During the 17th century, when colonists first began settling in the New World, southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island were occupied by the Native American tribe known as the Wampanoag. The Wampanoag and the settlers had many interactions with one another, most famously, the first Thanksgiving (Wampanoag Indians). The Indians and the Puritans began to pick up skills and customs from one another, including when it came to death and burial practices. Unfortunately, they also picked up the diseases that the whites brought with them. The illnesses and wars that ravaged the Puritan colonies also affected the Wampanoag Indians and many other New England tribes, causing the Indians to turn to their native practices to heal their community, bury their dead and help the deceased venture into the afterlife.
In colonial New England, epidemics wreaked havoc upon both the settlers and the Native Americans. The Puritans had a very low resistance to the new land and climate and lack of sanitation, causing many to become ill. There was also very inadequate medical knowledge among the whites because very few of them had attended medical school, so the chance of being cured was nearly impossible. In addition to the epidemics, there was also famine and dietary sickness, bringing many of the colonists to their fate (Duffy 11). The Native American’s lack of immunity to European disease nearly wiped out the Wampanoag tribe and other New England Indians. Because of early epidemics in 1616-1619 and 1633, as well as wars fought between the Indians and the settlers, New England’s Native population decreased by about 90 percent (Bragdon 26). Some whites even purposely distributed diseased blankets to the unsuspecting Wampanoags, thus killing entire villages (Fast Turtle). The outbreaks of 1643 and 1645 destroyed almost half of the Wampanoag population on Martha’s Vineyard (Silverman Conditions for Coexistence 68). By 1690, after a horrible plague hit the island, the Wampanoag Indians were nearly gone. While the settlers were in hope of a new life, the Native Americans were simply in hope of life.
The Native American healers used both local herbs and spiritual practices to tend to the ill. A type of spiritual leader that led powwow ceremonies, known as a pawwaw, used spirits, as well as Cheepi, the god of the dead, to rid the body of sickness (Silverman Faith and Boundaries 31). The Puritans feared that the use of the spirits was Satanic, and they looked to the Native American’s herbal healings instead (Bragdon 204). The Wampanoag people strongly believed in the bounties of Mother Earth and thanked the animals, the plants, the birds, and the fish from the ocean, as well as all things which created the circle of life (Fast Turtle). Colonial doctors would often train with Native doctors to learn how different roots, berries and herbs of the land should be used and how. However, despite the Native’s and Puritan’s attempt at healing their loved ones, many did not make it, and instead fell into the unknown of the afterlife. Later, many Wamponoags, who were able to survive, built up a tolerance for some of the European diseases and were able to withstand the terrible effects of them (Fast Turtle).
When the deceased fell into the afterlife, it was the livings’ responsibility to properly take care of the body. The Wampanoags believed that death was regenerative, just as it was destructive. The actual burial of the body was a reminder of the cyclical nature of death and renewal. It was seen that burying a body into the ground was like planting seeds into the earth during the death of winter, just for them to rise up during the life of the spring (Bragdon 234).
The rituals marking one’s transition from life to death were public, and visible markers were placed around the burial ground to remind those passing by that someone had died (Bragdon 234). When one was buried, the Indians would sew a mat around the body and put it into the ground. While the Puritans believed in placing goods upon the grave, the Natives believed in burying the deceased with their goods. Usually, their riches, representing their role or status, were buried with them because it was believed that they would be needed in the afterlife. The rest of their belongings were often burned (Bragdon 235). The Wampanoags avoided using the deceased’s name so that they would not be disturbed and could rest in peace (Silverman Indians, Missionaries and Religious Translations 166). If it was a child being buried, its father would put some of his most precious ornaments with the tiny corpse. Often times, the father would also cut off some of his hair and put it into the grave in sorrow (Bragdon 234). During the funeral, the Medicine Man was called upon to perform traditional tribal ceremonies (Fast Turtle).
The corpses were placed in the graves with a southwestern orientation, towards the direction of Cautantowwit’s house. Cautantowwit, also known as Kiehtan, was the god of life for Wampanoags past and present (Silverman Faith and Boundaries 32) It was believed that Cautantowwit made the first humans out of would and then dwelled in the afterworld with the souls of the dead (Simmons 44). Upon death, the deceased’s soul would venture to Cautantowwit’s house, where they were treated to a steady round of pleasant weather, robust harvest and plentiful game (Silverman Faith and Boundaries 32). Cautantowwit’s house was the Wampanoag’s heaven and they spent their afterlife there in harmony. However, when there is a heaven, there is also a hell, except the Wampanoag hell was often unheard of because it was supposedly just a pit stop on the journey to heaven. The souls of malicious evil doers were sentenced to hell under Cheepi’s rule, where they wandered aimlessly and were likely tormented. After spending time in Cheepi’s place, it was believed that the souls would then make their way to Cautantowwit’s house (Silverman Indians, Missionaries and Religious Translation 159).
Burial and funerary practices differ from culture to culture, so, as expected, the Puritans’ tradition was much different than the Native Americans’. The Puritan funerary rites were very much the same as they are in the United States today. The body was cleaned and dressed formally, placed in a coffin and was laid out either at home or at church. A funeral was held as soon as possible and the body was placed into the ground within a few days of the death. After the burial, people would gather together for a feast to mourn their loss (Stannard 110). The Puritan funerary rites reflected the balance between belief in salvation and damnation. The burials helped console the mourners that the deceased was in the hands of God and also reminded them of their own need to repent (Oberholzer 100).
During colonization, it would be expected that the Wampanoag’s burial practices would fade away because of the Puritan’s attempt to Christianize the Natives, but they actually increased. One possibility is that these rites were a way of revitalizing a belief system that was under attack and transformation (Bragdon 239). Funerary rites marked the community of the dead and the living; both the mourners and the deceased declared their allegiances to their religious practices through mourning and burial procedures.
Burial and religious practices provide useful information about a community’s rituals and beliefs, as well as insights into what people believe happen after death. Both Puritan and Wampanoag funerals delicately balanced the paradox of death. For the Puritans, this balance was between salvation and damnation, while for the Wampanoag tribe, death was seen as both regenerative and destructive (Leibman). The Wampanoag Indians of the early 17th century strongly believed in the proper, traditional burial of the deceased to set them on the right path to Cautantowwit’s house, where they would spend their afterlife in harmony.
Bragdon, Kathleen J. Native People of Southern New England, 1500-1650. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1996. Print.
Duffy, John. Epidemics in Colonial America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1953. Print.
Fast Turtle. “Native American Perspective: Fast Turtle, Wampanoag Tribe Member.” Interview. n.d.: n. pag. Print.
Leibman, Laura. “Reed Digital Collections.” Indian Converts Collection. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
Oberholzer, Emil, and David E. Stannard. “The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change.” The American Historical Review 84.1 (1979): n. pag. Print.
Silverman, David J. Conditions for Coexistence, Climates for Collapse: The Challenges of Indian Life on Martha’s Vineyard, 1524-1871. Diss. Princeton University, 2000. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Silverman, David J. Faith and Boundaries: Colonists, Christianity, and Community among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha’s Vineyard, 1600-1871. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.
Silverman, David J. “Indians, Missionaries, and Religious Translation: Creating Wampanoag Christianity in Seventeenth-Century Martha’s Vineyard.” The William and Mary Quarterly. 2nd ed. Vol. 62. Williamsburg: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2005. 141-174. Print. Ser. 3.
Simmons, William. Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore, 1620-1984. Hanover: University of New England, 1986. Print.
“Wampanoag Indians.” Indians.org. American Indian Heritage Foundation, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.