it would begin shortly.

I brought the Frenchmen together in the square, and all congratulated me on my success, because the interpreter had related to them what had happened. A few moments afterwards the young Sun came to tell me that orders had been given (as he had promised, although feignedly) to have only those die who were in the cabin of the deceased, because they were his food; and that besides these there would be put to death a bad woman, if she had not already been killed, and [44] an infant which had already been strangled by its father and mother, a forfeit which purchased their lives at the death of the Great Sun, ennobled them, and raised them from the grade of Stinkards.

A few moments later the grand master of ceremonies appeared at the door of the dead man's house with the ornaments which were proper to his rank, and which I have described. He uttered two words and the people in the cabin came out. These persons were the Tattooed Serpent's favorite wife and another wife, his chancellor, his doctor, his head servant, his pipe bearer, and some old women. Each of these victims was accompanied by eight male relations, who were charged with putting him or her to death. One bore the war club, raised as if to strike, and frequently imitating this motion. Another carried the mat on which to seat him, a third carried the cord for strangling him, another the [deer]skin, the fifth a dish in which were five or six balls of pounded tobacco to make him swallow in order to stupefy him. Another bore a little earthen bottle holding about a pint, in order to make him drink some mouthfuls of water in order to swallow the pellets more easily. Two others followed to aid in drawing the cord at each side.

[45] A very small number of men suffices to strangle a person, but since this action withdraws them from the rank of Stinkards, puts them in the class of Honored men, and thus exempts them from dying with the Suns, many more would present themselves if the number were not fixed at eight only. All these persons whom I have just described walk in this order, two by two, after their relation. The victims have their hair daubed with red and carry in the hand the shell of a river mussel, which is about seven inches long by three or four broad. By that they are distinguished from their followers, who on these days wear red feathers in their hair. The day of the death they [the followers] have their hands reddened, as being prepared to give death.

Arrived in the square, the mats of the foremost are placed nearest the temple, the favorite to the right and the other wife to the left of the road, the others afterward according to their rank, six or seven feet apart on the two sides of the road, the breadth of which between them is at least thirty feet. The persons who are going to die are made to sit down on their mats, then all [46] the assembled make the death cry behind them. The relatives dance the death dance and the victims on their mats dance in time also, without leaving their places. After this dance the entire group returns to the cabin in the same order. This is a rehearsal of the tragedy that is going to be played out on the day of the funeral procession. It is done twice a day.

Everything was tranquil enough that day on the part of the Great Sun, who went to the temple after he had been shown the head of the bad woman. He ordered that her body be eaten by beasts without being buried, to carry the head to his brother, and then to throw it into the cypress swamp two leagues from his body.

The same day at sunrise, while we were engaged in restraining the Great Sun, a man named Ette-actal had been brought, escorted by thirty warriors. We all knew him because he had lived with M. de Bienville, Commandant-general, with whom he had taken refuge. He had married a female Sun who had died, and according to the laws of his nation he ought to have died with her. But this law not being to his taste, as soon as he had seen her in agony [of death] he fled secretly [47] toward the landing, took some provisions, descended the river non-stop in a little dugout, and went to place himself under the protection of Monsieur, the Commandant of the capital, offering himself to him as a hunter and one of his slaves. His service was accepted. The Natchez then even promised his master that he had nothing to fear because, the ceremony being completed and he not having been found in that time, he was no longer a lawful prize. This native, thus reassured, went from time to time to see his relatives and friends, and nothing had ever been said to him. But this last time, the Great Sun having learned from the French that Monsieur de Bienville had been recalled to France, considered that the letters of reprieve of Ette-actal were abrogated by the absence of his protector. Thus he judged it suitable to make him pay his debt to the Tattooed Serpent in the capacity of a relation of his wife, and it was for this reason that they brought him.

When this man saw himself in the cabin of the great chief of war, among the number of the victims who were going to be sacrificed to his manes, he was seized with the liveliest grief to see himself taken this time without hope of safety, and [48] began to weep very bitterly. The favorite wife perceiving this, said to him, "Are you not a warrior?"

"Yes," said he, " I am one."

"Nevertheless you weep," she replied, "Your life is then dear to you? If it is so, then it is not good that you come with us. Go away with the women."

He replied, "Certainly life is dear to me. I have no children. It is well that I travel some time longer on the earth until the death of the Great Sun, and die with him."

"Go away, I tell you," said she, "it is not good that you come with us and that your heart remain behind you on the earth. Once more, take yourself away from here, and let me see you no more."

Ette-actal had brought a little sack in which were the small utensils necessary for the ceremony, but without disturbing himself about them he left all, and, satisfied still to have time to himself before the death of the Great Sun, at the last word of the favorite wife he took to flight, and disappeared like a flash. But in the afternoon three old women were brought, two of whom were his relations, who, being extremely aged [49] and wearied of life, offered themselves to pay his debt. Although these two wonuen were so old that for many years they had totally lost the use of their limbs, their hair was no grayer than is commonly that of women of fifty in France. They appeared in all respects to bear themselves well.

The generosity of these two women purchased the life of the warrior, Ette-actal, and acquired for him the rank of Honored man. His condition having become much better and his life being thus assured, he became insolent, and profiting by the instructions which he had received from the French, he made use of it to deceive his countrymen.

The third old woman that they had brought had not been able to use her legs for at least fifteen years, without, however, experiencing any other difficulty in any part of the body. Her face was calm and her hair entirely white, a thing which I had never seen among the natives, and in spite of her great age, which surpassed a century, her skin was not too much wrinkled. All of these three old women were dispatched to the evening rehearsal, [50] one to the door of the Tattooed Serpent and the two others to the square.

Toward sunset, we all came together to see the Great Sun, who received us very graciously, and excused himself for not eating anything. He was going to give orders to his loués to do all that we had told them to do, since I had given my word that I would not leave him, and that I was holding to my promise. We were therefore at the servants' cabin, and we purchased some chickens to fry. We would sleep there until the morrow, which was to be the day of the funeral procession of the Tattooed Serpent, and the culmination of all the ceremonies.

The day of the funeral procession having arrived, we went to the house of the Great Sun. The favorite wife, who knew that we were there, came with her company to bid us adieu. She had the Suns of both sexes and their children called, to whom she then addressed these words:

"It is very grievous that your father is dead. As for me, I am going with him to the country of the spirits, and he waits only for us in order to set out. It is also well since he is dead that I am [51] no longer able to walk on the earth. For you who are young it is good that you walk a long time without design and with a straight heart. I leave you grain and my coffers, the keys of which I here give you. Do not speak any evil of the French. Walk with them. Walk there as your father and I have walked, without design. Speak of them as he and I have spoken. Do nothing contrary to the friendship of the French. Never lie to them. They will give you food and the other things of which you have need, and if they give you nothing, return without murmuring. They were friends of your father, so love them all and never refuse to see them even when they will not receive you well.

"And you French chiefs," she added, turning toward us, "always be friends of the Natchez; trade with them, do not be too stingy with your goods, and do not repel what they bring you, but treat them with gentleness."Then having observed that one of our party was affected to tears by the spectacle, [52] she said to him: "Do not weep. I know that my husband and I were great friends of the French, because we also loved you much, although I have never eaten with them, because I am a woman. But I am able to eat with them now, because I am going to the country of the spirits. Let them, then, bring us food to eat, so that I may eat with the French chiefs."

Immediately some dishes were brought, we seated ourselves, and we took the meal with her. She then rose, and followed by her company, she returned to the cabin of her husband with a firmness altogether surprising.

I have reported these speeches and the bearing of this favorite, who could only be of the common people, being the wife of a Sun, in order to show the skill with which she preserved the friendship of the French for her children, how much intelligence this Nation has, and that they are not at all what one ordinarily understands by the word "savage," which the majority of people bestow on them very unsuitably.

I have said elsewhere that the temple, the house of the Great Sun, and that of the Tattooed Serpent, were on the square; [53] that that of the great Sun was built on a mound of earth carried to a height of about eight feet. It was on this mound that we placed ourselves at the side of the dwelling of the Great Sun, who had shut himself in in order to see nothing. His wife, who was also there, was able to hear us, but we had no fear that she would reveal what we might say against such a cruel custom. This law did not please her enough for her to find fault with those who spoke ill of it. As for the Great Sun, he was on the other side and was not able to hear our remarks. From this place, without disturbing the ceremony, we were able to see everything, even into the interior of the temple, the door of which faced us.

At the appointed hour the master of ceremonies arrived, adorned with red feathers in a half crown on his head. He had his red baton, in the shape of a cross, at the end of which hung a cluster of black feathers. He had all the upper portion of his body reddened, with the exception of his arms, in order to let it be seen that he did not dip his hands in the blood. His belt, which girded him above his hips, was ornamented with [54] feathers, of which one row was black and the following was red, and afterward alternately as far as the knees. His legs were of their natural color.

He entered the house of the great Sun in this dress to ask him, without doubt, for permission to start the funeral procession. We were not able to hear what reply was made to him, because this sovereign ordinarily spoke in a very low although serious tone. But we heard very distinctly the salutation which the master of ceremonies afterward made him, who went out instantly to proclaim the departure of the procession.

When the Great Sun speaks to someone, he is obliged to salute him with three hous, as soon as he has finished speaking. If one speaks to a mere Sun, one salutes him with a single hou, assuming that one is not in the presence of the Sovereign. The Suns themselves salute the latter each time that they speak to him, and every morning when they go to him to pay their respects by a salute of a single hou. Even his brother is not exempt from this, although he says it just once very softly, and this suffices for the rest of the day. I believe it worthwhile to insert here this manner that the Naturals have of saluting their Sovereign, as I will be obliged to mention it in its place.

I return now to the ceremony, which I will describe without interruption: As soon as the master of ceremonies went to the door of the deceased he saluted him, without entering, with a great hou. Then he made the death cry, to which the people on the square replied in the same manner. The entire nation did the same thing and the echoes repeated it from afar. The body of the strangled infant was near the door by which the body of the dead man was to be brought out. Its father and its mother were behind it, leaning against the wall, their feet on some Spanish moss, esteeming themselves unworthy to walk on the earth until the body of the deceased had passed over it. As soon as the body appeared they laid their infant down, then raised it when it was outside, in order to expose it at each circle which it made until it had reached the temple.

The Tattooed Serpent, having come out of his cabin in his state bed, as I have pictured it, was placed on a litter with two poles, which four men carried. Another pole was plaeed underneath toward the middle and crosswise, which two other men held, [56] in order to sustain the body. These six men who carried it were guardians of the temple.

The grand master of ceremonies walked first, and after him the oldest of the war chiefs, who bore the pole from which hung the cane links. He held this pole in one hand and in the other a war calumet, a mark of the dignity of the deceased. Then came the body, after which marched the procession of those who were going to die at his burial. Together they circled the house from which they had come out three times. At the third turn they took the road to the temple, and then the relatives of the victims placed themselves in the order which I have described for the rehearsal. But they walked very slowly, beeause they were going straight to the temple, while the body circled about as it advanced in a manner of which I am not able to give a better idea than by the mark indicated on the plate. At each circuit made by the body the man of whom I have spoken threw his child in front of it in order that the body should pass over. He took it up again by one foot to do the same at the other circuits.

[57] Finally the body reached the temple, and the victims put themselves in their places as determined in the rehearsals. The mats were stretched out. They seated themselves there. The death cry was uttered. The pellets of tobacco were given to them and a little water to drink after each one. After they had all been taken [each victim's] head was covered with a skin on which the cord was placed around the neck, two men held it in order that it should not be dragged away [to one side] by the stronger party, and the cord, which had a running knot, was held at each end by three men, who drew with all their strength from the two opposite sides. They are so skillful in this operation that it is impossible to describe it as quickly as it is done.

The body of the Tattooed Serpent was placed in a great trench in the interior of the temple on the right. His two wives were buried in the same trench. La Glorieuse was buried in front of the temple to the right and the chancellor on the left. The others were carried into the temples of their own villages in order to be interred there. After this ceremony the cabin of the deceased was burned, according to custom.

I took the Great Sun home to my cabin as I had promised. He gave orders to his guards to go hunting and to bring us something to feast on. I kept him several days to allow time for his initial grief to relent.

It was a great obligation that we had toward the Natchez Nation, to see to it that only a small number of victims followed the Tattooed Serpent to the Land of Spirits. But it was not without some hesitation that we put ourselves to this task with regard to the Great Sun, who in his despair would have incited a frightful massacre. Because although religion and humanity determined first of all the course that we took, politics opposed to it some difficulties which were not to be ignored. We had been at war with this Nation, and we had made peace. The Nation had remained confident in this peace, until it pleased M. de Bienville to come and surprise them, with the army he brought from New Orleans [in the second Natchez War of 1723]. These unexpected and unprovoked hostilities would have from that moment turned the people against us, if, through the Tattooed [59] Serpent and the Great Sun, I had not acted to calm them. I can say that these two chiefs acted as much out of their friendship toward me, as toward the French nation, and the respect that their subjects had toward them seemd to stifle a resentment that I knew had been barely concealed. The death of the Great Sun, who after all did not wait long to follow his brother [he died in 1728], clearly put an end to the confidence that we could take in the Natchez. Therefore we risked little [in working to prolong his life]. We might have gained even more had we allowed this Nation, if not to destroy itself, at least to considerably weaken itself, by this barbaric custom. The more victims, the fewer enemies; never has this maxim proved more true. But a more pious sentiment prevailed over a prudence that seemed too cruel, and each tree carries its fruit, by which I mean that the glory of being humane was our reward, and that the Fort paid dearly in the outcome for the expedition of the army from New Orleans, which destroyed without cause a peace concluded according to their manner.

I have reported as precisely as possible the Manners, Customs, and Religion of the peoples [60] of North America, so that you might understand their ways of thinking and acting in the different circumstances of life. I have spoken more particularly of the Natchez, because I have had more occasion to know their manners and ceremonies, and in any case this Nation in all ways prevails over the others, among whom it has always distinguished itself by the nobility of its sentiments and by the beauty of its celebrations.